A Suicide In The Family

handsI’m a child of suicide. More accurately, I’m a grandchild of suicide. My dad’s father killed himself almost 20 years before I was born. His suicide changed my family. My father never spoke about it to my mother or to us kids. My mom had been close to her father-in-law but his suicide came as a shock to her as well. A quiet man by nature, my grandfather seemed to have given no indication of what he was going through or thinking about. One spring night he went into the bathroom and shot himself. My mom and dad and oldest brother were living next door at the time. My dad was just 29 years old. Years later, when I was 7 or 8 years old, my mom tried to explain it to me. But my dad would never talk about it. The few times I tried bringing it up with him, he’d change the subject or leave the room. After a while, I stopped asking. It was the silent, gaping wound of my family.

I remember looking at photos of my grandfather and trying to see in his eyes if they might hold any secrets. Did he look unhappy? No. Did he look crazy or depressed or out of control. Nope. He looked like my father. Maybe that was the most disturbing thing of all. If my grandfather had killed himself might my own dad someday make that same choice? Thankfully that didn’t happen and my dad lived well into his eighties enjoying his kids, grandkids and great-grandchildren. But I wonder if he’d been a different sort of husband and father if his life hadn’t been changed forever by his dad’s suicide.

We know that murder is gravely sinful (Exodus 20:13). Our understanding of suicide is not so black and white, though. We know that there can be mitigating factors in the sinfulness of suicide. Mental illness, substance abuse, loneliness, financial hardship or serious illness can all call the willfulness of the action into question. The Catholic Church teaches that, even in suicide, we must always trust in the mercy of God. “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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2283). God’s love reaches out to those despairing of hope and embraces them in their pain.

And He embraces the survivors as well. The wives and sons, the sisters and daughters and friends who are left behind, trying to understand what’s happened. Suicide is never just between the person and the Lord. Like all our existence, we are connected in ways we can’t imagine. Suicide wounds families in dozens of ways, for generations. In some cases, survivors may be ashamed to talk with their pastor about a family member’s suicide. They may believe that suicide condemns a person to hell. Or that someone who has taken their own life will be denied a funeral Mass. These are not the teachings of the Catholic Church. If you’ve lost someone to suicide, talk to your pastor. He may also suggest that you speak with a spiritual director with experience in suicide survivors. Most importantly, cling to Christ. Nothing, not even suicide, can separate Him from His children. Trust in His divine mercy and pray for your loved one every day. Believe in His great love, even if you’re never able to understand why someone you loved chose to take their own life. Know that at the moment of their deepest despairing, Jesus was there with them. They didn’t die alone. They didn’t die outside of God’s love. Suicide leaves the survivors with questions that may never be answered in this life. Our faith is in Christ and He holds the answers for us. And we are called to forgive our lost loved one. We do this through embracing God’s great love and trusting always in Him for our peace. We know that God meets each one of us as we pass from this life, no matter the circumstance. He is Mercy.

                                                                “By His stripes we are healed.”
                                                                             —Isaiah 53:4-5


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Lynn Bridenstine
    Jun 16, 2013 @ 21:23:34

    Great article. And sorely needed. There is still so much stigma associated with suicide & mental illness.


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