September 7, 2015
My sister Caitlin took her own life 2 and a half years ago. She died on February 11, 2013. Some say she “committed suicide.” I don’t like this—it’s much too criminal, implies too much consciousness on the part of the deceased. Some say “died by suicide.” This is a little closer. I often say “she took her own life.” It feels freer, less shaming. More accurately though, my sister died of manic-depressive, or bi-polar illness. For months, her brain had slowly been dying. Cause of death? Brain death—massive loss of oxygen to the brain. How did it happen? By her own hand.
As you can imagine, this has affected my family and I in ways we have only begun to comprehend. Here I offer a few things I’ve learned about what suicide is NOT.
1. Suicide is Selfish
I’ve heard this so many times through the years. In high school, a kid who was a senior at the time took his own life. He was 18, one of the most popular kids in school and his death came as a shock to everyone. I remember hearing that at his funeral the priest spoke about how the act of suicide was “selfish”. Looking back I think it was an effort to prevent copycat syndrome, to make sure no other kid took such a drastic step. When a few years later this kid’s older sister also took her own life, it became clear that something more was going on here, that there was a thread of mental illness that had nothing to do with selfishness.
Suicide can’t be selfish simply because if a person is contemplating suicide chances are they are already so far down the slippery slope of mental illness that they aren’t thinking about others, or themselves for that matter, at all. They are thinking about pain—only pain, all the time pain. All they want, ALL THEY WANT is for the pain to end. They don’t want to hurt anyone, they don’t want to die even. They just don’t want to be in pain. When Caity was in the hospital, my dad described it best. He said it’s like a person is on fire. All they can think of is the burn because it is literally consuming them. And this person walks by a lake. They don’t know how to swim, but you better believe they’re going to jump in that lake, even if they can’t swim, even if it mean they might die, just to stop the fire from burning their life away.
Suicide isn’t selfish simply because a person at that edge mentally cannot consider what is selfish and what is not. They just want the pain to go away.
2. Love can fix it
Whew. This is a tough one. If this was true, Caitlin Moire Duffy would still be alive. There is not a single doubt in my mind about it. Talk about a girl who was loved from the moment of existence on this earth. The youngest of 6, born to parents whose primary goal was to love their kids into life, Cait couldn’t have been loved more. My priest in college used to say emphatically, every time he saw you, “COULD I LOVE YOU ANY MORE?” implying that he loved you SO much this could hardly be possible. This is how we all felt about Cait, and this is what we showed her all the time. She was my human sparkler, a human being who seemed to live with rainbow sparkling trails of joy everywhere she went. She was HAPPY, in a way I know few people to be happy—always making friends easily, involved in a million things, teeming with energy—alive, alive, alive! And so loved. My oldest brother says she’s the “light of his life.” I’m pretty sure we all felt this way about Cait.
We loved her through it all—her boisterous and exciting life, the initial and lasting stages of her mental illness, when Cait started becoming someone it was hard to recognize, through her time in multiple hospitals, even during two and a half weeks when she lay unconscious in a hospital bed and we hoped beyond a hope that she would wake up. One of our family priests, from day one at the hospital would tell us, “Everything you did, you did out of love. Everything you did, you did out of love.” He was like our coach, yelling in our faces—everything you did, you did out of love. It became our mantra, something we needed to cling to as we midwifed her into death.
Caitlin blew everything I thought I knew about mental illness and suicide out of the water. It doesn’t just happened to ‘depressed’ kids, loners, those no one understands. It happens to people like Caitlin.
Love can’t fix it, because if it could—it would have.
3. Suicide is Sinful
Some people still think this—Christians, Catholics, people in general. In my grandparent’s generation I think it may have even kept some people from taking their own lives. So not only did many suffer through a lifetime of mental illness, but add to that the suffering of a looming fear that if the illness were to overtake them, a promised hell was waiting. The Catechism of the Catholic Church these days is clear—while human life is not something to be taken lightly or easily discarded, mental illness seriously changes the game. If a person’s brain has been overcome by mental illness, like a person who physically is overcome by cancer of some kind, this IS NOT A SIN. It is something they cannot help. No one would ever shame a person dying of cancer. So why do so many still shame a person (or the living family and friends of a person) who has died of mental illness? (I highly recommend checking out the writings of Fr. Charles T. Rubey—he’s writes a lot about this and it’s FANTASTIC.)
My sister spoke to me frequently before she died about what was happening to her—her suffering, her confusion, how she felt like her “brain was dying.” She also spoke to me about how she felt God’s presence with her ALL ALONG. Cait had always been an incredibly spiritual person, certain God was right by her side. In high school she wrote in her journal for theology class about how she didn’t fear death because it meant she got to be with God—to dance with Him, to sing and celebrate with Him, and most especially to LOVE in a way that was whole and pure and true. Caity lived her life bursting with Love and this was because of and through her belief in God. She was never apart from God. I believe this to be true up until and especially IN the moment she died.
How can this be sinful?
There has been a lot of talk lately about suicide prevention, especially after the deaths of celebrities like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. My family and I are very involved in the suicide prevention movement. Perhaps the single most effective factor in preventing suicide is understanding mental illness and destigmatizing it. Everything must come into the light, without shame, because only then will we be able to get people the help that they need.