A lot’s been written already about Robin Williams’ suicide. Here, I’m less concerned with a hagiography of Mr. Williams or any analysis of the all too real problem of clinical depression in our society. Of the former, let me just say that he was a brilliant performer who brought much joy to millions of people, including me. Of the latter, all I can say is that far too many people suffer alone with such soul-deep depression and the disease’s very nature often dissuades people from seeking the help they desperately need.
But I’m more concerned here in the reactions I read from many people after Mr. Williams’ suicide. My hunch is that most people’s reactions were an effort to be kind or maybe helpful or, as Monty Python might sing, they were trying to “always look on the bright side of life.” Their reactions, however, probably masked their own unease with death, and particularly, with suicide. Many of the comments made, however, were at best not helpful, or at worst, theologically problematic. Let me explain.
I heard many comments that basically said something like: “Well, now the pain he endured for so long is lifted and he’s at peace.” I know such statements were an effort by some people to make suicide theologically intelligible, but to a person presently suffering soul-deep depression and hearing such statements, it’s actually an invitation to imitate Mr. Williams’ act. Their thinking could well go: “If so many people think that’s the way he found peace, then maybe that’s the way I can find peace, too.” Like I said, it’s theologically problematic, for suicide doesn’t bring peace to the living.
I had a dear friend who committed suicide four years ago. Like Mr. Williams, he was brilliant. His brilliance, however, was in a different vocation. He was a palliative care physician. The irony of his life was that he could relieve everyone’s pain but his own (like Mr. Williams who brought so many people joy without finding joy himself). My friend knew he had many people who loved him dearly. I don’t know what was going through his mind and soul when he chose suicide. Clearly, he was in emotional and spiritual pain. Maybe he thought his suicide was an act of love and kindness to us who loved him? It was not. His act was neither loving nor was it kind. It was selfish. I know that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true.
What my friend needed and still needs from me isn’t the cheap grace and absolution of the well-intended “well, I guess he’s at peace now.” No, what he still needs from me is my forgiveness for what he did to himself and to those who loved him. This in no way diminishes the deep pain he suffered or the pain anyone else suffers when they experience soul-deep depression. It’s merely to say that the solution they choose deeply hurts the people who love them. And such hurt, we must know, breaks God’s heart. Yet, with all I know to be true, God’s broken heart is strong enough to envelope the life of Robin Williams and my beloved friend. It’s strong enough for the entire hurting human race. And God’s broken heart is strong enough to hold our grief and anger when those we love take their own lives. After all, God isn’t a stranger to death. We worship the crucified, yet Living God.