Monday, August 11, 2014
I just saw the headline running across the screen: "Robin Williams dead at 63 of apparent suicide." Even though Williams struggled with a variety of illnesses: cardiac disease, alcoholism, depression, bipolar, the cause of his death will likely go down as suicide.
The word suicide is loaded. It carries with it the taint of fault and selfishness. Christians have argued about the eternal soul of someone who died by suicide. It's been considered the worst of all sins. Dante put people who commit suicides in the seventh circle of hell; they would not be resurrected.
Suicide is hard to come to terms with and hard to grieve. I think that's because when we call a death a suicide, we assume the person had a choice in their death. For many, the pain is so severe and the mental processes are so broken that there is no choice.
Calling a death a suicide leads to stigmatization. That's why I think we shouldn't use it.
Cardiac disease can be a terminal disease if left untreated. And sometimes, even when treated, it still kills you. The mechanism by which it kills you is heart failure. You have no choice. It's never called suicide, especially not if a person has done everything "right" - eaten healthy foods and exercised etc. Family and friends of someone who dies of cardiac disease get sympathy, not shame.
So too mental illnesses can be terminal diseases if left untreated and, even if treated, sometimes are too powerful to heal. The mechanism by which some mental illnesses kill you is suicide. Suicide is how an illness kills, not how a healthy person kills. People who commit suicide because of mental illnesses are no more at fault for their deaths than people who die of heart disease are for theirs. Their family and friends also need only sympathy and not shame.
In the past year, my husband and I have both had cousins die of a combination of mental illness and chronic pain. You could say they both committed suicide, but that ascribes blame to them that they don't deserve. They were both struggling as valiantly as they could against diseases that were just too strong. They could not be healed and they died. We grieve their deaths and trust them to a loving God. They were not at fault.
I ask anyone reading this to pause if they start to say that Robin Williams committed suicide. Say he fought valiantly for a long time against a disease that wouldn't be healed. Channel Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and stand on a desk, inviting someone to look at things in a different way and just say he died of mental illness.
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