During the season of Christmas festivities, there was a really sad spot, like a small hole dug into my psyche. That hole is the well of sadness over the death of my online friend, @gideony, a/k/a Gideon Addington. Just as I set aside time for prayer each day, I set aside time and space during the holiday festivities to ponder the life and death of Gideon, @gideony. I can only conclude, “such a tragedy”. But, in pondering, I’ve mused over many topics —
- to wonder what if anything I should or could have done differently,
- to peer closer into the clues he left to see if I could peer through the window of his thoughts to fathom “why,” and
- to pray for comfort for his grieving family and friends.
A bewildering loss …
It is possible today for an online community to be comprised of people with similar interests who span several continents. My friendship with @Gideony was typical of one in an online community. We never met in person, never expected to. The online community that we inhabited together was a world of ideas. It was a world of conversation. Gideon was an author of a blog. He was a perceptive, sensitive, thoughtful, and well spoken writer, and he wrote about topics I am interested in. Gideon also participated in Twitter, with comments that shared his sensitivity, his sense of justice and concern for others, as well as his sense of humor, sensitivity, frustration, and hopes for the future.
So, how do we deal with the death of a friend one only knows online, through writings and thoughts? What do we do with the swirling leaves of unanswered questions, when we learn that someone in our lives has done the unspeakable and eliminated themselves from future dialogue with us? How do we see our way through the feelings and ideas and ponderings that swirl around us, as if they were unformed clouds — surprising us both in their intensity and their unformed nature — when tragedy strikes outside ordinary social structures?
A lonely loss …
One thing difficult for me this season of family and friends is that my family does not share this separate world of ideas — they have their own, separate friendships which revolve around their own interests — so they didn’t even know that one of my friends had killed themselves. This was a little bit awkward. It makes grieving more private and lonely.* It reminds me, however, to be sensitive to those around me who may be experiencing other, private grief or loss, unbeknownst to others.
The experience of losing my Twitter comrade @gideony has also pointed to the fact that the emergence of online communities has created a whole new layer of complex relationships in which boundaries, decorum, and social support systems are yet to be explored. So part of my own grief experience was to wonder about the role his online community may, or may not have, played in his tragic death. I wonder how his family feels about and responds to his extensive online network, which has poured out its collective grief through numerous online memorials and services. Would his family welcome, or be repulsed by, involvement from Gideon’s online community? After all, memorials and rituals are for the living, for those who remain behind. How do we balance the needs of the physical kin and the intellectual comrades — is there a border where the two can meet?
I fear there may be some who would Gideon’s death as an excuse to rail against online communities. I can imagine the detractors whispering, or preaching, that online communities are evil because they deprive their participants of real-world friendships. The image of online communities conjured by such detractors seems to be one of sexual predators and young teenagers who meet online, or of lonely and isolated introverts who substitute fantasy, disembodied relationships for real, embodied ones. I recognize that these extremes of online use can occur, but they do not reflect my experience, and they don’t seem to reflect the online reality of @Gideony, either.
A shocking loss …
One reason the death of @Gideony came as such a shock, was because he seemed to live so fully embedded in community. His first blog post I ever read had to do with why, as a Christian, he chose denominational life. In that post, he wrote, “we are in the world, and our responsibility lies with our brother and sister. It is faulty, and it is fallen, but it is still where we find the presence of God.” For some reason, I don’t associate the notion of suicide with people who are deeply embedded and participating in a rich smorgasbord of human relationships, as Gideon seemed to be. Gideon seemed to be living an active, committed life fully engaged in both the physical and the intellectual communities. That engagement doesn’t fit my stereotype of a suicidally depressed person.
My surprise was not just on account of Gideon’s thoughtful musings about life in community and his reasons for choosing a denominational life. His death was equally shocking because his postings had, for me, no hint that he would consider doing himself in. His words, while pondering and deep, were not the words of a socially isolated, depressed person. To the contrary, he talked with 2,689 followers on Twitter, another 2846 whom he followed, and he engaged in conversation regularly. I admit that I was not seeking clues in these conversations that would hint at depression or loneliness or isolation. But one of Gideon’s last tweets, a few days before his death, had to do with going to get a big slab of beef and eat it. This did not seem to be the type of posting which would be written by a man intent on killing himself.
