In the first few hours after the shock of my sister’s suicide, I was travelling to be with my parents, unable to stop weeping. I googled ‘Catholic Church suicide’ and came across articles which quoted the following passage from the Catechism:
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
The articles were along the lines of: Suicide is a grave matter, equivalent to self-murder. It is a rejection of God’s gift of life, but taking into account other things, like mental illness, it’s possible that God might have mercy on the person who commits it.
A thread of hope, but not a shred of comfort for someone who has just experienced the incomprehensible and inexplicable pain of losing a loved one to suicide. No doubt these articles were aimed at people theoretically interested in the question, rather than families recently bereaved by suicide.
The poverty of illness
My sister was poor in every sense of the word, suffering from a long, mental illness which she hadn’t chosen or deserved. Because of her illness, she was unable to work, and she and her family were dependent on benefits.
She was poor in spirit, pride crushed out of her by years of struggling with psychosis, an illness which bears a huge stigma. Although she fought to be well enough to take part in family life, during bad phases she was dependent on the help of others, both family and health professionals.
I am grateful for the many people who helped my sister, most of whom I will never know by name. Over the last six months of her life, the support she received was inadequate to turn the tide of her illness. During the last three weeks, she asked for help many times and didn’t get it.
In the end, my sister was so poor that she did not find a way to stay in this world. She didn’t choose to reject the gift of life. She clung on, without the help she needed, until the chaos in her mind overwhelmed her.
Jesus hung out with corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes. He had the courage to touch lepers and heal those whose minds were broken by ‘evil spirits’. I can’t believe that he would prevaricate over my sister, weighing up the graveness of her sin against the severity of her illness, and maybe, just maybe, showing a glint of mercy.
I can only imagine Jesus, seeing someone so sick, broken and poor that she couldn’t find a way to go on living, reaching out his hand to give her the healing and compassion she didn’t find in this life.
I’ve had to do a lot of work to get to this stage. After digging deeper into Google, I found some resources:
A prayer for those who have taken their own life
The blog of a mother who lost her daughter to suicide
A book by Ronald Rohlheiser on suicide which helped me to believe that God shows love and compassion to people like my sister who are so broken and sick that they cannot go on living
Is suicide a grave matter?
Have I got to a conviction of God’s mercy by bypassing the church’s teaching that suicide is a grave sin?
I know that suicide is a grave matter. After experiencing the pain and chaos of my sister’s suicide, the rifts as people look for someone or something to blame, and after seeing the shock and sorrow spread out to touch friends and even strangers who never knew my sister, I can think no other way.
But my sister was a loving, caring person, and didn’t intend to cause us pain.
She was started on a new medication, and discharged from hospital soon afterwards. Surprised by her sudden discharge, I took it as a sign that she was making rapid progress. I now know that she was discharged, not because she was better, but probably because the bed was needed for another patient. Unknown to me, my sister began making suicidal calls for help almost as soon as she was discharged. This went on until the day she took her life. There were plenty of chances for her to be readmitted to hospital, but she wasn’t.
My sister’s mind and body were worn down and almost broken by illness, treatments which didn’t work and a powerful anti-psychotic medication which was known to carry the risk of suicidal urges. If she wasn’t fully responsible, who was?
I started with myself, of course. It’s the typical response of suicide survivors. Why didn’t I phone more often? Why did I assume that she was better just because she was discharged? Why didn’t I know something was badly wrong? Why did I give her space instead of phoning when she didn’t respond to my messages?
My husband said, ‘Don’t do what-ifs’. The suicide bereavement helpline said, ‘It’s not your fault’.
The blame is like a hot potato. If I can’t bear to hold it, where do I fling it? Who caused this illness? The urge to blame someone can be almost overwhelming. And then I pray and see the suffering of other family members and realise, it wasn’t them. This is something which happened, and we don’t know why. If she had had cancer, we wouldn’t ask who caused it.
