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Kristen Howerton

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Rick Warren's Grief: The Comfort and Cruelty of Speculating on Suicide

Posted: 04/09/2013 11:40 am

I was devastated to hear the news of Rick Warren's son, who took his own life on Friday after a lifetime of battling serious mental illness. I don't know Rick well, but we have met a few times and have many common friends, having served in similar ministry circles here in Orange County. I have heard Rick speak about his children on a few occasions, and he always struck me as a loving and compassionate dad. A story that sticks out in my mind was the time Rick's daughter tried out for a team and didn't make the cut. He found her crying in the closet, and rather than trying to get her up or give her a pep talk, he sat down and held her and cried with her. That story has stuck with me. It exemplifies the kind of parent I want to be -- a parent who, instead of trying to fix things, gets down on the floor and sits with a child's grief.

My heart breaks for Rick and Kay. I cannot imagine what they must be going through.

Unfortunately, over the past 24 hours I've seen both individuals and news outlets posting speculations about Rick Warren, his son and their relationship, with what I perceive to be an attempt at figuring out what went wrong. People seem to want to assign blame to something or someone -- to unlock some mystery that would explain Matthew's suicide.

I think this is an awful but real human impulse -- we want to find a way to exclude the possibility that something bad could befall our children. I will admit here that I'm not immune to this impulse. When something horrific happens to another child, I find myself quickly cataloging the details, trying to find something that would make the tragedy exceptional -- some slip-up that the grieving parent made along the way that would comfort me from a concern that it could happen to me. I've done it when I've heard about infant death: I've scrambled to figure out if the parent was doing something wrong. Was there some rule they failed to follow that would assuage my anxiety about my own child's mortality? I found myself doing this as I watched the Sandusky trial as well -- quickly casting aspersions on parents of the victims for their lack of discernment.

When we hear about grieving parents it can be so tempting to try to assign blame, because if they aren't to blame, then we have to grapple with the reality that sometimes, tragedy is senseless. This is an uncomfortable truth: awful things happen to children that parents cannot prevent. It's a truth so painful that we would rather throw grieving parents under the bus than face it. Searching for a familial reason for Matthew's suicide allows us to believe that if we can avoid their mistakes, we can feel confident that mental illness will never ravage our own child. We assuage our anxiety with the false notion that, if we do this parenting thing right, our child will be spared from ever struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.

It's comforting, but it is a lie. A lie we fuel through speculation at the expense of grieving parents.

The inconvenient truth is that mental illness is an equal opportunity destroyer. Just last month, another acquaintance of mine returned home to the gym to discover her husband had ended his life. He had similarly struggled with mental illness for a long time. It is an insidious disease. It is a brain-chemistry disease. It cannot be blamed on family members or friends.

As a therapist I have seen many clients who have dealt with life-long, crippling mood disorders that were not improved by therapy and only marginally improved with meds. I have seen clients grapple with the fact that they become suicidal if they are non-compliant with a daily regime of psychotropic drugs. It is heartbreaking. Rick describes his son's pain in words that haunt me because I've heard them echoed by other clients who struggle with a mood disorder: "I'll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, 'Dad, I know I'm going to heaven. Why can't I just die and end this pain?'" Rick calls his son's mental illness a life-long battle lost, despite consultation with top doctors, counseling, medication and floods of prayer. While it may comfort us to pick apart this description an try to find something underneath that is exceptional, it is also cruel.

I've also seen many people trying to use this incident as a way to indict Rick Warren for his politics. If you've read here much at all, you know that I don't agree with Rick Warren on all matters. But to try to hold up the tragedy of a suicide as some object lesson or karmic consequence is also cruel.

When my husband was hit by a car and nearly killed eight years ago, Rick took time in the Sunday service to say a prayer for us. I was so moved to have so many people covering us in prayer. Today, I'd like to use my platform to ask for prayer for Rick and his family. Let's wish Rick and Kay comfort and peace, and stop speculating about a grieving family.

 

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