Guest Post by Dr. Dorothy Hunse
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care
I’m not very proud of my initial reaction to hearing about Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide.
I didn’t voice my reaction out loud, it amounted to a thought that quickly flitted through my mind, but I’m still not proud of it.
I don’t remember exactly how it went, but it was something like this: “what reason does he have to kill himself?”
At the time of his death I didn’t know much about Bourdain. I knew he was a chef. I knew he had a TV show. I knew that he travelled around the world. The little bit I had seen of him on TV led me to believe that he had a charismatic personality and a taste for adventure.
My reaction was revealing.
It revealed a presumptuous belief that somehow, I knewBourdain—that I knew him and what his life was like. This is truly arrogant given the fact that I’ve never really followed his work or watched his show. But even if I had been a devoted follower, or even a somewhat interested one, it still would have been arrogant of me to think that I knew him well enough to have any insight into what he and his life was really like—his joys, his fears, his hopes, his disappointments, his dreams, his limitations, his struggles.
My reaction revealed a dismissive attitude. Despite my best efforts I sometimes fall into believing the cultural lie that a glamorous, exciting and affluent life is by default a good life. And that those who live such a life will be or should berelatively happy and immune from the ravages of mental illness and thoughts of suicide. Essentially, I was being dismissive of the possibility that Bourdain could experience deep pain and suffering in the midst of his “good life.”
Finally, my reaction was more about judgment than anything resembling empathy and compassion. I was essentially judging Bourdain for taking his own life. At some level I figured he should have been able to choose a different course of action than he did.
My initial reaction to Kate Spade’s suicide was different. I somehow missed hearing about Spade’s death until after hearing about Bourdain. My response was primarily one of numbness. I didn’t know how to or didn’t want to take in the news that, yet another person had died by suicide. It was like I had had enough. I wasn’t prepared, on an emotional level, to engage with yet another tragic death.
I share all of this because it is critical that we take a moment to reflect on our own reactions and responses to suicide and mental illness—as individuals and congregations. Suicide isn’t just ‘out there’. It’s all around us.
Incidents of suicide lead us to ask how we respond to mental illness and the despair that leads someone to plan to die in order to escape the pain.
We can begin by asking the question: Am I a safe person? Would someone living with a mental illness and considering suicide feel safe being honest with me about their pain and suffering? What about your church? Would people living with a mental illness and considering suicide think of your church as a safe place—a place where they can share honestly, without holding back, about what they are going through?
Or might they experience us as being presumptuously arrogant, assuming that we know them better than they know themselves?
Or, might they experience us as being dismissive of their pain, not appreciating that even those who have good things in their lives can experience the ravages of terrible anguish?
Or, might they experience us as being judgmental, hiding our frustration at their inability to pull themselves together behind kind words?
Or, might they experience us as being distant and numb, unable or unwilling to emotionally draw near to them in their pain?
In the end the question we really need to ask ourselves is this:
Might they experience us as being fundamentally afraid—unsure of ourselves, unsure of whether we can handle the pain, unsure of whether we can be of any help, afraid that we might make a mistake or make things worse?
When we get right down to it, fear is our real problem here. It’s fear that lies at the heart of all of our “less than caring,” “less than empathetic” and “less than compassionate” reactions and responses. It’s fear that makes us unsafe. It’s fear that keeps us from loving one another and loving our neighbour and loving ourselves as Jesus has loved us (Jn 15:12).
So, what are we to do?
First, we need to pray. We need to pray for ourselves – that we might continue to be rooted and grounded in the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us in Christ that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3: 17-19). For it is only God’s perfect love that casts out our fear (1 Jn 4:18).
And at the same time, we need to learn.
We need to learnhow to love those who live with mental illness and suicide well. We need to learn how to be safe people and how to cultivate safe churches. We need to learn to love as Jesus loves.
We may already be loving people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t more to learn about how to show that love in specific ways in specific situations.
There is far more that needs to be said than what I can address here, but I will begin by offering at least a few suggestions for how we can begin the learning process.
1. We need to acknowledge, pay attention to, and begin to grapple with, our reactions and responses to suicide—our thoughts, our feelings, our attitudes. Our initial reaction to something isn’t the measure of who we are. In the end, what we do and how we choose to respond is what matters most. But our initial reactions, and the thoughts, feelings and attitudes they reveal, can affect our final response.
For this reason, it is important that we pay attention to our reactions, even if we are not very proud of them. Reflecting on our reactions can help us to learn about ourselves and respond more honestly, deliberately and compassionately in these difficult situations.
I’m grateful for this opportunity to reflect on my own reactions to Bourdain and Spade’s deaths. It has helped me to become aware of the fear, sense of helplessness and weariness over all the tragedy in the world that undergirded my initial reaction and has helped me move to a place of more genuine empathy and compassion.
2. We need to acknowledge, pay attention to, and begin to grapple with, the prevalence of mental illness and suicide in our midst.It is all around us. Mental illness and suicide impact people in our communities, our neighbourhoods, our churches and quite likely our own families.
In 2013 the overall suicide rate in Canada was 11.5 deaths per every 100,000 people. 12.3% of the population 15 and older reported having serious thoughts of suicide or taking their own life at some point in their lives. And 3.4% of the population 15 and older reported making a suicide plan at some point in their lives. The numbers may seem small, but when we think about it, it means that over 1 in 10 people in our communities, neighbourhoods and churches have seriously thought about suicide at some point in their lives.
I mention mental illness because there is a relationship between it and suicide, although it is not a direct relationship. It must be stressed that most people diagnosed with a mental illness do not die by suicide. According to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, for example, 85%-98% of people diagnosed with depression do not die by suicide. However, more than 90% of those who die by suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness. In other words, mental illness is often a factor in suicide. In the case of Spade and Bourdain’s deaths it is thought that depression played a role. If mental illness is a factor, then we need to pay attention to the prevalence of it as well. According to the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, 5.4 % of Canadians 15 and over (1 in 20) reported symptoms consistent with a mood disorder (major depression or bipolar disorder) in the last 12 months.
With these kinds of numbers, it is likely that most of us know someone who has a mental illness and/or who has or is considering suicide. We must be willing to pay attention to this reality.
3. We absolutely must acknowledge, pay attention to, and begin to grapple with, the fact that faithful Christians who have a vital relationship with Christ also struggle with mental illness and suicide.Being a faithful and believing Christian does not make us immune to mental illness and suicide.
Karen Mason, professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, reminds us that many notable Christians, including Charles Spurgeon and Martin Luther struggled with depression. The writer of Ps. 102 describes symptoms consistent with depression. Many notable Christians have also contemplated suicide including, Francis Schaeffer, John Donne, and also possibly Martin Luther King Jr.
Until we wholeheartedly accept that mental illness and suicide afflicts Christians too, we won’t begin to talk it about openly and honestly in our congregations.
4. We absolutely must acknowledge, pay attention to and begin to grapple with the fact that prayer is often not enough to bring about healing. In the words of Mason, “Healing requires prayer, but prayer is sometimes not all that goes into healing.”
Mason quotes another author, Gay Hubbard, who describes our tendency to think of prayer as a way to “fix” things and the harm this approach to prayer can cause. She says: “The idea that if we can only get our burdens to God He will make us instantly feel better is bitterly unfair misdirection to people in pain….This “fix-it” approach makes pain a measure of our distance from God. Indirectly, this encourages us to think, ‘If I hurt, I’m a long way from God. If I were close to Him, He would make the hurt go away.’ The God of all comfort. . .is an identity quite different. . .from the idea of God as ‘Great Pain Reliever.’”
Until we wholeheartedly come to accept that prayer while important, is not all that may be needed, we run the risk of being unsafe. We run the risk of subtly blaming the person in pain for their lack of healing by saying or thinking things like: “you don’t have enough faith,” “you haven’t prayed hard enough or effectively enough,” “it must be something you are doing or not doing that is preventing God from healing you.”
5. We absolutely must acknowledge, pay attention to, and begin to grapple with, the fact that mental illness and the pain that leads one to contemplate suicide is not something that anyone can just get over by making up their minds to do so.
We can’t just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when it comes to this.
Andrew Solomon, a writer, describes his own agonizing experience with depression:
“I did not sleep much that night, and I could not get up the following day. . .I lay very still and thought about speaking, trying to figure out how to do it. I moved my tongue but there were no sounds. I had forgotten how to talk. Then I began to cry, but there were no tears, only a heaving incoherence. I was on my back. I wanted to turn over, but I couldn’t remember how to do that either. I tried to think about it, but the task seemed colossal. I thought that perhaps I’d had a stroke, and then I cried again for a while. At about three o’clock that afternoon, I managed to get out of bed and go to the bathroom. I returned to bed shivering.”
6. We absolutely must acknowledge, pay attention to, and grapple with, our theology when it comes to mental illness and suicide.
Do we think suicide is a sin? And if we do, do we think it is an unforgiveable sin? It’s important to realize that there are a number of Christian responses to these questions. Mason devotes a chapter to this important topic. We would do well to engage in a thoughtful study on this matter.
But more than this, we must acknowledge, pay attention to and grapple with our theology of suffering and our theology of healing.
It is relatively easy to acknowledge God’s presence in those situations where people experience healing and release from their pain. It is much more difficult to understand where God is, and how God is at work when there seems to be no healing and no release.
We believe in a God who promises to never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5). But we also believe in a God who hides himself (Is 45:15).
We believe in a God who heals. And we believe in a God who sometimes chooses not to heal (Paul and his thorn, 2 Cor 12:7-9).
We believe in a God who encourages us to pray and ask for what we need (Mt 7:7-8). And we believe in a God who doesn’t always grant our requests (God did not grant Jesus’ request to deliver him from the suffering and death of the cross).
In order to be people who are safe and able to love well, we must be willing to acknowledge, pay attention to, and grapple with, the seemingly paradoxical nature of the life of faith.
7. Finally, loving as Jesus loved us means acknowledging, paying attention to and grappling with the fact that this kind of love involves being touched and impacted by the pain of the people we seek to care for.
Jesus did not and could not love us from a distance (Eph 2:5-8)
We cannot love people from a distance.
Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison powerfully describe their understanding of Christ-like compassion:
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
If we are going to love well, we need to be willing to acknowledge, pay attention to and grapple with what it means to draw near to people in their pain, in the same way that Jesus has and continues to draw near to us.
I realize that I have only begun to scratch the surface with these suggestions. But I hope that these reflections might serve to get us thinking.
We have a choice to make.
We can let the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, these people we’ve heard about, but really don’t know, pass by mostly unnoticed. Or we can honour their deaths, and their lives, by acknowledging our reactions and considering our response to the reality of mental illness and suicide in our own midst.
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