After Suicide: 5 Things Catholics Need to Know

Many people live with the pain of losing a loved one to suicide. I rarely go a week without receiving a letter, email, or phone call from someone who has just lost a family member to suicide. In virtually all cases, there is great disappointment that there is not much material available, religious or secular, to help comfort their loss. Those who remain in this world seek a breath, a human and theological consolation.

When someone close to us dies by suicide, we live with grief that leads to confusion (“Why?”), guilt (“Could we have done something about it?”), wrong conclusions (“That was a desperate act of pain”) and, if we are believers, there is also a deep religious anxiety (“How will God see this person? What will be his eternal destiny?”).

Here are five points about suicide to help you navigate this issue.

1. Suicide is a disease.

We are body and soul. Both can break. We can die of cancer, high blood pressure, heart attack, aneurysms. These are physical illnesses. But we can also suffer them in the soul. There are diseases and aneurysms of the heart, fatal wounds from which the soul does not recover. In most cases, suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack. Like any terminal illness, suicide takes a person’s life against their will. Death is not freely chosen, but is a disease, far from being an act of free will. In most cases, suicide is a desperate attempt to end excruciating pain, much like a man throwing himself out of a window because his clothes are on fire.

Also, something that still needs to be explored further is the possible role that biochemistry plays in suicide. Since some suicidal depressions are treatable with medication, it is clear that some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, just like many other diseases that kill us.

2. Suicide is a tragedy, not an act of despair.

For centuries, suicide was regarded as an act of despair, and despair itself was viewed as the gravest sin of all—ultimately, unforgivable. Sadly, many people in the church still view suicide as an act of desperation and an unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. But this is a wrong conclusion. Suicide is not an act that cannot be forgiven. Suicide as an act of despair is not what the Christian Churches, and certainly not the Roman Catholic Church, believe or teach.

In most cases, the person taking their own life is not doing so as an insult or an affront to God or to life (because that would require strength and suicide is generally the antithesis of that). What happens in most suicides is the polar opposite. Suicide is the result of a gigantic defeat.

There is a powerful scene in the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. A young woman, Fantina, lies dying. She recounts that she was once young, full of dreams, but now exhausted by a lifetime of poverty, heartbroken and weakened by her physical illnesses, she feels defeated and has to submit to the sad fact that “there are storms that don’t come.” we can win”.

Whatever the reasons, be it mental illness or an endless variety of soul-shattering problems, there is a point, a moment in people’s lives that defeats them, consumes them, and makes them unable to carry on with their own lives—whatever. Same goes for a victim of drought, hurricane, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s. There is no sin in being consumed, overcome, by a terrible storm.

Pain can consume us and some people succumb to this pain, but this is not an act of desperation (which is an act of free will and strength.

3. We can love someone and still not be able to save them from death.

There is a misconception about suicide that is expressed in second guesses: If only I had done more! If only I had been more vigilant, this could have been avoided.

Most of the time we weren’t there when our loved one died for the same reason that they didn’t want us there. He or she chose the time and place precisely with our absence in mind. Suicide is a disease that chooses its victim precisely in such a way as to exclude others and their care. That is the point of origin of the disease.

Those of us left behind should not question whether we failed our loved one, what we should have realized, and what could have been done to prevent suicide. Suicide is a disease and as with a physical disease, we can love someone and still not be able to save them from death. God also loved this person and, like us, could not interfere with his freedom.

This, of course, should never be an excuse for insensitivity toward those around us suffering from depression, but it is a healthy check against false guilt and anxious doubt. Many of us have experienced the death of a loved one. We felt helpless because we couldn’t prevent him from dying. That person passed away, despite our care, prayers, and efforts to help.

So too, at least in general, with those who die by suicide. Our love, attention and presence could not prevent them from dying, despite our will and efforts to the contrary.

4. There is a big distinction between being a victim of suicide and taking your own life

I receive many negative letters every year suggesting that I am making light of suicide and the stigma attached to it, and thereby making it easier for people to carry it out: Wasn’t G.K. Chesterton who said that by depriving yourself of life you insult all the flowers on earth? But in most cases, a person commits suicide against their will.

Many of us know loved ones who committed suicide and we know that in most cases that person was not selfish, narcissistic, proud, insensitive and inflexible and that because of their pride they refuse to take their place in this very imperfect world. Usually it is the opposite. The person who commits suicide has deep problems precisely because they feel hurt, vulnerable and fragile to have enough character to face life.

I remember a comment I once heard at a funeral. We had just buried a young man who, afflicted with clinical depression, had committed suicide. The priest had preached improperly, implying that this suicide was somehow the man’s fault and that suicide was always the last act of despair. At the reception, a neighbor of the man who died came up and expressed his disgust at the priest’s statements: “There are many people in the world who should take their own lives, but they never will! But this man is the last person who should have been killed; He was the most sensitive person I have ever met!” This seems very true to me.

Taking your own life is something else entirely. This is how some of the “Hitlers” leave this life. Hitler, in fact, took his own life. It is an act of pride to save himself. In such a case, the person is not too sensitive, modest and is not suffering. On the contrary. The person is too proud to accept the consequences of his actions.

5. God’s mercy is equal even to suicide.

The Christian response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the person’s eternal salvation and anxious self-examination about what we did or did not do. Suicide is certainly a terrible way to die, but we must understand it for what it is – a disease – and stop worrying so much about the person’s eternal salvation and our imperfect response to such a disease.

God redeems everything and, in the end, every way of being will be fine, beyond even suicide.

Given the truth of this, we must abandon the notion that suicide puts a person outside of God’s mercy. God’s mercy is equal even in suicide.

After the resurrection, we see how Christ, more than once, goes through closed doors and instills forgiveness, love and peace in hearts that cannot be opened by fear and pain. God’s mercy and peace can go through walls that we cannot. And, as we know, on this side of heaven, sometimes all the love, outstretched hands, and professional help in the world can no longer come through a heart paralyzed by fear and disease.

But when we are helpless, God is not. God’s love can descend into hell itself (as we profess in our creed) and breathe peace and reconciliation into hurt, anger and fear. God’s hands are softer than ours, God’s compassion is broader than ours, and God’s understanding is infinitely greater than ours.