Two years ago, my partner Rene died from a fatal mental illness. You might call it suicide, but invariably that brings up judgment, shame, scorn and even blame.

Rene recognized that he had a mental illness: he suffered severe depression, often with overwhelming anxiety. Although we all think we have experienced depression and know ways to "snap out of it," his experience was deeper than any of his loved ones could comprehend. It was a soul-destroying depression that eliminated the core of his being bit by bit and appeared endless to him in its depth. That he could live with such an illness and still have bright, loving and tender moments until his last day is a testament to the human spirit.

He died in our home. Upon hearing that, many are aghast and blame him for being insensitive to me, the living. Others tell me they couldn't imagine living in the same house afterward. Yet if I said he died at home of terminal cancer, most people would respond, "How wonderful that he died where he was loved and comfortable."

Well Rene died from terminal disease in his home where he knew the person who loved him the strongest would find him and where he was most comfortable. He died in the home filled with the memories of his life and the ones that loved him.

Rene did not die from the lack of love or support from me or anyone else. "I know you love me and I love you," he'd say.  "But that cannot fix me."  It was hard to hear but, I had to let go of my thought that if he somehow tried harder he would get better. He tried, we tried everything that medicine, psychiatry, therapy and alternatives could throw at him. Unfortunately no one can know that a mental illness is terminal until the person dies.

The Buddha points out that all humans are born to age and die. Rene's death was nothing more, nothing less. He valiantly lived out his life and no one should judge how it ended. I was fortunate to bear witness to that life.

Now when I hear that someone has ended their life, I feel compassion for their death, knowing how difficult and misunderstood it likely was.

With a Perspective I'm Alan Lessik.

Alan Lessik is executive director of Civicorps, a high school and job training program for dropouts in Oakland. He lives in San Francisco.

  • Kimberly

    This perspective was wonderful! As someone who struggles with depression and has attempted suicide…I wish everyone would see or hear this. The comment, “He tried, we tried everything that medicine, psychiatry, therapy and alternatives could throw at him.” describes me and part of the world I have lived in. Somehow, I am happy now, fifteen years later and never forget, as I thankfully pop those happy pills everyday. Although I know the sadness may return, as in the beginning of those last fifteen years I was so fearful of that possibility. I don’t have that fear everyday anymore but it lingers in the back of my mind.
    Thanks for sharing Alan!

  • Gretchen

    Thank you so much Alan for sharing this perspective. The way you articulated how to view mental illness, especially severe depression was so helpful. I am so sorry for the loss of your partner but as you said very glad that he died in the exact place where he was loved so dearly – at home. My hope is that many people heard your perspective and have a more open mind on the view of suicide and that people who suffer so much really only want to end the very intense pain that they are in just like any other terminal disease. Thank you again.

  • Matt

    This was very helpful for me to hear in the wake of several local suicides here in Marin County. Thank you for sharing such a wise and compassionate view on the tragic reality of terminal mental illness. You are a brave and strong man.

  • Brian

    Like some of the other commentors here, I too have suffered for many years from depression and anxiety. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death I have been hoping someone would say exactly what Alan says so eloquently here. Thank you for this heartfelt truth.

  • Michael Mathews

    Thank you very much. I have been reading a lot since the news hit of Robin Williams and his struggle with depression. This is perhaps the best essay that I have seen so far. I am sorry for your loss, but I am very grateful that you shared your perspective.

    Several years ago, Robin Williams nearly died from a heart condition. Instead, he succumbed this week to the long term effects of depression.

  • DMIKEC

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

    Listening to this on the radio headed into work today, I was really moved. Something resonated, and I’m really glad they decided to broadcast this. There’s been a lot of garbage floating around since Monday, and I have to admit- even my own perspective on suicide was probably a little more callous than it needed to be. Listening to Mr. Lessik explain from the viewpoint of a survivor really opened my eyes and heart.

  • Aja

    I was very moved listening to this perspective this morning. Mr. Lessik’s words are so loving and compassionate.

  • Karen

    I cried when I heard this the first time… I thought of your perspective when I heard of Robin’s death. I was so glad they repeated it. I found your words full of insight. Thanks for sharing.

  • janice

    I feel enlightened and have the words and context to speak now. Thank you.

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