A final thought about coverage of suicide: Peggy Wehmeyer on the pain of those left behind

This weekend’s think piece offers a look at yet another religion-news story that — for those with the eyes to see — could be linked to America’s current struggles with loneliness, depression and suicide.

If you missed it, please consider listening to last week"‘s “Crossroads” podcast, with ran in a piece with this headline: “Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide.

Much of this discussion, of course, was linked to the suicide of a California megachurch leader, the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, who was the co-founder of a national ministry for those facing issues of depression and suicide. He had been very open about his own struggles and, on the day he died, he led a funeral service for a woman who had just committed suicide.

In the past week or so, GetReligion posts have mentioned several issues linked to this depression and suicide — from cyber-bullying to cellphone addiction, from sky-high college loan debts to sleep deprivation. There has been some frank talk about clergy who are pushed over the edge by stress.

Now, here is a stunningly honest piece by a journalist — former CNN religion-beat pro Peggy Wehmeyer — that ran in the New York Times under this double-decker headline:

What Lies in Suicide’s Wake

Along with everything else, I wasn’t prepared for the stigma of becoming a widow this way.

Wehmeyer’s husband took his own life in 2008, during a struggle with pancreatic cancer. There is no explicit religion angle in this essay, other than the sobering reality that the people who lead religious congregations cannot sit back and ignore the pain that lingers for the spouses and families of those who commit suicide. It’s the crisis that often remains hidden.

The opening anecdote in this piece is long, detailed and agonizing. It’s a dinner party — not that long after her husband’s death — and Wehmeyer is trying to find a way to answer the questions of the woman seated next to her. Are you married? Divorced? No, widowed. The scene unfolds:

I’d always thought divorce signaled a failure in life’s greatest commitment. But in the months and years after my husband’s death, I discovered that there’s something worse than a marriage that ends in divorce — a marriage that ends the way mine did.

My table mate tiptoed further into fragile, off-limits territory.

“Did he have cancer?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

“Yes, he did,” I said solemnly. Now I felt the shame not only of Mark’s death but also of my own deceit. Curiosity seems to overwhelm wives when they meet someone once married but now single. It’s like rubbernecking alongside a bad wreck.

“Oh, my God!” they wonder. “Could this happen to me?”

The woman pressed on. “What kind of cancer did he have?”

I set down my fork and opened an imaginary door to a closet full of disguises I now owned. Tonight, I would don the costume of a woman on top of her game, one who had grieved her husband’s death from cancer successfully and was happy to be out socializing.

“Pancreatic cancer,” I said without hesitation, confident that this would satisfy my determined acquaintance. I’d known a woman whose husband died of pancreatic cancer, and he’d gone quickly.

Instead, she turned to me with an expression I’ve come to know too well — fear mixed with pity, the worst kind of sympathy.

Breathlessly, she asked, “How long from the diagnosis to his death?”

It was too late to backtrack.

The thesis comes a few lines later:

This is what it’s like to survive the suicide of a spouse. The depression and shame that take a loved one’s life don’t go to the grave with them as pancreatic cancer or a brain tumor does. Instead, they attach like a sticky film to the survivors.

Now, does this reality — this unique form of shame — create challenges and questions for the survivors that are theological as well as personal? Of course.

Does this mean that the clergy who minister to them are supposed to help them face this pain, as opposed to ignoring the isolation that often sets in? Of course.

Do many people in religious communities hide from these issues (or worse)? Of course.

If religious congregations tried to face this issue, would that be a story worth covering? Of course.

Read it all.

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