‘I can no longer cope with the loneliness. At this point the future could not look any blacker.... I kept thinking I could work my way out of this horrible depression that grips me, but I can’t do it. Please forgive me if I have hurt you....”
Minutes after writing these words, my mother brought her life to an end, sitting in her parked, running car until carbon monoxide overcame her. Fifty-two years old, widowed five years earlier, she had struggled with untreated depression throughout her adult life. She had first tried to kill herself at the age of 18; I remember two attempts in her 30s.
Given my mother’s history, her death was not terribly surprising. But still, it was a shock for me—her only child and then in my 20s—and for other family and friends. Suicide, and the mental illness that causes it, is devastating for survivors.
Although our experience is traumatic, it is increasingly common. As of 2010, more Americans die by suicide than in car accidents. Murder grabs more headlines than suicide, but every year, twice as many people in the United States kill themselves than are murdered. And the rising rate of suicide among young veterans is gaining attention as one of the human costs of recent wars. Every day, about 2 veterans under the age of 30 kill themselves, an increase of more than 40 percent between 2009 and 2011.
Despite the fact that suicide affects so many people, few of us are equipped to respond when we learn that someone we know has lost a loved one in this way. When my mother died, I was surprised by the number of people who, never having met her, passed judgment on the manner of her death. Many blamed her, asking, “How could she do that to you?” Others offered a quick affirmation of her “choice” to end her life “on her own terms.”
These responses were well meant, but as I struggled with conflicting emotions of grief, compassion and anger, both seemed too simple. More helpful were a quiet “I’m so sorry; I’ll pray for you,” or even an honest, “I don’t know what to say.” Occasionally someone would share that they, too, had lost a loved one to suicide. I always accepted that gift gratefully, in the spirit of mutual vulnerability in which it was offered. And I have passed it on. Whenever I meet someone who is grieving over a suicide, whether recent or long past, I always identify myself as someone who has also been affected by this difficult situation, to affirm that they are not alone.
A Complex Crisis
Experience has taught me that there is no easy way to puzzle through suicide’s sorrowful mystery. If we rush to judgment or grope helplessly for suitable words, it is because we are not equipped to confront the complexity of what is both a personal and a societal crisis.
Sadly, this is as true within the church as outside it. In the face of such a grave and desperate act, even members of the clergy are sometimes at a loss for words. Because I am an ordained person who is open about being a survivor of suicide, colleagues from a variety of churches often call me when this tragedy strikes their flock. They wonder how best to respond to the family and how to preach at the funeral. They do not want to repeat the errors of the past, when the church denied the possibility of God’s mercy following an act of suicide and refused to bury their bodies in consecrated ground. Nor do they want to ignore the anger and sense of betrayal that survivors often feel toward the loved one who has so suddenly and brutally torn their relationship.
Pastoral sensitivity is appropriate. But in the disorientation that accompanies a crisis, the church often underestimates what we have to offer, whether to our own family, our parish or the larger society. We can offer three things that the church already provides to the world every day: We tell the truth about the reality of human sin, and about God’s mercy embodied in Jesus Christ. We pray. And we offer compassionate presence.
We will not give comfort and hope to survivors of suicide by pretending that the act of physical self-annihilation is anything less than shocking. It is more faithful to affirm the truth as we know it. First, we can acknowledge that suicide is a sin. It violates God’s commandment not to kill, and it rips the web of relationships that sustains us all. And then we must be equally clear that suicide is usually a misguided attempt to end desperate suffering caused by mental illness or trauma: the kind of suffering that permeates my mother’s final note. Above all, we must affirm that God’s compassion is boundless, stretching far beyond human imagination.
As we proclaim Christian truth in the face of suicide, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a helpful resource. It notes that “voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law,” so that it is inappropriate for Christians to assist in suicide or what is euphemistically termed “euthanasia.” When someone takes his or her own life, however, “grave psychological disturbances” or other mitigating factors “can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” We no longer assume that persons who kill themselves are condemned to eternal separation from God. As the catechism puts it, “By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.” The salvation of all sinners—not just people who commit suicide, but each of us—is in God’s hands.
