Never Say Die: Depression and Suicide
By Audrey Stallsmith
Several local suicides have left us all talking about depression and what can and can’t be done about it. I’ve seen the effects of depression in some family members, and know that it’s not always something you can control. Two of my uncles and their sister became seriously discouraged after heart problems.
Ironically enough, the physical heart does seem to have an effect on the symbolic one which stands for the emotions. Doctors have acknowledged that up to half of the people who have heart surgery develop depression, perhaps due to microclots that travel to the patients’ brains when their arteries are cleared. Those microclots can alter brain chemistry, so the depression thus caused has nothing to do with a lack of faith.
Another sister in that family, a diabetic, experienced almost constant sadness after the amputation of her leg also amputated her independence. Other people are born with a genetic propensity to depression, and there is often a steep suicide rate in those families.
The topic causes disagreement even among Christian writers. Frederick Buechner, whose father killed himself, doesn’t believe suicide is sin, because it isn’t mentioned as sin in the Bible. Unless, of course, you hold--as some of us do--that “Thou shalt not murder” also includes murdering oneself.
I prefer to believe what Fulton Sheen told a grieving woman whose brother had just killed himself. “There’s a lot of time between the bridge and the water. Who knows what took place in his heart during that time? So we leave the judgment up to God.”
We often make the mistake of assuming that we are more tenderhearted than God, that God will condemn people we think deserve to be allowed off. We must remember that all the goodness in us, all the empathy and anguish we feel for others, comes from our heavenly Father. So He must experience it much more intensely than we ever can. God loves all His children even more than good parents love theirs. Like a good parent, He also knows their motives.
Some people commit suicide during wartime to avoid giving away information that might be extracted from them by torture--information that could cost many more lives. They, therefore, are dying to save others. That is infinitely different than the self-centered person who kills him or herself to get back at friends or relatives who will feel guilty about that death, who will always worry that maybe they could have prevented it somehow.
I certainly wouldn’t endorse the old habit of burying suicides outside of sanctified ground, though. If we don’t exile murderers from our cemeteries, after all, I don’t see any reason why we should do that to self-murderers.
As to those who commit suicide simply because they think they can’t endure life anymore, I have to agree with Paul that, “No temptation is irresistible. You can trust God to keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can’t stand up against it.” (I Corinthians 10:13) Unfortunately, those who don’t believe in God have no greater power to whom they can turn for help against the temptation to give up. In that case, they may need to dredge up the courage to believe first.
Even though our feelings may seem overwhelming at times, we must remember that they are just feelings and separate from our will. We can determine to live even when all our emotions are crying out against that idea, even if we make that decision only to spare our loved ones grief. That putting others first actually may help relieve depression, which is often caused by our obsessing too heavily on ourselves to see the larger picture.
After all, suicide is, as G. K. Chesterton has pointed out, a slap in the face of God, a refusal to take an interest in the life he has provided. “Not only is suicide a sin,” Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence. . . The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.”
Granted, some people don’t get a good deal in life, being born into dysfunctional or even abusive families. As long as they live, however, they have the option of improving on that, of leaving a better legacy for their own children.
That takes courage, often the kind of fortitude that can only be managed with God’s help. Courage is what caused one of my already depressed uncles to go into an assisted living facility, even though he hated the idea, simply because he knew that his wife needed the additional care it would provide. Courage is what kept him keeping on until his natural death years later. It was not the kind of end the much-loved former pastor deserved for a life well lived. But he knew it wasn’t the end, that he would receive his eternal reward elsewhere.
One of his brothers also had to live in a nursing home for a while after a stroke. That former Sunday School superintendent talked often of wanting to die and join his wife, who was already in heaven. The aunts I mentioned earlier also persisted to the natural conclusion of lives which had become much more difficult for them. They had lived through The Great Depression, after all. They knew that, like the Great Depression, depression itself would eventually cease.
When that end would come was not their decision to make. Even 80 or 90 years of suffering, after all, is not a high price to pay for an eternity in the presence of God. None of these relatives attempted to hide their depression. Perhaps it was their frankness about it, their talking about it, that helped them struggle through it.
C. S. Lewis often tried to point out that nothing lasts in this world. Even the people we love here must eventually be yielded back to God. If we want see them again, we must let them go.
To a friend who threatened to commit suicide after his wife’s death, Lewis said, “You must go on. That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.” The friend later was grateful for Lewis’s uncompromising stance on that issue, portrayed in A Severe Mercy.
But the idea that nothing lasts can be a good as well as a bad thing. The black mood we feel today may well dissipate tomorrow or the next day. I had my share of depression during my teen years--probably because, like most teens, I took myself and my relatively minor problems much too seriously. I never considered suicide, though, because I already had lived long enough to know that things probably would improve shortly.
Even godly grown-ups such as Elijah can fall into that trap of taking themselves too seriously. After his great victory over the prophets of Baal, Elijah allowed himself to be cowed by the vengeful Jezebel. Although he didn’t want to live anymore, his depression convinced him that he was the only godly man left. That, if he died, there would be nobody left to carry on God’s work. As our visiting pastor noted this week, God brought Elijah back to reality in a hurry, pointing out the thousands of other believers still on hand.
We have quite a few barn cats and even some wild ones that hang around the house. Every now and then a cold-like virus will make its rounds. The older cats seem able to survive it, but it is much harder on the kittens. Because they can no longer smell their mother’s milk or other food, they seem to lose their will to eat. I occasionally will try to feed one with a small bottle or eyedropper instead, but it generally fights the idea.
When severely depressed, we too lose the ability to “smell” the good things in life outside of ourselves and are only aware of our own misery. So can we will our way out of depression? I know that is possible for the temporary type. I’m not sure about the more persistent biological kind, but science is proving these days that the brain isn’t set in stone and can change.
Even if you can’t will your way out of it, I know you can will your way through it. My courageous uncles and aunts proved that to me.