I always sleep with my phone on Do Not Disturb. Some days I wake up and there are 5 TikToks that one of my girls sent at 3 a.m., some days I wake up to a Land’s End email because once a year I buy a turtleneck for my mom, and one day in August of 2020 I woke up to news that Christopher had taken his life.
Christopher was the youngest of the three kids that I lived with when I was in high school. The night Christopher died, he was 21. I mean, legally an adult and able to drink, sure, but I get to still think of him as a kid, right? As having more life ahead of him than behind, as being capable of taking on the world and growing into a man? I kept thinking useless thoughts when I first found out like, “wow, I held him when he was a baby and now he’s gone.” I thought the other things you think when you know someone who dies of suicide. Shoulda called more, shoulda loved more, shoulda been more and saved more and forgave more and showed up more and.
Chris’ dad, Michael, called me a few days later and asked if I would officiate the service. While I am technically a registered-online reverend, my past few years with the church didn’t exactly make me feel like Officiating Material. But I love this family so deeply and have always marveled at how seamlessly they let me into their home and made it feel like my own. And I was a teenager at the time! Such a mess and always inviting my grungy friends over to eat all of their food and swim in their pool and jump on their trampoline and Michael and Hope just embraced this crew of theater kids and Christopher just joined in on our fun and our jokes and our bursts of energy and it was family when mine felt so far away.
So I recorded voice memos on my phone while I drove back to FL of what I would say. I thought a lot about suicide and the thousands and thousands of questions I had for Chris. I kept thinking of how much of a gaping hole a split-second decision in his life would leave in the forever of ours. I was pissed and sad and brutalized and wished I could grab him by the shoulders and shout some sense into him.
I called his friends while I drove and talked to them about Chris. They told me stories of an adult him I wouldn’t get the chance to know as well as they did.
I got to Orlando late the night before the service and turned my voice memos into typed words. I felt strongly at the time that I wanted to first and foremost honor Christopher’s life and not lean too far into how he died. So that’s what I wrote, that’s what I said, and that’s what’s down there.
In the months since, I’ve spoken a lot about how Chris died when I present for Everytown or when I talk about mental health awareness. I write a lot about it, too, ’cause the gaping hole when you lose someone to suicide isn’t one that easily mends.
But I think for now I want to keep honoring how he lived by showing off his grin and simply acknowledging how he died in the volunteer work I do, the conversations I have with loved ones, and this small little reminder that you’re all right and to trust me when I say the people in your life need you to make it to the other side of this split-second. And the next one.
Trust me, I promise, I know.
Good afternoon and on behalf of Michael, Hope, Trey, Carter, and the rest of the family — thank you for joining us as we honor and celebrate the life of Christopher Randall Holley. While our reasoning for gathering today is somber and the presence of COVID means our chairs have to be spaced out, I must say there is great beauty that in the midst of such pain and hardship, that in the midst of Christopher’s absence, his family — both immediate, extended, and built through friendship and trips to Steak n’Shake — can all come together and be a comfort to each other in our grief. I hope and pray that everyone in this room allow themself to grieve and to seek comfort from loved ones during this impossibly difficult time. I have a feeling the only way we’ll heal is if we do it honestly and if we do it together.
A few days ago, Michael called me and asked if I would be willing to perform the service today. I felt honored and humbled by our conversation, but I admit that I also questioned my qualifications for such a role in today’s service. Besides theatre in high school and speaking at youth ministry camps for my old church, I’ve never done something like this before. But as I’ve prepared what I want to share with you all today, as I’ve reflected on Christopher’s impact on my life and talked to a handful of you, I realized that my qualifications have nothing to do with my perceived public speaking abilities or the 50/50 chance I’ll make it through without crying, and instead it has everything to do with the fact that I knew and I loved Christopher. And so, the thing that qualifies me to speak today is true of each of you in this room. Which is why the family has asked that we set aside time today for any of you who would like to speak about Christopher to come up and share with us.
