One of the saddest stories of last week was the suicide of the Hannover and Germany goalkeeper, Robert Enke. It appears that after months of depression he threw himself under a train and put an end to his pain. The death of his two year old daughter three years ago caused him and his wife enormous grief, but people thought he had ‘got over it’. It appears that he was now afraid that his foster daughter would be taken away from him if his depression became public.
The German media reaction to Enke’s suicide has been very interesting, respectful and mature. Enke’s remarkable widow spoke about her loss and her husband’s fear of his depression becoming publicly known. His doctor, referring to the suicide note left behind, observed that Enke had resolved to end his life and had to keep his intention secret if he was to actually do the deed. Representatives of the German football association spoke about the problem of admitting ‘weakness’ in a sports world in which success and winning are everything. Oliver Bierhoff, the German national team manager, wept.
Depression is one thing; fear of talking about it is another. The depressed person has enough to cope with; it is the rest of us who create the conditions under which confession of ‘weakness’ is seen as impossible. OK, this might be particularly acute in a sports context, but anyone who has had any experience of depression or pastoral care of people suffering from depression (or their families) will know that depression is widely seen as a form of failure or weakness – especially in a society that worships strength, power, success, beauty and glamour.
Enke suffered in public silence. Wealth, fame, popularity and success were not enough to still the raging storms of his depression. His death is a tragedy at many levels, but it has rightly exposed an issue that demands attention – and not just in Germany.
Tomorrow there will be a huge memorial service in the Hannover Arena to celebrate Enke’s life and mourn his death. It will be a collective outpouring of grief, but it will also enable people to reflect on the nature of depression and the public perception of it. One German friend of mine (who works in media) commented yesterday that “there was nothing like it before in Germany”. It is a bit like the German ‘Diana moment’ – when the veneer of social ‘normality’ is stripped off and the raw humanity that we all hide so well gets brutally exposed.
No doubt the veneer will get coated back on as the days go by. But some vulnerabilities will have been exposed by Enke’s death, his widow’s grief and his national team manager’s tears.
Dr Margot Käßmann, the recently-elected leader of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (who is also the Bishop of Hannover), spoke at a service the day after Enke’s death. She quoted the Liverpool anthem You’ll never walk alone and then tackled the questions raised head on. But she began her address by quoting from Enke’s widow:
Wir haben gedacht, wir schaffen alles, und mit Liebe geht das. Aber man schafft es doch nicht immer. (We always thought we could manage, that love would get us through. But it doesn’t always work out.)
This is the reality. And it will hit hard those who live in fantasy land – who think that if you just get the ‘formula’ right, everything will work out OK. If we are to live in the real world, then we must listen to the grief as well as the joy, the tears as well as the laughter, the failures as well as the successes. And we must, perhaps, be more rigorous about what we consider to be ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in the first place.
This death will be of ‘interest’ in the UK, but only insofar as a foreign footballer has died young. Grief is always relative. But those of us who deal with depressed people or who love Germany will pause for longer and pray for those whose lives have been so deranged by this particular death.
Robert Enke RIP.