Monday, August 11, 2014

Moratorium on the word suicide, please.


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.


-Pr Sarah

20 comments:

  1. Two of my best friends lost their father to depression. They were always very understanding and forgiving of what had happened, about the path that ultimately lead him to die. They realized his pain was so great and didn't fault him for his decision. I always wondered, how could they be so understanding? How could they not be angry? Then recently I read a blog post where a woman compared suicide to the people who jumped out of the twin towers to avoid being burned by the hot burning jet fuel. The pain was so great, the anguish so real that they didn't feel they had a choice. In order to be relieved of their pain, jumping was the only way. No one called them selfish. Everyone could understand this. If mental and physical pain is so great, if the pain and anguish too much to bear, why were people always so quick to judge and condemn? Thanks for sharing this angle of view, especially from the view of a pastor. Hopefully others will reevaluate their thoughts on mental illness and soften their hearts to those in pain.

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  2. With respect, the word simply means to end one's life. The amount of baggage you place upon it is your hang-up.

    My sister-in-law's husband just lost his brother to suicide. I doubt his pain would be eased by substituting another world or by avoidance.

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    1. When you join the words "commit suicide", you are saying the person committed a crime. In reality, they died from the terminal disease of mental illness.

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  3. "another word" I meant.

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  4. Thank you for this very sensitive and beautiful article.

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  5. Putting a rope around your own neck and stepping off a chair IS NOT the same as your heart stopping due to disease. Suicide is a word used to describe an action, that being, the action of choosing to end one's own life at a time and in a manner that is not natural. Sorry that isn't pleasant to think about, but hiding the meaning of words or pretending that a word doesn't exist does not change the fact of the person's choice.

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  6. It is what it is, regardless of what you call it. Euphemisms don't change things. We all struggle with life. Sometimes it gets the best of us. I know plenty about mental illness and depression. Whether we are prone to it or not our life is a mixture of what happens to us, how we deal with it, the choices we make and the cards we are dealt. I make no judgments on Robin Williams. He used his demons to bring joy, laughter and tears to use. He will forever be a part of our (my) live(s). He took his own life. I'm sorry he did.

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  7. As someone with bipolar and who has been suicidal more than once in her life instead of putting a moratorium on the word I would like for once to have an open and honest discussion about Mental Health and how this country handles mental illness. We shouldn't have to put a moratorium on a word and families of suicide victims (because they are a victim of a crippling disease that robs us of what makes us human and capable of functioning) suffer the after effects.

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    1. I wish we could have more than that; we need to change the way we view mental illness and remove the stigma associated with it. I have a sister who is bipolar and also a recovering alcoholic. The strength she needs to muster to get through some days is almost heroic. Unless you've lived with those demons or watched someone struggling to do so, you can't possibly understand what would lead someone to make this decision. I get so tired of people thinking she is just weak and a drama queen. Who are they to sit in judgment? She didn't aspire to this ... you never hear a child say "when I grow up I want to struggle with mental health". And if, one day, that strength eludes her and she cannot continue, I will remember how valiantly she fought and be proud of THAT. That is how I chose to remember Robin Williams. Thank you, Robin, for the countless times you undoubtedly fought the good fight valiantly and all the laughter you gave to others along the way. Selfish, huh? I think not. RIP.

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    2. Would all people who have mental illness have a brother like you who knows the heroism required sometimes to make it through a day. Thank you for sharing.

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  8. Well said, thanks for sharing! I have thought this all along! Unless you have experienced the illness, you should not judge. If there is to be one, it is not ours to do.

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  9. I appreciate this reflection very much. My father died after a battle with mental illness (when I was 19) and that grief has been an 18 year journey to process.
    I agree that he is not to blame and that I needed sympathy and not shame. At the same time, I don't know that I would have wanted a grieving process that never grappled with those elements of suicide. I think that would have felt dismissive of a portion of my pain. I was grieving the loss (and still do), but I was also grieving the sense of abandonment. Proclaiming that he was not to blame could not just dismiss this very deep wound. I am fine with eradicating the word suicide, but in standing along side the grieving, I think we need to be really conscious of their right to define the pain they are facing. It is not our place the define what suicide is - it is our place to receive their pain and hold their hand as they work through the grief - even the ugly parts that may not accord with our understanding of reality.

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    1. Beautifully said. If the word suicide helps someone understand the pain of their loved one and see the full reality of disease, then by all means, keep it in the lexicon. Yes to your statement "in standing along side the grieving, we need to be conscious of their right to define the pain they are facing."

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  10. I would be careful in saying that those with mental illnesses have no choice over taking their lives. I understand that it is a hard struggle & it is so sad that Robin Williams lost the struggle. BUT many people are still in that struggle & to carelessly say that they have no choice can lead them to give up the fight.
    This tragic death should help us all to be more aware of how hard it can be for people with depression & the need for them to seek help & for their friends & family to be as supportive as possible.

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    1. I agree Lori that those with mental illness often - usually - have a choice. I would always encourage someone to continue the struggle for as long as they can. Many struggle and manage to live well even with depression. Many are suicidal but not so terminally that they can still chose to live and they do. Of course I celebrate all that. But I still think that for some who end up dying from a mental illness, all semblance of choice has become removed. They can do nothing else but succumb to their disease.

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  11. Thanks to everyone for the careful reading and reflections - especially those who shared their personal stories of depression and loved ones who died from mental illnesses. Your comments have made me think harder about this all. I've been pleased, in the days since Robin Williams' death, to see that his death is shedding light on mental illness. Many articles about depression, bipolar, mental health resources, lack of funding and understanding, and yes, suicide, have flooded the news streams and nearly all of it (that I've seen) have been sympathetic. Perhaps his death will be part of the sea change that's needed re: mental health services and funding.

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  12. First time I have run across, read or heard from someone else my exact point of view.

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