This past week I attended a memorial service for a friend who ended his own life. Rich was 50 years old – a musician, a father, and a dear friend to many people. He would go out of his way to build bridges of connection, and to help friend and stranger alike. He was a spiritually grounded Christian who lived his faith with compassion, and he was not afraid to ask questions. He was a great dad taking great joy and pride in his sons antics and accomplishments.
Rich and I grew up in the same neighborhood. His older sister and I shared classes throughout elementary school and participated in the same Girl Scout troop. He dated my younger sister during high school. There was a story about me he loved to share every year on the second Tuesday of November. It was on such a Tuesday in November 1984 that I asked him if he had voted yet. He had turned 18 that year and I wanted to make sure he got off to a good start exercising his civic duty. He told me he had no transportation to get to the polls. So, I bundled up my 1-month old son, and escorted Rich to my car and off we went to the polls. He never missed an election after that day.
I dreaded going to the memorial service. I am not a Christian, though I fully embrace the teachings of Jesus and strive to live into his greatest commandment to love God with all my heart, and to love my neighbors as I love myself. I dreaded what might be said from the pulpit at his memorial – that his act of ending his own life would either not be named at all; or, worse, that a judgmental preacher would condemn his gentle, compassionate, loving, faithful soul to Hell. To my great relief, neither of these things happened. It was a very healing service.
Rich’s minister knew him very well. He knew of his deep struggle with depression. His minister talked honestly and openly about this mental health issue that plagues so many of us (myself included). His theological response to the state of Rich’s soul was that once someone has been baptized and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they are forgiven. Period. Without even asking, they are forgiven. Phew!
While this is not my theology, the outcome is the same in my understanding of who we are in relation to the divine. As a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t hold a concept of Heaven or Hell, just the Here and Now. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic divinity who determines our fate either in life or in death. But I do embrace stories, myths, and metaphors for understanding deeper truths about how we are to live our lives and live that great commandment.
The minister used the art of story and metaphor to help the congregation understand how depression wears someone down to the point where they can believe they have no choice left but to die. He used the story of Saul and the Philistines to describe the relentless attacks on our sense of hope, joy, and purpose that can come at us from all sides. The Philistines are all the events, circumstances, chemical imbalances, perceptions, and challenges that can make us feel hopeless and trapped in the box of depression. He described the depressed worldview that can no longer see things the way others might see them … what might look like a bump in the road to a close friend, may appear as an insurmountable mountain range to the person living with depression.
I spoke with Rich’s pastor after the service. He told me about this video created by the World Health Organization about the Black Dog of depression … a term coined by Winston Churchill in describing this “companion” he lived with. I offer it here for others to understand more about this debilitating disease. I had a black dog; his name was Depression.
Those of us who suffer from depression employ all our resources to keeping the lights on and not allowing those walls and shadows to overwhelm. Coping mechanisms can include spiritual practices, physical activity, political or social activism, medication, and/or therapy. And, sometimes, even with all that we bring to the battlefield, sometimes the Philistines win the war.
Unitarian Universalist singer-songwriter Carolyn McDade wrote “Come Sing a Song With Me,” a song I love dearly. The chorus goes like this: “And I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find, and I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the wintertime.” Finding hope is often hard, especially for one like me who lives in the Here and Now and does not look toward a future beyond this life for eternal life and hope. Hope is something we have to walk toward and work for together, in community, through connections. It doesn’t come in isolation.
Since the election, many of my friends and colleagues have shared how they are seeing a rise in depression and loss of hope as we watch the values we uphold as Unitarian Universalists being attacked by this new administration; values such as affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all people, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and the interdependent web of life in which we are inextricably interconnected.
I don’t know if suicides are on the rise, but I know activism is certainly escalating. People who were never active in civic matters are making calls, writing letters, showing up, and working to bring hope to those who will most feel the effects of the actions of this administration. People in privileged populations are reaching out to traditionally oppressed communities with support and solidarity… bringing a song of love. This is one way we can bring hope to others. What else can we do to bring one another hope?
I will miss reading Rich’s Facebook post urging people to go vote this November. I’m sorry I didn’t make the time to visit him (he was just 45 minutes away in Athens). I wish I had known that he was suffering … not that I have any illusions that I could have prevented this, but because he was a person worth spending time with. Any time someone I love dies, I recommit myself to life. Rich’s death reminds me to recommit myself to spending time with people I love, and building and strengthening connections to those whom I want to know well.