An ordinary loss …
To the contrary, he seemed an ordinary guy, a person like myself. And in this regard, there seems to be nothing that distinguishes Gideon’s suicide from the other people I’ve known who did themselves in. Each one was a horrifically sad tragedy. Each one left a legacy of lifelong remorse for the surviving family. Each one left the individual’s collective community with deeply troubling questions about what we might have done differently to reassure the person that all was not lost. I wonder sometimes if the person committing suicide knows of this guilt in advance, if they even do it intentionally, so as to inflict a living hell on those whom they leave behind. Because ordinarily, when we feel guilt in a relationship, we have the power to go make it right. We can change our path, we can apologize, we can ask forgiveness. Suicide forecloses that option. All we can do is to change course in ways that affect future relationships, not the one that has been lost to death.
Each suicide also leaves us with a powerful sense of anger. Anger that the person didn’t open themselves to us enough to allow us to be a friend. Anger that they would treat us so callously.
The question is not whether we will respond to the guilt and anger left by suicide, but how. One blogger, who wrote a rather cerebral response to the death of @Gideony, assumed without argument that his death was a response to “mental illness”. That blogger asks, in an emotionally detached kind of way, “Should the fact that someone died by suicide deny them a memorial that someone else who died a different way might receive?” Surely we in the blogsphere have something more to say, to memorialize the life of our friend Gideon Addington, than an intellectual rumination over whether we should feel guilty for mourning and wanting to find our own way to express our grief over the loss of our friend. Of course we must mourn. Of course we must find a way to express our grief. And so we bloggers have, as in here and here.
An unfathomable loss …
For those of us who engaged in discourse with Gideon, it’s clear that his thoughts were of a type where few dare to go. I recognize that depression can be a mental illness, but I think it exceedingly presumptious for anyone to assume, merely from the fact of his suicide, that Gideony suffered from “mental illness”. Perhaps (although I hesitate to speculate), what he suffered from was more akin to “existential anxiety”. Perhaps he, more sensitive and perceptive than most, realized more fully than others the futility of the human condition. Perhaps he was not persuaded by the writings of Augustine about suicide. Perhaps he didn’t buy the American view that equates the physical with everything that is, in my view a form of blasphemy that elevates the non-being-ness of death into that which we most fear. Perhaps, instead of buying into that notion, Gideon just decided, in a rational way, to forget Pascal’s wager and instead to end his own time here. Just a few days before his death, he posted words to a song: “Let me not be too consumed with this world; Sometimes I want to go home; and stay out of sight for a long time.” In other words, maybe he just decided to check out, not because he was crazy, but because he didn’t like it here.
How rude of me even to ask that question: I am asking and speculating about a possible answer to a question that is fundamentally unknowable. For, the sad fact about suicide is that, in many cases we’ll never really know why the person did it. Those who place suicide in the “mental illness” category would like to assume that it’s never rational; in my view, theirs is an attitude borne out of fear. Was Socrates’s suicide the act of a man with mental illness? Is it a sign of mental illness if a person chooses suicide over a life of untreatable physical pain? Is it really never reasonable or rational for one to commit suicide? These are real questions that deserve better discussion than the trite categorizations we offer in our materialistic society, slapping on automatic labels of depression and mental illness.
Oh yes, quite definitely, Gideon did feel despair. He bared his soul in this prayer he wrote, and which he tagged with the labels “despair, hopeless, mercy, sadness“:
I am broken among the broken… Lord, deliver me from my despair. Give me strength that I might continue to fight. I am tired, I am lonely, and I feel I am alone among the mad. I know I am not alone but my heart breaks. Help me, save me.. I try so hard, yet I know I should try harder and that there is much I could do but do not… Have mercy on me, help me be a better instrument, a better servant and a better healer for those that come before me. Save me from pride, from arrogance, and help me remember that I am broken among the broken. Give me wisdom to discern what I can and cannot do, and what I must walk to and away from. Lord, save me. Amen
But does despair necessarily imply mental illness? I think not. Does despair necessarily imply hopelessness? I think not. Perhaps what Gideon experienced was that which can be known as the “dark night of the soul”. If he did, he was not alone. To the contrary, he was in the company of great minds and souls, souls like Mother Teresa and C.S. Lewis.
An understandable loss …
When Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced her own “dark night of the soul, she wrote in her journal:
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one. You have thrown away as unwanted-unloved. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them-because of the blasphemy-If there be a God-please forgive me. I am told that God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
Please pray for me, that it may please God to lift this darkness from my soul for only a few days. For sometimes the agony of desolation is so great and at the same time the longing for the Absent One so deep, that the only prayer which I can still say is – Sacred Hear of Jesus I trust in Thee – I will satiate Thy thirst for souls.
