“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor 12:26)
On August 11th, 2014 the world mourned the death of the great actor and comedian, Robin Williams. It came as a shock that the father, friend, husband, and cause of so much laughter committed suicide. In the following days, news pundits, radio DJs, bloggers and more chimed in on this tragedy. Some called his final act to take his life, selfish. Others sympathized, saying, “It was his only way out.” Since then, we have witnessed suicide of many other high profile celebrities such as Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and most recently Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. It’s absolutely tragic.
Additionally tragic is that statistics are showing suicide rates are up nearly 30% since 1999. For many of us, it hits too close to home. When a loved one takes his or her own life, in addition to the heartbreak, questions mount. Could something have been done? Is it preventable? Often times, survivor’s guilt sets in and one may be left wondering, could I have done more?
As we begin to understand depression more deeply, it becomes clearer that it is not a matter of selfishness; it is a condition that is overwhelming and often manifests itself in loneliness and ongoing hurt deep within. It does not always show itself publicly.
There are a number of reasons why depression can take hold of someone and cause such pain and anguish, and no one is immune. It can come from chemical imbalance, situational changes such as loss of loved ones, constant aloneness, unemployment and sense of worthlessness, and much more.
Suffering of the soul is indiscriminate. It has no partiality as witnessed by the deaths of these high profile celebrities to the many military veterans to our close friends, loved ones, and even ourselves.
For the Orthodox Christian who believes in eternal life, living in the world, I often hear the question, “What happens to someone who commits suicide?” How do we approach such a painful situation. How do we talk about the person who struggles with depression and takes their own life?
For many years, society and the Church almost exclusively discouraged taking one’s own life through levels of shame. A school might not recognize someone in their yearbook or a Church might reject a funeral. This was done in an effort to discourage people from taking their own lives. Knowing more about mental illness today and seeing how suicide rates are on the rise we need to return to the compassionate approach the Church has always truly had.
The answer to “What happens to someone who commits suicide?” is deep, and like any death, the Church does not regularly assign heaven or hell to anyone, leaving judgment to God. However, God is the source of Life. And Christ came that we may “Have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10). While suffering is a part of life, God wishes for us to live fully in Him. To cut off this life is seen as a rejection of the Life Giver. To lose hope makes no sense when Christ died to give us hope and in any moment we have the ability to turn to Him, ask for forgiveness and receive it. Sometimes we put hope in money or status. We raise other things as god above the One True God. Times when these false gods fail those who put their hope in them have been cause of suicide. That is that is the saddest and most problematic situation. It is, however, not the most common cause of taking one’s life.
The more common cause of suicide, as we continually discover is deeper than that. So what if, instead of losing a misplaced hope, rather, is an ongoing struggle with a mental illness? This we discover is a much more common reality. Here, the Church also remains consistent in understanding that there are times when someone is not in the right state of mind. Canon 14 of Timothy of Alexandria (381AD) states that liturgical services should be offered, “If a man having no control of himself lays violent hands on himself or hurls himself to destruction.” This is the compassion of the Church. As we grow to understand the science behind depression and its destructive force in many lives, we should grow in sympathy and love.
The fact remains suicide is never the answer. For the anyone who suffers from mental illness, there should be no shame. We must share our confidence and strength with those who suffer and lead them to seek help often in order to prevent a destructive act against themselves. For those who do not struggle with depression, there is no place for judgment, but only love. There is no room for us to love when we are judging. And how is someone able to come to us for help if we are judgmental? Furthermore, we must be there for the friends and family members of someone who has taken his or her life.
As is the case with these recent incidents, the Spade and Bourdain families, friends and even fans now go on with a Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain sized holes in their lives. Their families are wounded. Their friends are hurt. We must understand that when someone takes his or her life, they are not solving a problem and it often is then passed on to their loved ones. The problem, when shared together is the start of an on going solution in struggle together that becomes manageable.
Struggle is not to be shamed. Struggle is also not to be viewed as a bad thing. When we struggle to work past something together, it becomes less daunting and produces an indescribable level of love and understanding that sustains us. This applies to all spiritual, physical, and emotional ailments.
Christ is our hope and God has made us communal beings. We have to rely on each other for help. Like all physical and spiritual ailments, emotional ailments require a community of love. This is why the Church is such an important thing. The Church is community, community centered around Christ. We could talk about all the reasons why suicide rates are on the rise, but perhaps we can start with loving each other in communion with one another and Christ in the Church He designed to heal us.
Are you suffering? Ask for help. Are you hurting? Lean on someone. Do you know someone who is depressed and struggling? Love them. The rest we leave to God. Lord, have mercy. May their memories be eternal.