suicide

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

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.

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Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

This week’s “Crossroads” podcast about the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson (click here to tune that in) was not business as usual. Here is my original GetReligion post on this topic: “Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all.”

For me, this topic got personal really quick.

First, there was the subject of depression and suicide. Anyone who has wrestled with depression (or has had loved ones face that darkness) knows that, at times, people swim in what seems like an ocean of irrational feelings and impulses.

My senior year of high school was like that. Several times I kind of came to my senses and would not know how I got to where I was — usually the classical music section of the main Port Arthur, Texas, music store. I still cannot hear the second movement of Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), without shuddering. There are memories there (cue at 8:46 and hang on).

I am sure that whatever I experienced was only a glimpse of what Wilson faced. It’s amazing to me that he preached on these topics and bravely took on the task — the calling — of helping others. Wilson said that he wanted God to show him a purpose for his life. He had to know that answering the call involved risk.

Also, then there was the timing of this week’s tragedy. Yes, this unfolded hours just before Suicide Awareness Day. And then came the anniversary of Sept. 11.

I found myself thinking about Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar who served as a chaplain for New York City firefighters. He ran into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with the first responders. When the South Tower fell, firefighters discovered that the 69-year-old priest had collapsed. His heart gave out. Firefighters carried his body out of the rubble and placed at the altar of the nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Then the firefighters went back to work.

This priest had to know that there was risk involved in running into that last fire. But that was part of his calling. At his funeral, his friend Father Michael Duffy said this in the sermon:

Mychal Judge's body was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number '1' on the top. Of the thousands of people who perished in that terrible holocaust, why was Mychal Judge number one? And I think I know the reason. Mychal's goal and purpose in life was to bring the firemen to the point of death so they would be ready to meet their maker.

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Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Did you need more evidence that we live (and strive to do good journalism) in a broken world?

Did you need a reminder that any journalist who works on the religion-news beat needs to dig into a dictionary and learn the meaning of this theological term — “theodicy.”

The death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson unfolded on social media, with shock waves ripping through the digital ties that bind (including in newsrooms). He had worked to bring comfort to those suffering with mental-health issues — while being candid about his own life. Wilson reminded those struggling with suicidal thoughts that they were not alone and that God knew their pain.

This gifted preacher — married, with two young children — knew that and believed it. But something snapped, anyway.

Here’s the top of the team-written Religion News Service report about this tragedy which, hopefully, will shape the mainstream coverage of that will follow.

(RNS) — Jarrid Wilson, a California church leader, author and mental health advocate, died by suicide Monday evening (Sept. 9) at age 30.

Wilson, known as a passionate preacher, most recently was an associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. A co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, Wilson was open about his own depression, often posting on his social media accounts about his battles with the mental illness.

“At a time like this, there are just no words,” said Harvest Senior Pastor Greg Laurie in a statement.

But there were words with which to wrestle — from Wilson, on the day he took his own life.

What journalist would imagine details more symbolic than these?

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Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Hey GetReligion readers: Do we have any shock rock music fans out there?

When it comes to music, I am really a fanatic about a wide range of artists — pretty much everything except highly commercialized country, dance music (various kinds with one chord over and over) and most opera. However, I never really got into the whole glam-shock rock genre.

But it’s hard not to know the name Alice Cooper. What a long, strange road that guy has walked.

So what does this have to do with religion-news coverage? If you have read anything about Cooper in the past quarter century of so, you know that — strange as if may sound — he is a born-again evangelical Christian and very vocal about it. He’s an avid golfer, too. Those two facts may not be connected.

Anyway, a GetReligion reader recently spotted this dramatic headline at USA Today: “Alice Cooper clarifies story about 'death pact' with wife Sheryl Goddard: 'We have a LIFE pact'.

So what is this all about? Here’s the top of this short entertainment-beat story:

Alice Cooper would like to clear things up: He and wife Sheryl Goddard don't actually have a death pact.

"We have a LIFE pact. We love life so much," the 71-year-old rocker told USA TODAY in a statement.

Cooper made many a headline over the weekend following an article in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror that quotes him as saying he and his wife plan "to go together" when one of them dies, because there's "no way of surviving without each other."

"What I was meaning was that because we're almost always together, at home and on the road, that if something did happen to either of us, we'd most likely be together at the time," Cooper added to USA TODAY. "But neither of us has a suicide pact. We have a life pact."

OK, we will come back to that Daily Mirror story.

However, something important seems to be missing here, even in the short USA Today report.

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'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

 'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person-voice (“ … as I drove down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that …”) visits with celebrities.

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

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A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

Certainly, not every national story out of Utah has to include mention of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But given the LDS church’s strong influence in the Beehive State, that faith connection is highly relevant in many cases.

Take the Wall Street Journal’s recent front-page on a string of teen suicides in Herriman, Utah.

Based on the Journal’s powerful lede, it’s not immediately clear whether religion is a crucial factor — or a factor at all:

HERRIMAN, Utah — Eight months to the day after his only son, Chandler, killed himself, Kurt Voutaz was in his kitchen eating lunch.

