Forget mystery of suicides, heal their survivors

DAN RODRICKS

August 26, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

We can agree on at least one thing about suicide: It is not expected to be the death of the strong.

If the weak, the depressed, the lonely, the desperately sick take their own lives, then death bears far less mystery. But when the rocks among us crumble, we're confused, even frightened. We grasp for answers, and the effort can be likened to trying to hold mist in our hands.

"He was the Rock of Gibraltar while others were having trouble," said a sorrowful Bill Clinton after his longtime friend and trusted deputy White House counsel, Vincent Foster, killed himself. "I can't remember the reverse ever being true. What happened was a mystery inside him."

But, unwilling to concede that mysteries can occur anywhere in human activity, gumshoes of the American press were determined to find the "reason" for Vincent Foster's suicide. As recently as Sunday, the prestigious New York Times again decked out its front page with another Foster story. It added little to the picture.

When, a few weeks ago, Foster's ripped-up suicide note was made public, the press ascribed to the note's dark ruminations a rationality no suicidal person deserved, and this was done in the supposedly noble hope of establishing the "real" cause of death and satisfying the public's right to know.

"It's rubbernecking, that's all," a Baltimore psychologist said.

Though Foster was a public official, at some point the prying into his death became an invasion of privacy. I'm not sure the news media ever understood what they were dealing with. This was not the Watergate scandal. This was a man's -- then a family's -- private despair.

For me, what was important (though not at all mystifying) about the Foster death was the incongruity of a strong man -- a Rock of Gibraltar -- turning to the gun instead of to others for the answer to his pain. This must be why the parishioners of the Rev. Thomas W. Smith find his recent suicide so perplexing.

"Today I do not stand before you to try and understand why," the Rev. John Dietzenbach, associate pastor of St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church in Bradshaw, Baltimore County, said during his homily at Father Smith's funeral yesterday. Later, he said, "A poor judgment in a moment of despair cannot replace a lifetime of love and service."

Rather than try to hold the mist in his hand, Father Dietzenbach tried to heal the survivors with memories of their beloved pastor. He did this with humor, charm, grace and profound sincerity, as if he were eulogizing his own father.

"Hope, endurance, strength and compassion" were some of the words Father Dietzenbach used to describe Father Smith.

"He was our rock. He was strong and determined."

He guided parishioners through deaths in the family, through divorce, through the loss of jobs. He gave them money and clothes, helped with tuition and medical bills. Just last week, Father Smith had blessed a baby scheduled for heart surgery.

"He was our pillar," the younger priest told a large assemblage that included many priests and nuns, the bishops and archbishop of Baltimore.

Father Smith had spoken often of the need to help "our brother priests," Father Dietzenbach said. And he practiced what he preached, visiting them when they were sick or emotionally needy.

"I wish he would have been more open and let others reach out to him in his need," the younger priest said sadly.

And therein was a lesson of Father Smith's death, and probably the lesson in Vincent Foster's death. There are no Iron Johns. Men who answer the call to stand up in life and become pillars -- for their friends, for entire communities of people -- ignore the cracks within themselves at great personal peril. And those who take on great burdens and responsibilities cannot be assumed to be self-nourishing and self-preserving. No man is a rock. All men need their brothers and sisters.

The people at yesterday's funeral understood this to be the lesson in the mist for, when Father Dietzenbach finished detailing all the good things Father Smith had accomplished before his fatal moment of despair, the people at the funeral responded in a way I have never seen people in a Catholic church respond. They applauded the younger priest, robustly.

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