Next month will mark the 15th anniversary of one of my “inner circle” friends, Evelina, who was a victim of suicide. At the time of her death I was consumed with guilt, thinking that as a trusted friend and minister I could have somehow saved her life if I would have just done a little more, been more attentive and present. Had I been a better listener…maybe…what if? I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate for anyone who has been touched by an experience of loss such as this.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser writes once a year on the topic of suicide and I remember his column being absolute balm to my soul that year we lost Evelina. It seems so many of our friends, family, young people and neighbors are struggling with depression these days, and with the holidays quickly approaching which tend to be a hard time for so many struggling with mental health issues and isolation, it seemed timely to share some quotes and paraphrasing of Fr. Ron’s comforting, wise words. (FYI: his columns are archived and available on his website at www.ronrolheiser.com.)
Suicide is the most misunderstood of all diseases. Suicide is a disease that takes people out of life against their will. It is the emotional equivalent of a heart attack. We tend to think that since suicide is self-inflicted that somehow it is a choice; voluntary and avoidable in a way that physical illness or accidents are not. For most suicides, this isn’t true. Suicide is a fatal emotional breakdown, an emotional stroke, emotional cancer – not something the victim chooses. The act that ended their lives was not a freely chosen one. They did not “kill themselves” out of arrogance or ego; they were a victim of a deadly illness, so there is no sin to be forgiven.
We have grown as Catholics in our understanding and response to the tragedy of suicide. A long time ago it was our practice to deny funeral rites and even burial in a Church cemetery to victims of suicide. I can’t imagine how this cruel practice compounded the already unbearable pain of family and friends suffering the loss of their loved one. Thankfully, mercifully, justly our Canon Law no longer lists suicide as an impediment to funeral rites or church burial. Spread the word – we Catholics undoubtedly move at glacier speed, but our doctrine, law and understanding of our faith does indeed change and grow, albeit painfully slow at times.
“Suicide is an illness not a sin. Nobody calmly decides to commit suicide and burden his or her loved ones with that death any more than anyone calmly decides to die of cancer. The victim of suicide (in all but rare cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots both in his or her emotions and in his or her bio-chemistry. Suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, akin to one throwing oneself through a window because one’s clothing is on fire.” (again, Rolheiser)
We need not worry about the eternal salvation of a suicide victim, believing (as we used to) that suicide is always an act of ultimate despair for which we are culpable. God is infinitely more understanding and merciful than we are and God’s hands are infinitely safer and more gentle than our own. We need not doubt for a second that those we have lost to suicide are in God’s strong and full embrace.
SPECIAL NOTE: For those among us who may be called to provide the initial help to someone showing symptoms of mental illness or a mental health crisis, Common Ground offers a Suicide & Crisis Lifeline – simply dial 988 (www.commongroundhelps.org). Oakland County also offers an AMAZING “Mental Health First Aid” training program, which is nation-wide (upcoming trainings can be viewed here: www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org). With enough interest we might even be able to hold a training day right here at CTR. The hope is that this kind of training would become as common place as CPR and Medical First Aid training and certification. Please be in touch if you feel God calling you to this important and urgent ministry.
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