He and his wife, Catherine, had long since ripped the blood-soaked carpet out of Chandler's bedroom and cleaned the walls and ceiling. It was warm for February, and they had taken the snow tires off the car. They were hoping winter was over.

Suddenly, a police car sped across a footpath in the park behind their house. A couple of teenagers were standing nearby, shouting.

Mr. Voutaz stepped outside to see what was going on. He quickly wished he hadn't. Just a few yards from his house, a body was lying on the ground. It was Chandler's friend, Cooper Nagy. Like Chandler, he had shot himself.

Cooper was the fourth high-school student from Herriman to die by suicide since Chandler's death in June of 2017. Two more would kill themselves by May of 2018, bringing the total to six in less than a year, plus at least one recent graduate.

Keep reading, and the story provides the nut graf — noting that the nation’s suicide rate is rising and that “suicide clusters” involving multiple deaths and almost always adolescents hit roughly five U.S. communities per year.

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Friday Five: Pastor suicide, religion of Congress, Catholic sex wars, frugal philanthropist, cow holiday

Friday Five: Pastor suicide, religion of Congress, Catholic sex wars, frugal philanthropist, cow holiday

I missed this incredible story in the midst of celebrating Christmas.

A few days before the holiday, the Los Angeles Times published Hailey Branson-Potts’ compelling and important piece on a young pastor who preached about depression then killed himself a few days later.

Speaking of the Los Angeles Times, that paper has been boosting its staff since its $500 million purchase last summer by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who has voiced a desire to compete with the Washington Post and the New York Times.

As far as I know, the Los Angeles Times hasn’t hired a full-time religion writer as part of its revival, but that would be a tremendous step, right? Who wants to organize the petition?

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Congress is getting more diverse, but it’s still dominated by Christians, according to a Pew Research Center study cited by CNN’s Daniel Burke, Religion News Service’s Jack Jenkins, the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas, NPR’s Tom Gjelten and others.

In related news, the Washington Post — in a story produced by Godbeat pros Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer, along with Marisa Iati reported on the swearing in of the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen.

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Friday Five: New NYT religion writer, Illinois priest abusers, suicide homily, Godbeat on YouTube

Friday Five: New NYT religion writer, Illinois priest abusers, suicide homily, Godbeat on YouTube

In case you missed it on social media, there’s big news this week concerning the Godbeat at The New York Times.

Laurie Goodstein, who since 1997 has — as a newsroom press release put it — “owned the religion beat at The Times, covering it with smarts, passion and a commitment to accountability and understanding,” is taking on a new role. She’ll become a deputy international editor.

The name of Goodstein’s successor will be familiar to regular GetReligion readers: It’s Elizabeth Dias, whose stories we have praised often.

My first reaction to that news was, “Isn’t Dias already a Times religion writer?” But actually, her previous title was faith and values correspondent, focused on the religion angle of politics.

Congratulations to both Goodstein and Dias!

Who will move into the faith and values correspondent role? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

Congratulations to both Goodstein and Dias!

Who will move into the faith and values correspondent role? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

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Concerning that priest's offensive funeral remarks on suicide, it's true that what he actually said matters

Concerning that priest's offensive funeral remarks on suicide, it's true that what he actually said matters

Thank you, GetReligion readers, for pointing out something I missed!

I wrote Monday about the viral USA Today story on a priest’s jarring homily after a teen died by suicide.

My main journalistic point was that the Catholic Church’s actual beliefs concerning suicide should have been an important part of the story. However, I was so focused on that point that I failed to notice something else that is equally crucial.

That is, USA Today relied on the teen’s parents and other sources to characterize what the priest said. Granted, those critics included the Archdiocese of Detroit.

But still, didn’t the paper’s audience deserve to hear directly from the priest’s homily?

Thomas Szyszkiewicz, a veteran of Catholic media, and others made that point in comments on my original post.

From Szyszkiewicz:

Here's a link to Father LaCuesta's homily: http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2018/images/12/16/father.lacuesta.homily.maison.hullibarger.funeral.pdf

That the parents took it as saying their son was a sinner is a sign that they have not heard the basic Gospel message in church for a long time -- because we are all sinners. But if you read this homily directly, then you see that he told the truth about what suicide is and then told them that they can entrust themselves and their son to God's mercy. In fact, I believe he seriously misinterpreted that famous passage from Romans 8 ("What can separate us from the love of Christ?") but he did so favoring the mercy of God for their son. That the parents thought they could tell the priest what he could preach on is really presumptuous and that USA Today didn't challenge the parents on why they thought they could tell the priest what to preach on is ridiculous.

The great canon lawyer Ed Peters writes about this here: https://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/god-bless-fr-lacuesta/

This is not a situation that any priest wants to be in, but telling the family all fluff and puff isn't doing them any great service and Father LaCuesta seems to have told the truth on many levels. Too bad USA Today didn't see it that way.

Certainly, Szyszkiewicz’s opinions on the content of the priest’s homily and the parents’ response to it are just that — his opinions.

But it’s also true that what the priest actually said is highly relevant to news coverage.

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