On Elder Suicide

A colleague just lost a 72 year old father-in-law to suicide. He wanted to assure us that are the family making a concerted effort to remember the joys and successes of the man’s life and not just his tragic end. Only a short time has passed since Robin Williams took his life while in his sixties. Elder suicide is not a new phenomenon and its tally has been recorded for decades; it is not uncommon. There are many lessons to be learned in these tragic deaths and the first and most important is that not everyone can be saved from their own destructive impulses.

The media frenzy surrounding Robin Williams’ death immediately pointed to his history of depression and perhaps other mental illnesses even though he was under treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The message left for entertainment consumers is that depressed people kill themselves. The media left for fresher tales of woe and then ignored information that was released later. Rarely does the media circle back to examine earlier released articles, meaning that a later review of Mr. Williams death got little play.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system of the brain. The disease is incurable and affects brain chemistry. Besides the physical symptoms of stiffness and tremors of limbs that an observer can see, victims of Parkinson’s disease experience organic depression. “Organic” signifies that the depression is not from an external source (i.e. loss of a spouse or a job) but is an issue caused by brain chemistry. Medications for organic depression may not be effective and in this case they were not. Robin Williams committed suicide but he died of Parkinson’s disease.

The case of Robin Williams is not atypical for the disease. No one failed Mr. Williams and Mr. Williams did not fail himself. However, practitioners of certain religious systems condemn Robin Williams and his death, consigning him to their version of after death damnation commonly called “Hell”. What these people believe is not of consequence but the pain they inflict on mourners is consequential. Of course mourners have doubts; they have doubts whether they were attentive enough or aggressive enough. If only they had observed “x” or seen “y” or asked “z”, they bargain that they could have prevented the tragic end. Or they are angry at the deceased for causing them such pain. Hellish condemnation only fuels the pain of profound mourning.

One of the formidable reasons for religion is to guide us through the painful episodes of our lives. When a religious system causes more pain at the point that it supposed to provide solace, the theology is false. Any religion should be able to understand suicide as a disease, as our medical science demonstrates that it is. Suicide in the oldest cohorts of human beings is not wholesale preventable or simple to understand. Even more, these adults are old enough and have enough experience to succeed in their destructive impulse. If anyone can succeed in acting on this urge, our elders certainly will.

Our ever evolving understanding of disease and its courses forces us to reassess our elders’ motives and our judgments of their behaviors. Disease attacks mind, body, and spirit. When the brain is afflicted by a disease, boundaries of behavior may disintegrate. It is the disease not the person and the caregiver is helpless. Condemnations and self-recriminations are common, wrong and only spread the destructive consequences of the disease beyond the afflicted.

My colleague in mourning is correct: celebrate the successes of a life when lived well and invoke the good memories. If one wants to pray for these souls who have been released from the burden of their tangled minds, then pray for cures that allow mortals to go gently into that long, dark night.

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