We react with shock when we are told that someone we know has taken their own life. We wonder to ourselves why they “committed” suicide. We whisper to each other and use the word “committed” without even considering what that word means. We use the word committed in conjunction with the word suicide because we have been taught that a crime has been perpetrated. Even if we don’t hold such a belief, we thoughtlessly use the word because it is what has always been. Do any of us actually realize the pain that is inflicted on a family when we whisper the word committed and imply that the act is equal to a crime being perpetrated? We must as a society come to the realization that suicide demands more understanding despite the confusion surrounding such a death. We must reach out to those families with the same compassion and desire to embrace as any family suffering the loss of someone they love. We know that Christ would not shun a family suffering the loss of a loved one as the result of suicide, so why do we?
When I was 18 my friend Chucky was found in his dormitory room. He found his pain unbearable and was unable to find his way back from the darkness. I was there the night before and spoke to him through the locked door. He had stolen something from a senior and was now in trouble. I remember telling him it would be ok and that we would deal with it in the morning. I didn’t push the issue and he didn’t sound like a kid without hope. I found out in the morning that my friend died by suicide. Why didn’t I make him open the door? Why didn’t I call for Brother Rich? The whys were endless and I can still remember the gut wrenching feeling as we entered the parking lot of the church for his funeral, now over thirty years ago. Chuck was gone; he died because the pain of his life became unbearable. I remember vividly the questions from the adults and how they were asked. I didn’t understand why they were whispering and why they looked around when they asked their questions all of which included “why”.
When a person finds him or herself confronted by such desperation that the only solution is to end the pain through an act that will lead to one’s death, those of us who remain are left with questions and no answers. While the family struggles with questions and doubts, the rest of us begin asking why. As we ask our questions with the purpose of understanding why someone would “commit” suicide, we also take great pains to ensure no one in the family can hear us. We lean over at the wake or after the funeral and ask anyone who knew the deceased if they know why. We comment at the method and the where. We shutter when we find out who found the deceased. With a tone of condemnation we look at one another and ask rhetorically how they could have “committed” such a selfish act. A death from disease or an accident receives our sympathy but the news of someone’s suicide is often met with anger and/or indifference. Our lack of understanding of what leads to a suicide causes this lack of compassion for the deceased.
Suicide is the result of such mental anguish that the person who finds themselves at the precipice looking into the abyss is unable to turn around and step back. When a human being takes an action that is so contrary to the basic instinct of survival, the only answer that can be given is a complete breakdown in the ability to choose life over death. When death becomes the only option, can any of us really conclude that the choice was freely made?
I too was amongst those in our society who judged harshly those who I decided couldn’t handle it and chose to “commit” suicide. I remember how judgmental I was when I was told that Chucky had died. I recall thinking how senseless it was for him to kill himself over a silly situation. I came to understand that his anguish must have been much deeper than the situation at hand and I became less judgmental over the years, but it wasn’t until a conversation I had with frustrated and almost angry Carol Loehr that I began my journey of awareness. Despite the fact that my conversation with Carol was over ten years ago, when I stepped into my new position at the Catholic Cemeteries a few years ago, my attention was directed to the issue of suicide and a renewal of our efforts to be proactive in our approach to families suffering from such a loss. I now know the difference between the words “committed suicide” and “died by suicide”.
We must all strive to be more aware of the burden carried by families when someone they love dies by suicide. We need only turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for guidance in these matters. It is well established that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing (dying as a result of) suicide.” The Catholic Church further teaches that “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” It has been nearly thirty years since Pope John Paul II changed the teachings of the Catholic Church in matters of suicide and opened the door to a new thinking about the person who finds themselves without a true choice.
While the Catholic Church has changed and ushered in a new perspective, we as a society must also accept that a death due to a suicide is not a selfish act but is the result of a person’s inability to find their way back from the anguish that causes them to see only one way out. As a Catholic, I believe in a God whose mercy is without limit; a God who will not judge harshly all of us sinners on the day when we will be called to account for the life we lived.
With this in mind we pray:
God, lover of souls,
you hold dear what you have made
and spare all things, for they are yours.
Look gently on your servant,
and by the blood of the cross
forgive his sins and failings.
Remember the faith of those who mourn
and satisfy their longing for that day
when all will be made new again
in Christ, our risen Lord,
who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.
Order of Christian Funerals, Prayers for the Dead, no. 398.44, for one who died by suicide.
Remember, a family always wants to hear a nice memory you may have of the one they love. Don’t be afraid to tell them that story that makes you smile.
Andrej N. Lah
Director, Catholic Cemeteries Association
Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio