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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Understanding Suicide

I've only just started reading Ron Rolheiser's colum (thanks to everyone who has mentioned him to me) and one reason why I decided to bookmark his site once I visited was his list of past articles on suicide. Even if you are not a Catholic and don't think of taking your own life as a mortal sin, suicide is a very unpopular subject to bring up. But if you've ever considered it - and many you might not suspect of considering it have, including saints - you'll know how refreshing it is to see it addressed in terms not punitive. Today's column at Fr. Rolheiser's site is about suicide, and while I don't agree that suicidal thoughts = madness (I'd go more for despair, and in fact believe that sometimes despair is the most rational response to a situation), the description of how one feels seems very truthful to me. Here's a little of his article below ....


Understanding Suicide

For this year’s column, I will not reiterate those same themes, namely, that suicidal depression is usually a terminal disease and is not a free choice that connotes moral and psychological delinquency. Rather I will give a first-hand testimony from William Styron, author of Sophie's Choice. A victim of suicidal depression he wrote, in 1990, a book entitled, Darkness Visible, A Memoir of Madness, within which he chronicles his own descent into suicidal madness and his helplessness as he spirals into that hell.

Since Styron is sharing, first-hand, the experience of suicidal depression, allow me to quote him extensively:

“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. ... and for the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer. ...

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from the smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”

Styron then describes graphically how the depressed person becomes obsessed with thoughts of oblivion:

“many of the artifacts of my house had become potential devices for my own destruction: the attic rafters (and an outside maple or two) a means to hang myself, the garage a place to inhale carbon monoxide, the bathtub a vessel to receive the flow of my opened arteries. The kitchen knives in their drawers had but one purpose for me. Death by heart attack seemed particularly inviting, absolving me as it would of active responsibility, and I had toyed with the idea of self-induced pneumonia-a long, frigid, shirt-sleeved hike though the rainy woods.” .......

That insider’s story has a double value: Not only should it help us to understand suicide more deeply and exorcise more of its shameful stigma, but, in helping to expose the anatomy of suicide, Styron gives us better tools to help others (and ourselves) in its prevention.

Beyond that, a proper understanding of suicide should help us all walk more humbly and compassionately in grace and community, resisting the bias of the strong and unreflective who make the unfair judgment that people who are sick want to be that way.

The human heart is exquisitely fragile. Our judgments need to be gentle, our understanding deep, and our forgiveness wide.



Blogger PrickliestPear said...

When I was in high school, a girl a couple of grades below me committed suicide. She was given a funeral Mass in a Catholic Church, and was buried in a Catholic cemetery.

Would that have happened, say, a hundred years ago?

It is unthinkable.

This is one area in which the Church has shown real evidence of progress, but there is still room for greater understanding, and I think Fr. Rolheiser is contributing to that, and I really admire him for it.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

The many articles that Rolheiser has written on this topic were a great help to me when we lost my sister. I'd finally found out what happened to her when I returned from Mass on a Holy Thursday. Although it is not directly related to suicide, I lifted heavily from this Good Friday piece he had written that Lenten season when I wrote the eulogy for her.

2:53 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I admire Fr. Rolheiser too. I've watched a few movies, Constantine and What Dreams May Come, for instance, where a character had killed themsellves and went to hell for it .... interesting that idea persists in popular culture, even though the church is changing its view a little.

4:16 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

Everytime I write something about suicide, I think of you and hope I'm not making you sad.

Thanks for the link and for pointing me towards Fr. Rolheiser in the first place. That's a poerful and touching article - it spoke to me.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Rachi said...

Hi Crystal
yes, it's certainly an unpopular topic- so thankyou all the more for posting about it.
it's a hard subject to write about also, and there is a lot of misunderstanding in the community, due to movies and values that the church used to teach- we need more people out there with a compassionate rather than damning viewpoint, like Fr Rolheiser.

take care and God Bless
love Rachel xoxo

12:32 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Rachel :-)

12:57 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Rolheiser's articles have been of great help to me in understanding that certain dark place I found myself in many many years ago. A great help too in talking with others about the real effects of surrendering to that darkness on the soul.

As for popular culture's reluctance to let go of images of the Church as it once was, those out-dated theologies and practices make for far better movies and TV shows than the love-based ideas we have today. ;0)

8:15 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

it's true - whenever I used to write a short story, I'd want to put in Catholic stuff, and the more traditional it was,the more interesting it seemed, plot-wise :-) Some stuff remains the same - remember that old Hitchcock movie I Confess? It was about a priest who heard a murderer's confession but wouldn't tell the police, even though he himself got framed for the murder .... reminds me of that movie Breach, where Hansen, the spy, confessed, but the priest kept his secret. That's one of the good traditional things, though, I think.

10:41 AM  

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