Until then, if you’ll permit me a few moments, I’d like to tell you about the day Christopher bested me in a game of hide-and-go seek. For those who don’t know me, my name is Katie Schmidt and I not only babysat Christopher, Trey, and Carter for several years while they were growing up, I had the joy of being — like many of us in this room today — warmly welcomed into the Holley home and invited into the family. I lived in the Holley’s guest house for two years and quickly transitioned from the title of babysitter to live-in-Chick-fil-a-chauffer to quasi big sister. One weekend, when Trey and Carter were at their dad’s, it was just me and Christopher and it was his turn to hide in a game of hide-and-seek. After I checked his three usual spots — laundry chute, the little room under the stairs, and behind the clothes in Hope’s closet — I became at first impressed that he’d branched out and found a new spot and then quickly concerned that I have misplaced the child I was responsible for watching. I shouted out that he won, he beat me, and to come on out. He didn’t, for what may have been five minutes, but certainly felt longer to me in my panic. I tried to keep my cool and keep looking for him, even trying to get Titus on my side to sniff him out for me. I shouted again, more seriously this time, that it wasn’t funny anymore and if he came out I’d order us a pizza, an ice cream cake, let him stay up past bedtime, anything. Eventually I checked the little room under the stairs again and there he was, nonchalantly playing with his toys and beaming up at me. Apparently he had watched me check the room the first time and then snuck into it while I moved on so he could play with his toys in peace. He had that Christopher gleam behind his eyes and that mischievous smile of his plastered across his face. There was no malice, no ill intent, for Christopher it was just the simple fact that he’d tricked me, won the game, and gotten some quality time with his toys. He was happy.
I’ve thought a lot about that gleam in his eyes these last few days. That is who Christopher was and always will be to me. A young kid who can find joy in the simplest of things. And I know he had grown into a young man since that day, but the stories I’ve heard from you all confirm my thesis that Christopher Randall Holley loved his simple pleasures. He loved the water, and I imagine each of us in our mind’s eye see him there when we imagine him at his most joyful. Whether it was jumping off the boat into the gulf, countless fishing excursions with Michael and Trey, or just floating in the water with a beer in his hand, happy. When Christopher was a kid and my brother and I would babysit, Christopher loved a game called Godzilla, which was as simple as us chasing him around the pool making growling noises and throwing him in the water. As an adult, Christopher loved a game called Beerlympics for Carter’s birthday, which I hear he got first place in and was quite proud of that fact. He loved golf, and he was pretty dang good at it, too. Something as simple as a round of birthday golf with Hope was the perfect fit for Christopher this year. He was lighthearted in nature, joyful at his core. As far as I can tell, Christopher could find love and light in everything, and if he couldn’t find it, he’d bring his own to share with the people in his life. People have been commenting these last few days about his smile, his laugh, his positivity. These are the things that made Christopher. His truest character was found in his ability to enjoy life and make the best of things.
While the nature of his death is complicated and tragic and certainly stirs up an intensely complex range of feelings and questions, I so deeply want to encourage and even challenge each of us to not lose sight of how Christopher lived because of how he died. The best and most meaningful way we can honor Christopher with our lives is by finding our simple pleasures and sharing them with the people we love, just as Christopher did. The rambunctious boy who managed to maintain his boyish charm as he grew is not gone as long as those of us who heard that boisterous laugh, saw that wide grin, or received one of those big Chris hugs, as long as we hold tight and remember the simple joy Christopher taught us, he lives on.
Hope has asked that we pray together the prayer that is on the prayer card you received today. If you are comfortable, please read along with me, whether it be a prayer to God or a hope you have for yourself or simply a moment to reflect on what these words mean to you and how you saw Christopher live them out, please join me…
Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace,
That where there is hatred, I may bring love,
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope,
That where there are shadows, I may bring light,
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted, to understand,
Than to be understood, to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
The line in that that struck a chord with me most is “That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.” Whether he came right out and said it or not, that seems like it was Christopher’s life goal. And what sweet joy he brought into each of our lives. Now it is our turn to pay that gift forward and honor Christopher through the ways we indulge our simple pleasures and inspire joy in the lives of those we love. I don’t think we need to fake it or manufacture it, and I certainly don’t think anyone here needs to rush their way to joyfulness. This is hard. But on behalf of Christopher, I think it is a worthy endeavor for each of us to chase down our joys and to freely give the gift of happiness to the world around us.
At this time, I’d like to give any of you who would like to speak the opportunity to do so.
[Break for eulogies.]
Thank you all again for being here today. And now, go in God’s peace and Christopher’s joy. The service has ended.