When ordained more than 28 years ago, I found myself celebrating many funerals and burying young people dying of AIDS. A young man whom I spent much time with prior to his death said, "This disease needs cash to find a cure." But more than cash we need compassion.
Fast forward to the present. In the past two years, during this time of economic uncertainty, loss of jobs, the unknown before us, I have buried eight people who died from addiction, suicide or depression. A letter written to me by a young lady during her treatment says it all. With her permission I share it with you.
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"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 group of those who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer. ..." she wrote.
As a priest, social worker, educator and member of the governor's strategic Mental Health board, I painfully hear these stories time and again. Our call as a community committed to our future is to engage our love and care for each other.
Suicide is an illness, not something freely chosen. A person who dies by suicide certainly, in most cases, dies against his or her own will. Suicide is death by illness, not something someone wills.
For those of us left behind, we should not spend undue time and energy second-guessing: "What might I have done?" "Where did I fail?" "If only I had responded and reached out when I had the chance!" Suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a heart attack or a stroke, and all the care and reaching out in the world cannot always save a loved one from dying from these diseases. That's true for suicide as well.
We also should not spend too much time worrying about the eternal salvation of those who die by suicide. God's love, healing, understanding, forgiveness and compassion reach into those places where we cannot. God can descend into hell and breathe out peace even there. God's touch is gentler than our own.
My friend's letter to me has a double value: Not only should it help us to understand suicide more deeply and exorcise more of its shameful stigma, but also it should help to expose the anatomy of suicide. Listen, don't judge, Listen!
Beyond that, an open 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 compassion wide. May we be one in each other and recognize hope as our anchor.
• The Rev. Jim Swarthout is the clergy and community coordinator for northern Illinois-based Rosecrance Health Network. He also serves on the governor's Mental Health Services Strategic Planning Task Force and the National Diaper Bank Network board.