The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought depression and suicide to the forefront this past week. That is a good thing. American culture is still resistant to the reality of mental illness. We are particularly unresponsive to the growing epidemic of suicide. Since 1999 there has been an increase of 25 percent in suicide rates in the United States.
There are resources available for those with suicidal ideation, but not enough people take advantage of them. One of the reasons is that people are afraid, and rightly so, that they will be judged negatively if they acknowledge their struggle with mental illness and thoughts of suicide.
The way in which American culture responds to suicide is part of the problem. In America, your suicide defines your entire life. Kate Spade will not be primarily remembered as a designer and Anthony Bourdain will not be remembered as a chef, travel writer and television host. Both will be remembered as people who ended their lives by suicide. That is not at all fair, but it is what Americans do. We judge people negatively for their unbearable pain.
Those who end their lives are in such pain that they are not thinking the tiniest bit about how they will be remembered. But I think about it, because in an odd way I actually know a little something about how you are remembered after your life “ends” abruptly and unacceptably.
I tend to speak of Paul in the third person. I know that every part of Paul is contained within me, but so many of the people I loved and with whom I worked over the years do not see it that way. To them Paul’s life ended in a tragic and terrible way. Their judgment of my “ending” manifests itself in concrete ways that it took me a while to recognize and understand.
For instance, no one buys the books I authored. You can’t even find them on a remainder table. My videos have disappeared from the Internet. I have bound copies of 12 years of a magazine I helped create and for which I wrote a weekly column. But I doubt anyone will ever open the pages.
In my old religious community, nothing Paul did is remembered or celebrated. Go to the web site of the ministry I helped build for 35 years and you will find nary a mention of me. When the magazine changed hands last year, there were goodbyes among the contributing editors and columns written about that chapter in the life of the magazine, but not a single public word was written about me. (I did receive a warm private letter from my fellow-editor.)
There are a few dozen people who have written to thank me for the contribution I made to their lives, but from a public perspective, there is virtually nothing to indicate I ever existed. This is what we Americans do when we do not like the way in which a life “ended.”
I pray for the children of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. They are only 13 and 11. I know the pain my own grown children went through losing their dad in a difficult and abrupt way. I can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been if I had truly ended my life.
There is a lot of pain in the world, and for some, it is too much to bear. I do understand. But taking one’s life doesn’t just create a terrible ending to one’s story. For much of the world it erases the entire story. And that is a tragedy at so many levels.
If you struggle with depression and find yourself thinking about ending your life, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are local, reach out to us at Left Hand Church, where I serve as one of the pastors. We have therapists on staff who have available appointments this week. We can help. And remember, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255, where you can speak with someone 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
I feel gratitude for the joy Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain brought into our lives. Kate inspired us with her colorful and whimsical celebration of what it is to be a woman. And Anthony brought an honest and unique understanding of different cultures through, of all things, food!
Their ending is a sad postscript, but it is not who they were. They were so much more. How they died is just the physical manifestation of a terrible illness. But it is an illness that can be treated and cured. Tragically, they did not receive the help they needed. May God heal their souls.