Vantage Point

Reflections on Tragedy

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The recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef and author Anthony Bourdain shocked many of us and made us ponder why they chose to end their lives. Of course, suicide is always troubling news whether the victim is famous or not. But some celebrities make us feel as though we have a connection to them, especially if we see them on television or enjoy their products. Their tragic deaths affect us.

Kate Spade seemed to me to be an unlikely candidate for suicide. In her 30s she scored an impressive success when she could not find a handbag she liked and decided to design her own. The stylish nylon bags she produced became wildly popular, even among celebrities, and her company went on to design and sell clothing, accessories and home furnishings. Her success made her and her husband—her business partner—a wealthy couple.

I never owned a Kate Spade bag; my purchases from her brand were modest: small notebooks, kitchen items, a tote bag, a phone case, a thermal mug. But I love her designs, which are colorful, lighthearted and whimsical, with a touch of city sophistication. One of the notebooks I bought had a cover illustration of a bookcase that represented for me the kind of cheerful, quirky, haphazard arrangement of books and treasures that I wanted to copy in my new apartment. I even sliced off the notebook cover and framed it as a reminder of the look that I promised myself I’d achieve.

When I heard the news of the suicide, I was stunned. Ms. Spade’s work had brought me joy, and her designs were so delightful that it seemed only a happy heart could have imagined them. What could have gone so wrong for a woman who seemed to have done everything right? Then came the reports about personal problems, anxiety and depression over many years.

I don’t judge Kate Spade or her family or friends—I have only sympathy for her and them. But what a tragedy that no one could reach her mind and heart and prevent her from taking her own life.

I imagine that many people are thinking what I’m thinking: What can we do to prevent suicide? What signs of a possible suicide do we need to be aware of? Answers to those questions can be found on numerous websites and at the public library. Extensive information is available from suicide-prevention organizations. I did a little bit of research and picked up a lot of information.

Experts advise speaking up when someone appears so depressed that he or she might commit suicide. Talk with the person, express concern and listen attentively. Avoid shallow reassurances that things will improve, and don’t suggest things to do. Instead, let the suffering person know that he or she is not alone and that you will help them to find the assistance they need. Call a crisis hotline or a crisis counselor, doctor, or other professional. Don’t leave a suicidal person alone.

I also found information that I hadn’t expected, but it did not surprise me: Religious faith is associated with a lower risk of suicide. An article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times two years ago presented results of a study of suicide rates among American women, mostly Catholics and Protestants. The study found that women who attended religious services once a week were five times less likely to commit suicide in the period studied: 1996-2010. The lowest suicide rate was among the 6,999 Catholic women in the study who said they attended Mass more than once a week; not one committed suicide. The study also cited the benefits of attending services as a way of connecting with others and diminishing loneliness.

Faith, of course, is far more than a preventive against harming oneself. But it can indeed help the believer to forge powerful ties to God and others that bring joy in good times and strength to weather difficult times.

It can also move us to pray for the repose of the souls of those who, likely through no fault of their own, took their own lives. May they find in God’s mercy the peace they had sought.

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