Who do I blame next? The National Health Service. The second thing the suicide bereavement helpline said was, ‘It’s not the NHS’s fault either.’ That took a while to sink in. It really hurt. I wanted a scapegoat, an institution I could paint as harsh and uncaring. But these people who gave their time and energy and abilities to try to help my sister. For a while, at least, that help was effective. When I heard that one of the mental health nurses who had cared for my sister was off work with stress, I wanted to tell her, it’s not your fault, and thank you for doing what you could.
I can’t attach blame to someone who was ill and crushed and broken, can neither hold it myself, or fling it at other people or even the organisation responsible for her care. I’ve tried throwing it at God, but I’m not getting a lot back from God on this. My sister’s death is an unhealed blister on my soul. Why didn’t you save her? Did we not pray enough, love her enough, love You enough?
Not everyone is healed in this life. I didn’t ask you to pray her back to health, but to pray her into heaven. These are the only answers I seem to catch.
An unhealed world
In a recent Richard Rohr meditation, I found the concept I was missing:
Hope cannot be had by the individual if everything is corporately hopeless.
It is hard to heal individuals when the whole thing is seen as unhealable.
My sister’s illness and tragic death was a symptom of an unhealed world, a world where we burn greenhouse gases without caring about the climate, where we clear rainforest without regard for animals and plants, where we know the cost of everything and yet don’t value what really matters. We live in a society which has recently cut support to those suffering from mental and physical disabilities.
My sister lived in a world which didn’t put much value on those who were too sick to work, a society that didn’t know her smile, a little uncertain at times, but still there, that didn’t recognise the struggle she made to be with her kids, that didn’t see her talent for listening to and helping those who were also on the margins.
Decisions were made: to cut funding to mental health, to close a ward where she had made a slow journey to healing after a previous crisis, to send everyone to one overloaded hospital which was simply no longer able to cope.
This is the world I lived in, cocooned from the worst of the pain and chaos, until it breached my defences and I saw how fragile things are.
This is the world I continue to live in, without my sister, and yet for her in a way.
And my prayer changes from why did this happen to, what can I do?
My heart breaks for you as I read this. I hope you have a good support system of people in your life right now to help you get through this. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them and accept their support. ❤
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Thank you. It is so hard at the moment. i think people don’t know what to say to me and I just need them to talk about ordinary things.
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I read this last night before the Ash Wednesday Vigil Mass, and have been musing on it thinking about a loving response. At first I just got angry that once again the Church has found a way to wound people by condemning suicide. Then I calmed down a little. Suicide is a way out when a person has tried every other path out of pain. I disagree with “planned suicide” for older people who don’t want to struggle but are in their right minds. But for people like your sister, my two aunts, a dear friend who went to Viet Nam, suicide is no grave sin. I am reminded of a line from “Death of a Salesman”: “nobody dast blame this man.” Peace to you.
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Hello Elizabeth – sorry if my post caused distress. I am writing about some really painful emotions. Firstly, I have experienced nothing but love and expressions of God’s mercy from my own church and, indeed, surprisingly, from people in the Protestant church I grew up in (their views have shifted a lot, too). What I was talking about were theologically correct articles on the internet, probably written for people who were theoretically interested in the question and not aimed at families who have survived a loved one’s suicide. I also realise the church doesn’t call it a grave sin (although that is the impression I have from the stigma around it, not necessarily just the Catholic church). So I’m renaming the post A Grave Matter. I wrote it mostly to try and understand where all this pain unleashed in our lives came from, and can only think that it is part of our fallen world and imperfect care for the sick. Sometimes people can’t be healed in this life, but in my sister’s case there were a lot of mistakes made which would have made a difference.
Not to worry. I appreciated getting to sit with this post and think about the many who have been harmed by church teachings about suicide over the years. I also understand that it is possible that she could have been saved. I lost a bipolar aunt to suicide despite much available help, and know of God’s mercy.