A grave matter?

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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

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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?

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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?

Who’s responsible?

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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

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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?

One in four

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One in four

Recently I was having a conversation about mental health with someone in my family. I mentioned the fact that one in four people will be affected by mental health problems during their lifetime. A pause followed, in which they digested this statistic, and then they said, “In our family, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s like almost one hundred percent.”

I had to admit that this was true. I’ve struggled with depression, including severe post-natal depression. Other people in my family have had similar struggles, so many, in fact, that I’ve been guilty of the, “Oh no, not again,” or “Oh no, not another one” feeling when I hear about another crisis.

Statistics just show the average. Some families will have exactly one in four people affected by mental health problems. Other families will hardly be affected by mental illness whilst others will seem to be fighting it all the time.

Down to the fourth generation

Some of our susceptibility can probably be explained by environment and life events, but there is evidence that our genes also play a role. Recently I came across an article describing research carried out on the children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors. It showed that trauma experienced by one generation can actually alter the genes of their children, making them more susceptible to stress and mental health disorders.

I’ve always tried to own my own problems. When I was fighting post-natal depression, I hoped that what I was going through would mean that my children would have less mental health issues to face, not more.

Perhaps it doesn’t work like that. I think of the Bible verse about the sins of the fathers being visited on the children right down to the fourth generation. It seems like a raw deal if God punishes people for mistakes that their great grandparents have made.

Over time I have realised that this verse doesn’t mean that God vindictively causes children and grandchildren to suffer. It simply states a fact: if your life is in a mess then it’s going to have repercussions for the next generation.

Of course, that mess might not be caused by you. Maybe you might have suffered due to war or famine or a natural disaster. If a trauma experienced by the parents affects the genes of the children, does this explain the high levels of depression and alcohol abuse in the Highlands more than one hundred and fifty years after the Clearances?

For how long are the effects of current wars going to be seen in future generations? It is sad to think that those who are lucky enough to survive bombing and displacement and have enough hope left to start a family, might be passing on some of that trauma to their children, no matter how much they try not to.

St Therese and mental illness

I have a fondness for St Therese, perhaps her attitude was, ‘God, I can’t do it on my own. Over to you.’

Her autobiography, ‘Story of a soul’, describes a childhood illness which occurred after her big sister, Pauline, who’d been a sort of substitute mother to her, entered the closed Carmelite convent. Having lost her mother and then her big sister, Therese became ill with what sounds like a severe depression, although there was no such thing as a mental health diagnosis in the 19th century. It also had physical effects and her family feared that she was going to die. Therese herself couldn’t see any way out of the illness, but she prayed and was cured when she turned her head and saw a statue of ‘Our Lady’ smiling at her.

I was searching the web to try to find out more about St Therese and her childhood illness when I came across this beautiful leaflet on St Therese and mental illness. Not only did St. Therese suffer from depression in childhood, but she also bore the pain of seeing her father Louis Martin suffer from mental illness. He spent the last part of his life in a mental asylum. He still became a saint. This gives me hope that mental illness, like physical illness, is something which God allows to come into our lives.

Just as being overweight increases a risk of a heart attack, our choices may increase or decrease our risk of depression. However, there are also other factors outside our control, such as a stressful work environment or a susceptibility to depression which is written into our genes.

The leaflet on St Therese really moved me. It acknowledged the stigma around mental illness and how much of it is suffered in silence. When there is a mental health crisis, people don’t rally round and cook meals for the family the way they might if someone was suffering from a serious physical illness.

For sufferers and carers, mental illness can be lonely. All we can do is follow St Therese’s example, stretch out our arms and say God, ‘I am too little to do this alone. Please pick me up and help me.’

Silence and mental illness

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I’ve had to learn to be silent as a Catholic for many reasons. There is the Catholic culture of privacy as opposed to the evangelical culture of wearing your faith on your sleeve. There is my own timidity; converting to a new religion feels like being washed up on a foreign shore. In the area where I live, Catholics are in a small and perhaps not entirely accepted minority. Keeping quiet about my faith has seemed to be a matter of necessity. I’ve also felt, perhaps mistakenly, that other Christians see me as someone who is travelling in the second-class compartments as far as faith is concerned. This is another reason I don’t talk.

Apart from blogging, I don’t discuss faith much, partly by choice, partly by nature and partly because of circumstances.

Mental illness

Today I am thinking about another area of my life in which I have chosen silence, or had it forced upon me by circumstances, and that is mental health. For a lot of my adult life, I have struggled with depression, and at the same time many people close to me have fought their own battles with mental illnesses.

I’m by no means special or unique. In the UK, one in four people have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

I have learnt a lot from mental illness, just as I’ve learnt from physical illness (I suffered chronic ill health in my late teens and early twenties). However, it is so excruciatingly painful that I wouldn’t actively choose to go through it.

I was lucky enough to get treatment and although I still have the odd bad day or even bad week, my mental health is much better.

Those close to me have also suffered difficult and complex mental health problems. Statistics tell me that my circle of family and friends is not unique. However, apart from a few brave and honest friends, I seldom hear people talk about their struggles with mental health.

Supporting someone

Twenty years ago, when I was first supported someone with mental health problems, I was silent, partly because of a sense of shame. I wasn’t ashamed of the person I loved. I completely understood and accepted why life had been too much for them and that they had suffered a breakdown. However, I was ashamed of their condition. It was like trying to hide the fact that there was an infectious illness in the family. If people knew that someone close to me was struggling so much, would they not start to worry that I would get it too? Would this affect my ability to get and keep a job?  

There were a lot of taboos around mental health back then. Attitudes have improved since, partly because of campaigns such as the Scottish ‘See Me’ mental health campaign.

Reasons for silence

Many years later, and I am again supporting someone through a mental illness, and I am still silent. This time I’m not ashamed of my loved one. They are incredibly brave and dealing with inner pain which is sometimes overwhelming. If I am silent, it is to preserve their dignity and help them keep their slender hold on normality.

I want, as much as possible, for them to be able to keep going. I don’t want them to approach each encounter with the worry, “How much does this person know about my situation? Are they going to judge me or think I’m crazy? Have I really disappointed them by becoming ill?”

Silence comes at a cost. If a close friend or relative had a stroke or broke a leg or fell ill, I could talk to other people. I could share news of progress or setbacks or difficult things which had happened. I would get sympathy and encouragement and even prayers. People would understand why I’m low on energy or why I sometimes find it difficult just to do practical things like shopping and cleaning, never mind do any kind of work.

Because I am dealing with a mental and not a physical illness, I’ve taken the decision to be quiet and share no details. I’m writing this post, because I feel that I have to express my feelings in some way and maybe these thoughts will encourage someone else who is going through something similar.

I’ve been helping someone else pick up the shattered pieces of their emotions and I feel drained and broken myself. When I got to Mass, I have less than nothing to offer God. Right now I feel physically, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I have no answers and I can only try to trust

In the meantime, I try to remember to let go of my own pain and worry and enjoy little things. I take time to read a book in the sun, sit in the park and notice flowers, savour a cup of coffee and say hello to dogs (and their owners).