Suicide, Religion and God

Caring for someone with extreme depression is exhausting and who wants to be the one to exhaust the ones you love. Physical, emotional, spiritual, mental pain can steal your free-will, your ability to think clearly and choose life. Some types of pain bring thoughts of death and quickly erase the memories that make life worth living; pain, the devil, the serpent in the Garden, tempting you to eat of the fruit of death.

Suicide is the ultimate act of control, the ultimate expression of the desire for order.  In the mind of the one who wants to die, it is a well-thought out, justified act of selflessness.  My loved ones will be fine. I won’t become a burden to them.   Suicide comes to symbolize peace.  It all seems so normal.  Except the one considering suicide is suffering from an overwhelming mental illness that destroys the ability to think clearly.

There is a big difference between being depressed and depression. To be depressed is to experience a deep sadness that usually has an underlying cause, like death of a person or a life- dream. Sometimes grief can become unmanageable and falls into depression, but often a depression that is based on an event can be taken care of quite quickly with psychotherapy and perhaps medication. Depression is different. It is heavy. It is mind-numbing. It is exhausting. It feels like Atlas looks, carrying the troubles of the world on your shoulders.  Mine stalks me stealthily, like a creature of the night, waiting patiently for the right moment to seep inside me, without warning, then enveloping me in darkness that gets progressively heavier. I lose all feeling. Don’t care. No highs, no lows, just indifference.

I was receiving excellent mental health care from my doctor, my psychiatrist, from medication, but I was not responding. It was my religion that sustained me while I continued to receive help from the psycho-social sciences. One might ask why the love of and for my family was not enough to keep me here. I have no answer. I am grateful, though, that I was able to turn to my Rabbi  for help.

I remember driving to the synagogue, exhausted. Everything at that time was exhausting. I went to see him in his book-lined office. We sat across from each other at a large desk strewn with books. I think he is younger than I am, but his experiences in pastoral care and as a teacher gave him wisdom beyond his years. When I think back, I picture a dark room, but I think it was more that I was in a dark place. I had been attending services and classes regularly for some time so he knew of my love of study, of parsing Biblical stories and searching out meaning. I remember being taught we don’t make meaning, rather we find it because God has provided all the meaning already.

My Rabbi held on to me by tapping into a part of me that is deeply connected to God. He reminded me that as a child of God, I do not have the right to take my own life. I am obligated to “choose life for you and your children.” He said that the most important thing that I could do was study God’s teachings. He gave me the reason to live while taking away any thought of taking my own life. Just read a few sentences a day, perhaps a prayer. I had a purpose. Study. Stay alive.

These are the things of which a person enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains in the hereafter, namely; honouring father and mother, practice of kindness, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, dowering the bride, attending the dead to the grave…but study of Torah exceeds them all.

There was comfort and relief in my Rabbi’s message. His words, his compassion, his reference to the Biblical commandment to choose life, and that study, something dear to me was the greatest of all commandments, lifted the burden from my shoulders. I was no longer in a state of anxiety choosing between life and death. My deep depression did not lift right away. But, at that moment, talking to my Rabbi gave me hope. It was as if I had been holding my breath and now I could breathe, again.

One would think that I could help myself. I have been trained to help others in pain.

There is a story about Rabbi Chanina who was ill. His friend, Rabbi Yochanan visited him. When Rabbi Chanina complained about his suffering, Rabbi Yochanan suggested to him that he tell himself the same words of comfort that he had given to others. Rabbi Chanina responded:  “When I was free of sufferings, I could help others; but now that I am myself a sufferer, I must ask others to help me.”

What do we learn from this story? When ill, we need to reach out to others. And we must learn how to give and take aid graciously.

I choose not to ask myself why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. I choose not to fall into the abyss of theodicy. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why we suffer. What truly affects the quality of life is how we react. And it is only how we react that is in our hands. I believe I am not bitter or angry because sometime during my life I made a conscious choice not to be.

We are a compilation of all past experiences; physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. They are the chapters in the book of you. To live your best life you accept the person you have become as a result of all your life experiences. We are all an open book with many chapters to be written.


About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "