Evie Peoples is the daughter, granddaughter, niece and cousin of beloved friends and the eldest of twelve beautiful children.
On June 17th, after years of depression, she took her own life and left hundreds, maybe thousands, of people reeling. She was twenty years old. Her uncle and godfather, the recently ordained Fr. Paul Donnelly, had this to say at her funeral Mass:
I am speaking especially to the young people here today. Please raise your hand in answer to these questions. Who here is sad? (He raised his own hand, along with the whole congregation)
Who here has ever felt depressed? (His hand and most hands went up)
Who here has ever felt like maybe the world would be better off without me in it? (His hand went up, along with most hands)
Who here feels like we're better off without Evie Peoples?
(No hands, the sound of quiet weeping)
Who here has ever said, 'Fine,' when asked how you are? (All hands)
Don't say fine. How about, 'I'm sad, I'm frustrated, I'm angry'? If you say that to us, we'll say, 'Tell me more.' Stop saying, 'I'm fine.' We love you for who you are. Nothing you say can make us love you any less. Nothing you say can make us love you any more. We love you for who you are.
I could stop right there. These words don't need any embellishment of mine. But as a personalist, here's what struck me:
1. Evie's parents are superabundantly open to life, in every sense. They're part of a giant, generously supportive and loving tribe of relatives. They're strong in their faith, and the whole clan is among the best I've ever met at standing strong on principle while staying wholeheartedly welcoming to everybody who happens to cross their path. They're joyful; they're hilarious; they're a pleasure to be around. They're faithful but never off-puttingly pious. So how could this happen? They did everything right! Several of my friends have expressed the fear: If this could happen to the Donnellys, what hope is there for me and my kids?
But look at the assumption lurking behind such a natural-seeming question!: If you do X and Y, then Z won't happen. Guaranteed.
Or worse: Since Z did happen, the parents must have failed at X and Y.
People who think that way are not necessarily self-righteous or proud. (The friends I just mentioned certainly aren't!) More likely, they're scared. We're all scared. We would love to believe that there are certain things you can do--even very difficult things--that can stave off a tragedy like this, guaranteed. It would make us feel safer.
I'm not saying a big, loving, faithful, joy-exuding family is useless! These are some of the best gifts anybody can give their children. But the person is not the sort of being that reacts automatically to stimuli. And depression needs to be recognized as the life-threatening disease it is, not a consequence of inadequate childrearing or insufficient faith.
2. Thank God for a better understanding of depression and suicide! One that no longer presumes to judge the state of mind of a person on the edge of despair. For one thing, God's mercy can intervene in the final nanosecond in ways that aren't visible to bystanders. For another, a person on the edge may very well not be "in her right mind." Her knowledge and freedom may very well be in a crippled state.
I don't mean to counsel presumption! And I think the older attitude to suicide was sometimes born of a desire to deter people from committing it, not just a claim to judge the state of somebody else's soul.
The good news, in any case, is the move from mere objectivity ("This act involves grave matter") to the acknowledgement of subjectivity. Without losing the objective truth that taking one's life is a grave evil, we realize more clearly than before that the fate of a person's soul depends also on what's going on within her heart. It's not just a question of which category her external action falls into.
As Father Paul suggests, much good can come of overcoming the impulse to hide the real state of our inner life. On the flip side, if someone's confiding in us, we must refuse to remain content with wishful thinking and make sure we're genuinely willing to be entrusted with the truth about the other.
It comes down to this: Stop saying, "I'm fine." Start saying, "Tell me more."