A new purpose: to find hope

Rick Warren, author of the mega-hit The Purpose Driven Life, has lost his son to depression. This is an open letter from another parent who has also lost a beloved son to “this terrible disease”.

To Rick Warren and family

Words cannot begin to express the sorrow I have felt when I read of your son’s death.

It is not for a lack of trying to find the right words.

It is because there are no words, in any language, that can express the grief of losing a child. Added to that, the grief of losing a child to “this terrible disease”, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her last letter to her husband before “this terrible disease” also claimed her life.

Parents who have lost a child are the bravest people in the world. To have to carry on living when you have lost your own self. Those who have lost a child to depression, are the bravest of all.

Psychologists speak of “compounded grief” in cases such as these: grief experienced layer, upon layer, upon merciless layer of sorrow; pounding into every nerve and every cell; compounding itself into heart, body, every fibre, every corner of the soul.

And, the truth is, there is no cure for this grief. Even time is not merciful. Because even though I know I am already so many years, so many months, so many weeks, hours, minutes, and seconds, away from that moment when that which was Life was shattered into a million pieces, I can still feel your sorrow as if our loss also occurred just days ago.

I know the desolation, and destitution, you feel at this moment. The utter despair, the total disbelief. The emotional and physical paralysis.

I know how distant from everything and everyone you feel right now, as if on another planet, in another galaxy, thousands of light – dark – years away from everything that was. Breathless, lifeless. How can one survive when you have lost your own being?

I want you to know that all of us who are on this journey, feel your pain in every fibre in body and being. Even though I know you are surrounded by caring and loving fellow human beings, who so want to make your pain less, there is nothing that can lessen this pain. You have to face the eye of the storm.

Our beloved son, indeed, even had your book, Rick, on his bookshelf. A Purpose Driven Life. How hard he tried to find purpose in a life where his illness threw him on a totally bewildering, frightening, new trajectory. We cannot begin to understand how this terrifying illness alienates someone from life, in such a way, that it devours the primitive instinct to survive.

And how helpless we were. How we could not save our beloved children from their terrible disease.

Your son’s description could also be that of ours: caring, loving, compassionate. Our son was a brilliant student, in the fourth year of his studies to become a medical doctor, the only thing he ever wanted to be. To heal others, to make them better. His life’s motto: Practise kindness. And yet, his chosen profession, medicine, could not save his life.

And we that are left behind.

The bereaved, the robbed, for not only were our loved ones robbed from their lives, their illness robbed them from us, in the most tragic way. And we are left to make sense of something that just does not make any sense at all.

There are no words to use as balm for the gaping wounds in our hearts, our bodies, our souls.

There is no easy Grief 101, apply this and this and this, follow these steps, and you will learn to live with this loss. You would know, from your work as carers in your huge faith community, that sorrow cannot be cured with a formula.

Grief is hard work.

Grief becomes a life’s work.

There is only the long way round.

How to find new purpose in life, then, when we thought we have reached that point, blessed with mercy and goodness; knew which purpose we had, and that we have used our talents and energy to live those purposes.

Yet now also you have been catapulted onto a new journey; having to find new purpose.

And I hope a part of that new purpose is to help society understand this psychological illness with a biological cause. Because just as you, who have given purpose to others, could not save your son from a physical illness, just as much could you not save your son from his psychological illness as it developed to a fatal stage without you knowing.

After our years, and months, and weeks, and days, and hours, and minutes, and terribly, agonisingly, slow seconds... I am still trying to understand that to honour the lives of our beloved children, and all of those who were victims of this terrible disease, we need to help society to think in a new way, along a new paradigm, to make a total mind shift, about this illness which we still cannot grasp. We should help society to liberate itself from centuries’ old religious and cultural dogma, from eras where biological illnesses such as mental illnesses could not be researched, and thus not understood.

And therefore, please, do not let the unthinking words of others hurt you; those who think they are in a position to judge, who are merciless, and uncompassionate, and inhumane, and, yes, unchristian, in their judgment of those who have died of a severe, terminal, fatal illness.

We should help society to learn to understand that there is no health without mental health. Unesco’s World Health Organisation predicts that depression, specifically, as only one of all the various mental illnesses, will be the second biggest illness by 2020, and the biggest by 2030. Currently it is the third biggest. And we should help society understand that it is not a wilful act to end one’s life. It is the result of a biological illness. Indeed, something that can be compared to a psychological stroke.

And we can, and must, break the silence, and the stigma, around this illness, so that we can speak openly about the disease; so that sufferers can seek help at an earlier stage; so that medical and therapeutic intervention can begin earlier; so that more lives can be saved. So that those whose depression will be a chronic illness, can live a quality life, managing their illness as others manage their diabetes or heart disease – and help them prevent the illness to develop to a terminal stage. More victors, fewer victims.

We can start by bringing about a change in how we think and speak and write about the disease and those who have lost their lives to the disease. To begin with, not by saying they have committed suicide. That implies a rational decision, a wilful act. Their brains were biologically, physically ill, with life supporting neurotransmitters that were totally absent. Their illness developed into a fatal, terminal stage where humankind’s most important organ, the brain, was not capable to sustain life anymore. A biologically, terminally, fatally, ill brain. Not a healthy brain capable of an act of volition.

Therefore, let’s then begin to say that someone has died of suicide, not that he committed suicide. Or the most humane: by acknowledging the illness that robbed him of his life: that he has died of depression. Like someone else has died of cancer.

That way we honour the indescribable psychological suffering of all those who have lost their lives to depression. That way we honour their memory; we acknowledge “this terrible disease”; and we destigmatise and decriminalise the victim of human kind’s worst disease. Because they are not “sinners”, on a moral level, nor are they “criminals”, on a legal level. They have lost their lives to “this terrible disease” – the worst, the one that robs one of the instinct to live.

Those of us who have lost our loved ones to this terrible disease can only say we feel with you. We send you compassion, and love, and peace, and we can only ask you to be gentle with yourselves. You are embraced by those who are fellow-travellers on this journey of loss, this community of the bereaved, who send you that one element which no one can take from you, in the words of Emily Dickinson: the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all: HOPE.

Yours in sorrow, and in compassion


Lizette Rabe is professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University. She has lost a son to depression and is patron of You and Huisgenoot’s Depression Support Group on Facebook She has founded Ithemba to raise awareness of depression as biological illness, and to raise funds for depression research. Ithemba means hope in isiXhosa. You, Huisgenoot and Drum will host the Hope Hike later this year to break the silence and make a difference – more details will follow later. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, you can go to www.survivorsofsuicide.org.za, a cyber retreat for the bereaved.

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