We all are heartsick over the terrible news about the death of beloved actor/comedian, Robin Williams. A popular icon in America, Williams was loved by so many fans and his death by suicide is simply devastating.
I remember when I was very young and an actor that I liked committed suicide. At the top of his popularity on the hit show “Alias Smith and Jones”, Pete Duel took his life on the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1971. It was my first experience of “knowing” someone who took his own life and it deeply affected me.
Most people around me said things like “How sad” or “So shocking” and life went on as usual. For me though, everything had changed. Hopelessness now had a name: suicide, and I would never be the same.
As Catholics, how are we to respond to such a circumstance? How are we to be steadfast in hope in such situations, when the Church clearly teaches that suicide is a mortal sin? In years past, a person who committed suicide was denied a Funeral Mass and even burial in a Catholic cemetery. Surely, for some that choose to take their own lives, suicide can be an act of revenge or one of selfishness, leaving loved ones to deal with the traumatic aftermath. It’s the ultimate act of despair. But that is certainly not always the case. We’ve come a long way from there in our understanding of and response to suicide in the Church today.
Like many who make this desperate choice, Robin Williams was said to have been battling a severe depression recently. It’s also been speculated that he had long struggled with bipolar disorder, a mood disorder characterized by alternating extremes of manic or euphoric episodes and deep depressions. Considered a physiologically based disorder of genetic origin, medications to manage the extremes of mood can be very helpful, and often essential. But because of the strength of the feelings experienced by someone suffering from bipolar disorder, psychotherapy is also an important part of treatment. Strong feelings, such as paranoia, can be very compelling and can greatly influence their interpretations of reality.
The important part to understand in such cases is that many feelings that we experience are rooted in biochemical reactions within the body. Any woman who’s experienced PMS, or someone sensitive to caffeine or who experiences hypoglycemic episodes may have a better understanding of the powerful feelings that someone with bipolar disorder or extreme depression may be up against.
When someone suffering an extreme depressive episode does take his or her own life, we must always leave all judgments to God and not make any assumptions about their fate. A more modern understanding in the Church is that in the extreme suffering this person may be experiencing, the act of suicide may be likened more to someone jumping out of a burning building to escape the pain, rather than a calculated choice made with understanding of its gravity and full consent of the will. When someone is so distressed, they may not be competent and therefore not culpable for sin.
If you or someone you know has experienced the loss of a loved one due to suicide, it can leave you with many confusing and conflicting feelings. It’s a special pain. Grief is often mixed with anger, anguish and guilt. Unlike dealing with the loss of a loved one by natural causes, suicide presents a complicated tangle of emotions, each of which needs expression and resolution. Talking it out with a therapist who can walk you through this maze of suffering and into a place of peaceful acceptance is well worth the investment.
As we grieve the loss of Robin Williams, let’s pray for his soul and for his family and friends in the coming days and months. And pray for the gift of hope for others in such desperate straits. With so many problems in the world, financial and political, it’s easy to lose hope as things seem to grow darker and darker. In the human family we are all connected and prayer and sacrifice bring down graces that can impart hope in those darkest moments. And after the darkness… dawn.
Robin, thank you for being the unique creature God blessed you to be and sharing those gifts with the world. Your suffering refined your heart and your smiling eyes and hilarious antics reflected the love and joy of our heavenly Father to His creation. May God grant you rest, joy and everlasting peace in the arms of Jesus.
If you’ve suffered the loss of a loved one through suicide, talking to someone can help. Call us for a free consultation.
*Photo: Actor/comedian Robin Williams entertains the crew of USS Enterprise (December 2003). – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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