Exchanging Compassion for Clarity
One of the greatest tragedies we can encounter is this life is that of suicide. Death is the ultimate tragic result of sin, and suicide is the ultimate tragic death, since, unlike disease or accident, it comes avoidably. Only those who have been touched by the unspeakable sorrow that accompanies a suicide can truly understand its tragic depths.
The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have generated appropriate expressions of grief and compassion for their apparently pain-filled lives. Of course it is always good to express compassion for those who suffer, and our
social media connected world is one place where much of that compassion is being expressed, in tribute to the fallen. But there is a downside when this compassion clouds our clarity of the tragedy that is suicide. In the rush of honor and compassion in support for the fallen, we can inadvertently give an impression that masks the tragedy that suicide always is. Perhaps this is why publicity surrounding a suicide often increases the probability of other suicides. Because of this reality we must be truly compassionate, not just by showing compassion to the fallen, but by also speaking the truth about the catastrophe of suicide in hopes of averting more of them.
Suicide is obviously the result of suffering, but we can forget that it generates much more suffering than that which is supposedly ended. It masquerades as the end of suffering but in fact is a generator of new and ongoing waves of more suffering, sending out shock, grief, and guilt on the survivors. These waves can batter the family and love ones of a suicide for years, decades, and even entire lifetimes. Suicide ends one life but brings ongoing ruin to many, many more. It is not noble, peaceful, or the end of suffering; it is just the beginning of much more of it.
And we must also acknowledge the reality of those who take their own life—the same life that St. Paul tells us is not our own, but that we were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). That price was the cost of Jesus laying down His life for ours. The One who died for us lives, in order to help us through any and all of life’s difficulties.
Our Orthodox Christian Church has historically held the dimmest view possible of the fate of those who go to this ultimate extreme in attempting to end their suffering. The ancient canons of the Church declare that Christian funeral rites may not be performed for a suicide, as it was historically seen as the ultimate rejection of God and His Church. But because modern science has added the knowledge of mental illness to that understanding, contemporary Orthodox theologians have advocated that when mental illness is suspected, the Church should deal with suicide as it deals with victims of any other deadly disease. Therefore, Orthodox Christians may, in certain circumstances, be allowed funeral rites and the Church prays for the salvation of the newly-departed’s soul. The Church is always compassionate because Christ is always compassionate. His compassion, however, never masked reality. He spoke openly and clearly of both the promises of Heaven and the perils of Hell. And He never confused the two.
So let us be compassionate toward those who mistakenly and sometimes in their mental illness unknowingly believe there is no other way out. Let us mourn the tragedy of the senseless loss of life, and where appropriate, let us even honor the lives they heartbreakingly ended. But let us be careful not allow to our compassion toward the fallen to confuse others who may see in someone else’s suicide a way out of their own suffering. Let’s speak clearly of the unpolished, unmitigated horror that suicide is for both victim and survivor. Real compassion speaks real truth and ends confusion. Never the opposite. But let us also loudly and clearly speak of the graciousness of our God, Who walks and co-suffers with all who open their suffering and share it with Him. He is the anchor and hope for all who endure suffering in this life. He is the truth that answers a lie that says we need an escape from the life with which He has provided us. And He is even the comfort to those who mourn the loss of those who believed that lie.