When Rick Warren gave his address at President Obama’s first inauguration, he made a plea: “When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.” Forgive us, Rick Warren, for not treating you with enough respect. Forgive us for being a nation of too many gratuitous haters when you and your family are suffering profoundly from the suicide of your son, Matthew.
The suicide of Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, to a self-inflicted gunshot wound has created an unpleasant war of words in the blogosphere at a time when Warren, his family and his congregation need comfort. Warren, the head of the Saddleback Church and author of numerous spiritual bestsellers, including “The Purpose-Driven Life,” has been a lightening rod for critics who spurn his evangelism and find his faith shallow.
Matthew’s suicide, however, sparked a different type of nasty. A casual skim of comments to online articles has digressed to anti-gun legislation, homophobia, mental illness and the high-minded claim of hypocrisy. “I can guess correctly that Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life didn’t work on Junior. Or maybe that trying to ram it down his gullet caused him the mental illness.” Does it get any uglier?
Warren, whose prepared sermon for the Sunday after his son died was ironically entitled “Surviving Tough Times,” responded with wisdom and humility to this insipid barking in a Facebook post. “Grieving is hard. Grieving as public figures, harder. Grieving while haters celebrate your pain, hardest.”
The Los Angeles Times ran with the theme and is currently polling thousands on the question of whether or not public figures have a harder time than others mourning the loss of a family member. The survey misses the point. Warren just told you how hard it was for his family. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy left us with this observation. Let the Warren family be unhappy in its own way without the added burden of addressing heartless strangers.
Suicide generates a complex set of emotions for survivors: pathos, confusion, desperation, denial, resentment, delusion, longing. The list goes on. And because grieving for family and friends of a suicide is so ambiguous and complicated, it is not only the insensitive who need to be ignored. There are verbal consolations of the well-meaning that unintentionally cause hurt. It is no solace to explain an inexplicable death because it opens the wound more while not diminishing the looming question mark. Who are we to really know?
Then there is the “At least he…” meager comfort words followed by a certain age or life events/milestones that the person experienced. It does not matter ultimately because what the person has behind him is little compared to the potential of what was yet to come. The same is true for “at least she has found peace.” A grieving family would often give anything for one more day together, for the possibility of finding peace here and not through non-existence.
And while there is nothing one can say to bring back Matthew Warren, there is something to say to his despairing family in this moment of public vulnerability. Block out all the noise and all the hate and acknowledge the anger so that you can grieve properly and get to love. Comedian Bill Mahler quipped that, “Suicide is a way of saying to God, ‘You can’t fire me, I quit.’” But when someone quits unexpectedly – because every suicide even if it is anticipated is still a shock – family and friends experience anger. They feel guilty expressing it because anger can feel like another form of betrayal. “How can I be angry at someone who lived with so much pain?” You can be angry because someone who takes his own life has also taken a piece of yours. You can be angry over the moments you will not have together.
The philosopher C. G. Prado writes that although the person who takes a life – an elector – has usually made this decision after much agony, those on the receiving end may resent the conclusion. Matthew said as much to his father, as Warren reported in a letter to his staff last Saturday, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” He lived ten years beyond this but, even so, his family will never be the same. Many psychologists believe that grieving can only begin once the anger and confusion is properly articulated and understood. That’s harder to do when you’ve got the static of public cruelty.
Warren wrote to those in worship with him that he and his wife, Kaye, held their hands as they faced crisis and loss. They prayed with congregants and friends at gravesides and bedsides. “Today, we need your prayer for us,” he wrote.
Rick Warren, we pray for you and your family that you will be able to hold loving memories of your son, unblemished by the blight of our nation’s most thoughtless souls. If there can be a purpose-driven death, let it be Matthew’s. Let him teach us to love each other more, or at very least, to keep silent in respect and with dignity.
Erica Brown’s new book, “Celebrate life! Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” is now available on Amazon.