Healing by God’s Love
The hope that death would not have the final word over life seemed very distant when my mother died 20 years ago. Although I had been baptized as an infant, I had not attended church in years, and some old, unhealed wound had separated my mother from the Presbyterian church of her childhood. Whatever comfort she may have received from my father’s Catholic church when he died of cancer five years earlier had not drawn her into its fold. Unwilling to seek treatment for her depression—a paralysis that is itself a symptom of the disease—she lived at its mercy, like one possessed by a demon. At her death, the demon seemed to have won their long-raging battle.
But as I grieved, God’s power to bring life out of death became clear. He led me to faithful people who expressed the hope that the catechismdeclares. The first of those witnesses was a Baptist pastor, an acquaintance of my mother who offered to officiate at her funeral. Pastor Andrew modeled the skills that clergy hope to demonstrate in a crisis: compassionate and attentive listening, loving truthfulness and a deep ability to articulate his trust in the resurrection. Although I did not yet share that trust, Andrew and I agreed that it was important to be open about the circumstances of my mother’s death, both to help mourners sort through our complicated feelings and to raise awareness about depression’s fatal potential.
In his funeral address, Andrew told both the complex truth of my mother’s life—her generous self-giving nature and the dark moods that had made her lash out at others and herself—and the pure truth of God’s love. He reminded the congregation of the Christian hope, affirmed by Paul, that “neither death, nor life...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Andrew expressed his own trust that deadly depression was included in the ancient list of foes over which Christ would ultimately be victorious.
Andrew was not the only Christian truth-teller whose faith in God and compassion for fellow sinners, sustained me as I mourned. About a year after my mother’s death, I asked Father Ray, a Jesuit in my neighborhood, to say a Mass for her. He did not know me well and had never met my mother, but he immediately agreed. When I told him how she had died, his response was both practical and compassionate: “We all need prayer, and in this life our job is to pray and leave the rest up to God.”
The faith and kindness of those two faithful pastors nudged me toward the Gospel. For the first time since childhood, I began to pray, to attend church and to read Scripture. There, I discovered that all the pain and joy of the human story is contained in, and transformed by, the story of God’s love for us. In Psalm 88, the Bible’s most unrelentingly bleak prayer of lament, I found unexpected resonance with what I knew of my mother’s experience. The psalmist cries: “Why do you reject my soul, Lord,/ and hide your face from me?/ I have been mortally afflicted since youth;/ I have borne your terrors and I am made numb.” My mother’s suicide note unknowingly echoed this prayer and its final line, “My only friend is darkness.”
That heart-wrenching lament gave me a paradoxical hope. If Psalm 88 was included within the sacred stories of God’s loving dealings with humankind, I dared to hope that the Lord had heard my mother’s cries and those of others like her. Eventually, I learned to trust in him who had turned to the psalms as he died in agony—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and then had been raised.
Praying for Those Who Hurt
As I grew in faith, I began to pray daily for my parents and all the dead, especially those who had died by violence; and for all who were contemplating harming themselves or another. Several years ago, I learned that one of the Christians I most admire, Dorothy Day, had also prayed daily for those who commit suicide. Dorothy trusted the advice her own pastor had given her a year into her life as a Catholic, after a teenage friend had killed himself.
“There is no time with God,” Dorothy’s priest had said, “and all the prayers you will say in the future for this unhappy boy will have meant that God gave him the choice at the moment of death, to choose light instead of darkness, good, not evil, indeed the Supreme Good.” At that time, Dorothy had lost 10 friends to suicide. Those deaths, and her ever-present concern that people with nowhere to turn might seek a final exit from their despair, shaped Dorothy’s life of unceasing hospitality.
In my own small ways, I try to emulate her compassionate presence, listening to those who drop by my office, or stop me on a street corner, seeking a listening ear. Sometimes, being mindfully present to people in pain means asking the difficult, yet often liberating, question: “Have you been thinking about harming yourself?” A couple of times, I have called 911 and accompanied a suicidal person to the hospital. As I know from my mother’s experience, interrupting a suicide plan does not guarantee the person will live out their natural life. But I always pray that they will.
As I pray, and as I work with people in distress, I often think of Dorothy Day and her priest, and of Pastor Andrew and Father Ray. In their own ways, they embodied the hope that the church can offer to those who grieve, and to those who struggle to hold onto life. Each of them told the truth about the mental anguish that stalks so many, and about God’s love for us all. That is the first step both in the prevention of suicide and in the healing of those it already has hurt. Offering our prayers and presence is the next step, taken in the hope that all God’s beloved people will live life to the fullest with him and each other, in this world and the next.