Ask Father: A suicide in the family
The husband of a dear friend committed suicide two years ago. She is still in a state of shock and can barely function normally. Is there anything I can do to help her? — AT A LOSS
Let me begin with a story.
St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, was renowned for his spiritual wisdom in counseling people. They came from all over Europe and North America seeking his wise advice. The railroad company even built a spur line to Ars to accommodate the flow of visitors. His church was usually full of people, and many others lined the path from the rectory to the church. One day as he was walking to the church, he stopped before a woman and told her: “Between the bridge and the water, your husband repented. Pray for him.” She explained to others that her husband had committed suicide, and she was concerned about his eternal salvation but had never spoken to the saintly pastor before.
This episode reminds us vividly of God’s merciful love for all of us. This consoling truth encourages me to make the following comments.
We humans are made up of body and soul. The body is subject to diseases and illnesses. One can have cancer and receive all the loving care possible but still die. We know the patient did not freely choose the sickness and the death it caused.
The soul, too, can suffer the equivalent of an emotional heart attack, stroke, or deep depression. The extreme pain can become unendurable, and suicide might seem to be the only way to end it. This kind of suicide is more of a sickness than an act of despair and is not freely chosen by the victim.
There are other reasons for suicide. Hitler, for example, killed himself out of arrogance in order to avoid being called to account for his actions. Or take the millionaire who loses his fortune and jumps out of a 10-story window. I think this kind of “killing oneself” out of pride differs morally from that of a sick person who has been so bruised that he or she cannot put up with living any longer.
Suicide does not take a person out of the range of God’s mercy. Jesus went through locked doors to be with his apostles. Suddenly he was there among them saying, “Peace be with you.” It’s clear that his merciful love can overcome any obstacle. In his lifetime he always went out of his way to help the poor, the sick, the outcasts. He sought the lost sheep. He revealed God as a loving and forgiving Father. How could we possibly believe that Jesus would not reach out to your friend’s husband who committed suicide?
Your friend feels guilty, perhaps, because she wasn’t there when it happened. This was not by chance. Her husband, like most suicides, did not want anyone present. He chose a time and place where he would be alone. That’s one of the symptoms of this sickness.
It’s also why the responsibility of the act doesn’t rest with the survivors.
Remember first of all that her husband’s suicide has changed your friend’s life totally. It’s as if an earthquake hit her. Everything is topsy-turvy. She still feels the full impact of it months and years afterward. The anniversary can bring it all back. So you must be patient.
You can be there for her. Let her express her feelings of anger, grief, shame, and sadness. Don’t try to explain them away or belittle them. Let her speak of her loneliness, of her feelings of abandonment. This patient listening on your part can be the beginning of inner healing for her because she knows you care for her.
You can also inquire whether there is a local group of survivors of suicide loss. Inform yourself of the time and place of the meetings. With this information invite your friend to attend a session. You might even drive her there.
Or you could suggest that she see a grief therapist. Here, too, you should have in hand the information needed: name, address, phone, cost, etc. This process will take time, and your friend will need your continued support.
You will be for your friend a visible sign of God’s all-powerful love. Remind her that Jesus can go through any barrier, even locked doors, in order to reach her wounded soul. Pray daily for her, trusting that God’s merciful love, in due time, will see her through.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The story originally appeared in the June/July/August 2015 issue of Catholic Digest.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.