In response to Teresa’s spiritual angst, her advisor, Archbishop Perier of Calcutta, wrote back to her:
With regard to the feeling of loneliness, of abandonment, of not being wanted, of darkness of the soul, it is a state well known by spiritual writers and directors of conscience. This is willed by God in order to attach us to Him alone, an antidote to our external activities, and also, like temptation, a way of keeping us humble in the midst of applauses, publicity, praises, appreciation, etc. and success. To feel that we are nothing, that we can do nothing is the realization of a fact. We know it, we say it, some feel it.
A needless loss …
It’s really too bad that Gideon, feeling despair, never engaged in the same type of spiritual conversation that Mother Teresa benefited from. Perhaps if suicide were more talked-about and less labeled, Gideon’s community and spiritual advisors could have had that conversation with him. Perhaps our society’s suppression of talk about the despair that can lead to suicide — our wanting to jump to the conclusion that suicide is irrational or a sign of mental illness — reflects nothing more than our own discomfort with the idea of despair. Like a pregnant woman who doesn’t want to think about the possibility of stillbirth: we know that bad things can happen, but we are too fearful to face that which we dread the most.
Are we too fearful, as well, to walk beside a person who is in despair, to sit beside them on the bench in the park in silence? Stanley Hauerwas, in his book Naming the Silences, tells of just such a situation, when the best thing a friend could do was simply to sit, on a park bench, beside a man who was grieving. Just as God would sit with us, never forsaking us.
I confess, perhaps my inclination would be to chatter too much. I’m afraid in my anxiety I might chatter in my effort to persuade a suicidal person of the value of life, of choosing hope over hopelessness. But to choose hope and life over despair and death implies that there is a choice. To choose the mountain, we must also have an idea of the terrain that includes the valleys. We must acknowledge what the options are. We are not insane or mentally ill if we think about it or discuss negative feelings. Sometimes what we really need is a friend in the silence, someone just to be there with us.
But I digress …
It would be presumptuous for me to speculate regarding what dark night of the soul drove Gideon to suicide, and I can’t ask him. You see, that’s the rub about death. After it happens, further conversation is not possible. Discomfited by our own bias, society sends the clear message that we don’t want to hear about despair. We only want to hear happy thoughts. We let people know in clear, if unstated, terms: if you “ideate” about suicide, then by definition you must be mentally ill. Shut up, or we will lock you up, is a way the message can be cartoonized. Therefore, people who are really serious about it don’t talk about it. Like a child who knows the mom will say “no” to candy, they keep it a secret. Such a tragedy.
I’m not saying Gideon’s suicide was rational, and I’m not saying it was irrational. And I’m not saying he felt despair. It would be too presumptuous of me to say anything. We’ll never know. What I am saying is that it’s possible (I don’t know) that society’s attitude of slapping a label, and stigma, effectively stopped our collective conversation with Gideon.
Because Gideon never dared to broach the subject with his extensive community, he deprived us, collectively, of the opportunity to uplift him. He deprived us of reminding him of the words C.S. Lewis penned in The Screwtape Letters, as the Devil tells the young Screwtape:
Our cause [the cause of evil] is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending, to do our Enemy’s [God’s] will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
An uncomfortable loss …
Sadly, it turns out that frank discussion — of suicide, of existential anxiety, of talk about despair — was in fact the only conversation that could have saved Gideon’s life. He needed to have someone hold him by the shoulders, to shake him even, to look him in the eye, and tell him of the value of life. He needed someone to reassure him that his life did, indeed, have value; even when everything else — whether it was his thoughts or emotions or rational mind — told him that his life was futile. He needed a frank discussion about suicide. He need a friend to stand by him, to reassure him that even if life is not all sweetness and light, it’s still okay. He didn’t need platitudes or cheering up or reassurances that suicide is a sign of mental illness. What Gideon needed was the experience and the assurance of love. He needed someone, comfortable in their own skin, to sit beside him on a park bench.
Our diversion around discussion of suicidal ideations, our discomfort with anything but the tip of the iceberg, freezes us in place as if we were adolescents who never grow up. We never get adult enough to acknowledge despair and face it head on. We pitter patter around the edges, refusing to plunge our fist into the formless monster we don’t want to face head on.
And now, with this tragic ending, we are bluntly and rudely stopped midstream in conversation, interrupted by the gorilla in the room that no one wanted to acknowledge. Now, it is impossible for us ever to finish our conversation with Gideon. We can never hear what Gideon might have said. He can never hear what we might have said. We are deprived of the opportunity to remain in dialogue, to offer comfort. We are left behind, literally, alone and bereft on the park bench to ponder our grief.
An angry loss …
My world is less rich without you, Gideon Addington. I’m thankful for your life, I’m thankful for your sharing. But I’m really angry that you did yourself in. I feel betrayed that while you seemed to share so much of your personal and insightful world, you withheld so much. It obviously was painful to you, but did you really have no one you could trust with these thoughts? Did we all come across as so shallow and glib?
I feel compassion for those whom you left behind — your coworkers and family and local friends who will always be haunted by the guilt of wondering what they might have been able to do differently, to reach you. Across the chasm of distance, I offer my prayers for them and my condolence. I also pray forgiveness for my lack of perception. I pray that, in my own future, I will never fail to be sensitive to and aware of people who may be at risk, that I will never fail to reach out to my community and offer a hand in the web of support that we weave for one another.
I imagine, Gideon, that you and I would both reject a theology that tries to sugar coat this tragedy by claiming that God had a hand in it. To believe in free will requires that we take responsibility for our own actions, that we fully acknowledge evil for what it is. Part of me thinks that trying to find the “silver lining” in the cloud of your tragic ending falls in the category of sugar coating. I will not claim to find any “good” in your tragic loss to suicide. And I’m not going to make myself feel better by echoing the sentiment that I’ll see you on the flip side. (It would also be presumptuous for me to claim to know anything about the flip side, actually, since I’ve never been there myself.) I just can’t claim that any good can come from the needless death of one who could have done so much in the here and now. The fact is, that your absence from the here and now creates a terrible void, a chasm, an irreplaceable loss for your family and friends. A rip in the fabric of all of our lives.
Without sugar coating and platitudes that we use to make ourselves feel less bad, are there, nevertheless, some lessons we can carry forward?
A learning loss …
In each community, whether in the physical world or in the online world, I believe it is well for us to remember that there are always be people among us who are at risk. People are at risk for alcoholism or divorce or any number of other things. But certainly among the worst of all of these, because of its terrible and irreversible effect, would have to be suicide. I believe the best we can do in an intentional community is to be intentional in our support of one another, to be intentional about listening and caring. To live in community, we must talk, and we must listen. Remind me again, to sit on the park bench.
Gideon, I will determine to use your tragic, sad demise as a sentinel event in my own life, like a lighthouse to prevent me from running near a dangerous shoal:
- Your suicide reminds me to always be sensitive to those among my community who are at risk. I am reminded not to be complacent about people who express deep existential angst, even when that angst is beautifully expressed and doesn’t appear to be suicidal.
- Your suicide reminds me that each life is precious and that I must do whatever I can to support my fellow person, no matter where they are located and no matter what community we inhabit.
- Your suicide reminds me that suicide is utterly unacceptable, because of the damage it wreaks upon the living.
- Your suicide reminds me that I must talk about suicide. I must tell my friends and family, and myself: “The dark night of the soul is normal, natural, inevitable for deeply spiritual, thinking people. Please talk about it; share it; experience it; dwell in it if necessary. But please, please, do not do yourself in.”
- Your suicide reminds me that suicide itself is unacceptable for those of us who believe it best to dwell in community, not because of what it does to you, but because of what it does to those you leave behind.
And, I hope Augustine was wrong. I do so hope that those are right who say, “I’ll see you on the flip side.”
And last but not least, If anyone reading this is considering suicide, I beg you, DON’T EVEN THINK THAT WAY! (Click HERE for help)
Suicide is an unacceptable thought! Suicide is not an answer. The only thing suicide can accomplish is to leave your family and friends in a living hell. DON’T DO THAT TO THEM! If you hate your loved ones that much, stay alive so that you can work through it. Or, get revenge some other way! If you love anyone, stay alive so that you can be there for them. If you are unloveable, do something to make yourself loveable. Do you know how many young children there are who need someone to care for them? Go do a good deed! Another thing you can do is to let someone know you are hurting! Call this number: 1-800-SUICIDE. If you love anything, stay alive to take care of that thing and to nurture that. Do you believe in anything? Go help that cause or that person! What’s the worst that could happen if you stay alive? That’s right. The alternative to suicide is, by definition, better than suicide. So, just DON’T GO THERE!
*But loneliness in loss happens in other, more physical communities as well. I am deeply acquainted with loss that is not shared by my social community, on account of having had several miscarriages. No matter how much people talk about “right to life,” very few people actually conceive of loss through miscarriage as loss of an actual person, and thus our society gives very little support to women who may be racked with grief over a miscarriage.