Losing a loved one to suicide is devastating and, although it leaves a person with guilt, regret and fear, there is reason for hope.
Suicide is a major issue in our world. According to the World Health Organization, almost 800,000 people die from suicide each year.[i] Large numbers tend to dilute the context,so let’s bring this one a little closer to home: when averaged out it equates to one life ending from suicide every 40 seconds.
In the time it takes for the average person to read one page of a book, two people will have taken their own lives.
Ours is a generation that doesn’t slow down for much, and – though suicide is a grave matter that can affect almost any one of us – unless it actually has touched us directly, we only ever broach the topic upon news of a high-profile person falling victim to it. This week two famous and beloved people allegedly took their own lives with, seemingly, no warning signs.
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were two very different people, each at the top of their respective profession, but something was tragically missing.
Absent of any notes left, we will never know why two people who appeared to have it all – the latest in a long line – felt like they had no other option but to end it all. The surviving family and friends will spend the rest of their lives trying to piece together clues from memories of their interactions with the person, particularly those encounters that were chronologically close to the event. More often than not, those clues will lead nowhere.
It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for friends or family to detect the impending suicide of a person who is truly vulnerable to it. The guidelines we have such as mood changes, certain behaviors and certain statements are helpful, but they are only guidelines.[ii]
Many times the warning signs that precede the actual suicide attempt either: manifest well in advance of the event and are brought under control by the person in order to prevent intervention by loved ones; or they come on so suddenly and lead to the act before anyone can acutely recognize the danger they indicate.
It is incredibly difficult to prevent a true suicide attempt but if we do stop it, there is hope. When the initial suicide attempt is unsuccessful – due either to third-party intervention or a failure in the attempt itself – only 10 percent of those victims will ultimately die by a subsequent attempt.[iii]
Following a suicide, surviving friends and family are often left with an overwhelming feeling of guilt over having “failed” their loved one in their greatest time of need. This is a fact I know far more intimately than I would like. But that guilt is both unwarranted and unproductive.
Unless the signs present themselves in an overtly conspicuous manner, it is virtually impossible for ordinary people to discern temporary changes in mood from true risk factors for suicide.
As with any other tragedy in life, we must do what we can to prevent others from slipping into the type of despair that leads to suicide, but it is not always within our power. There are many reasons for suicide.
For Catholics, the topic of suicide can be one of great confusion and – for those of us who have a loved one who has ended his or her own life – one of great fear and sorrow. For most of her existence, the Catholic Church forbade funeral Mass for someone confirmed to have committed suicide. This was not done arbitrarily. Rather, it was in recognition of the grave offense involved in taking one’s own life.
This was also a time where understanding of mental health issues was almost non-existent. Of course, anti-Catholics will use this argument to say that the Church should have known, as the Magisterium claims to be guided by the Holy Spirit. This is a valid point. However, we can neither understand nor control the timeline on which Our Lord reveals truths to us. We can only trust Him.
Although there are still those within the Catholic Church who preach condemnation of any and all victims of suicide, it must be proclaimed that those bullhorns are wrong.
Let there be no misunderstanding on this most serious topic: suicide is a grave sin, but not an unforgivable one. When we assert that we know the mind and heart of God, we misrepresent our faith. We must be clear about what we have been taught. It is only by living by and proclaiming the true teachings of Christ’s Church that we will make this world a little better for those who feel as though they can no longer bear to live in it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses suicide and its ramifications. We are each responsible to God for our own lives. We are not owners, but rather, stewards of that gift of life. We have a responsibility to treat all life, including our own, with the dignity and respect it deserves. [iv]
Suicide contradicts the laws of both God and nature. Suicide is an offense to God because it violates the Fifth Commandment, against killing. It is a rebuke of the precious gift of life given to the individual. Suicide is also a direct act against the most fundamental natural instinct present in all creatures, the will to live.
The Catechism does not, however, automatically condemn those who have committed suicide; instead, it offers hope. After all, none of us can truly understand the depths of despair that would lead someone to end their own life.
Those who take their own lives due to grave psychological disturbances, anguish or a fear of suffering or torture are relieved of the burden of the sin of the offense.[v] The vast majority of suicides we encounter would fall into these categories.
“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.” [vi]
As Catholics, we have a duty to give an honest account of the teachings of Our Lord as passed down from the Apostles through the Church. We must hold fast to what we believe, but we also must never allow those who are misguided to speak for us. Our duty is to love God and love our neighbor, and to do both we must ensure that all to whom we speak, hear the truth.
Nobody who has not experienced it first-hand can truly know what is in the heart and mind of a person who takes their own life. We also cannot condemn those who were closest to one who has done so. Nobody has power over the actions of another. The only power we truly have is in how we treat each other.
Even those who are surrounded by unbelievable amounts of love can fall victim to depression and sometimes it leads to suicide. We cannot do anything about that. The only thing we can do is try to shape our environment in a manner so as to offer help for those who need it. All we can truly do, is treat others with respect and with love.