This is a post I should have written a month ago, when Rev. Jennifer Slade took her life – a beautiful, brilliant, humanity-affirming life. Her death was shocking and jarring. But I didn’t write then, perhaps because while she was a colleague, I didn’t know her personally and didn’t know how to parse it. I didn’t know what to say then.
It’s been a couple of days now since Robin Williams took his own life – also a beautiful, brilliant, humanity-affirming life. And while I didn’t know him personally either, somehow I think we all did on one level – we knew him through his antic comedy and his moving drama. He came into our living rooms and our movie theatres and we knew him. After hearing the news, my cousin wrote, “if he only knew how we felt… really felt.”
And suddenly, I know what to say – to those who loved Jennifer, to those who loved Robin, and to those who love anyone.
It might not have been enough, knowing how people really felt. I know, because I have lived it.
I have lived that moment when, despite having some success and security, I could see no way out.
I have lived that moment when, despite knowing that there were people who would miss me, I thought they would be better off without me.
I have lived that moment when, despite being knowledgeable about mental illness and the tragedies of suicide, it just didn’t matter.
Now obviously, I didn’t commit suicide. Instead, like a robot, I went to work, and thankfully the better angels in my head compelled me to say something to someone. They got me to a doctor, who got me to a psychiatrist, who got me treatment, which helped me get well. I now know better how to manage the sadness, how to reach out, what to look for in my own life so that I won’t go down that road again.
But I have lived that moment, when a decision is made. For me, the delay was largely because I couldn’t come up with a method that I thought would work. But I had made a decision.
There’s a scene in an episode of M*A*S*H, where psychiatrist Sidney Freedman spends some time at the 4077th because he had lost a patient. He explains the moment to Hawkeye:
Actually, the straw that broke my back was a kid who was hearing voices telling him to kill himself. After some time with him, he got very quiet, sometimes that’s a sign they’ve made up their minds. Only somehow, I missed it. And then that night, after we all went to sleep, that sweet, innocent, troubled kid… listened to the voices.
I know that moment of quiet. And I imagine Jennifer and Robin probably seemed calmer to family and friends in those last days than they had leading up to it. It’s impossible to know exactly what was in their mind, but I can imagine, because I’ve lived it.
So what do we do? If I hadn’t said something to a coworker, I might not be here today. The truth is, no one asked me. I put up a front of being very together, very self-assured, very competent and confident. I was (and still am) the person others came to for problems.
What we do is engage.
What we do is talk to people, not about their accomplishments, but about their lives.
What we do is ask “how are you” and stay present as we hear the answer.
What we do is not assume the confident person has a busy schedule and wouldn’t possibly be interested in going to lunch or a movie or helping with a project.
What we do is be present to those who otherwise might be outside our close circle.
What we do is be in covenant.
“Love is the doctrine of this church,” we recite, “to the end that all shall grow into harmony… thus do we covenant with one another.” Not contract, not promise, not lawfully abide. Covenant. Be in right relation. With everyone.
It’s possible that Jennifer had good, strong people in covenant with her and like Sidney Freedman, they still missed the signs. It’s possible Robin was surrounded by people who genuinely loved him, not his celebrity or his genius, and they still missed the signs.
But then I remember the viral stories of the men – one a police officer at the Golden Gate Bridge, one an Irishman who lives near a cliff – who talk to people who look like they’ve made a decision, and encourage them to keep living. They have an unspoken covenant with these people – to know them. To relate to them. To care for them. To listen when no one else will. Sometimes it isn’t the people closest to us that make the difference but simply the people who take seriously the care of being in covenant with one another.
A decade ago, Jeannie Gagne wrote an incredible, haunting piece (available to all of us in Singing the Journey) called “In My Quiet Sorrow,” written to honor those times when we carry “sorrows in our hearts that sometimes go unexpressed—with a prayer for support, love, and guidance. We all have times in our lives that are challenging; sometimes we need to ask for help, but we don’t know quite how or when.” (from the UUA’s song information page) Our covenant to one another is to hold each other and be present for each other in these times:
I am worn,
I am tired,
in my quiet sorrow.
Hopelessness will not let me be.
I won’t speak
of this ache
inside, light eludes me.
In the silence of my heart,
I keep on,
day by day,
trusting light will guide me.
Will you be with me through this time,
You’re my hope
when I fear
holding on, believing.
Deep inside I pray I’m strong.
You may not know what to say exactly. But say something. And genuinely listen.
You never know, and you still may miss some of the signs, but you may also make all the difference.