September 20, 2019

Understand suicide, console mourners knowing ‘God is tender with the weak’

Oblates of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser addresses participants in the archdiocesan Consolation Ministry’s Mission Day event in Indianapolis on Sept. 10. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Oblates of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser addresses participants in the archdiocesan Consolation Ministry’s Mission Day event in Indianapolis on Sept. 10. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Father Ronald “Ron” Rolheiser vividly recalls the day that led him on the path to becoming a priest. It was the day his neighbor took his own life.

“He was 22, athletic, everybody liked him,” said the Oblates of Mary Immaculate priest, who was in high school at the time. “I just couldn’t process it. That suicide changed me. I’m a priest today because of that death.”

Father Ron shared this story in Indianapolis on Sept. 10—World Suicide Prevention Day.

He was addressing roughly 150 bereavement team members, priests, religious, counselors, campus ministers and others from central and southern Indiana at the archdiocesan Consolation Ministry’s annual Mission Day event for those who serve in bereavement ministry.

(Related: What the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about suicide and the hope for God’s mercy)

This year’s conference focused on understanding suicide and consoling those left behind. As the author of Bruised and Wounded: Struggling to Understand Suicide, Father Ron was well-equipped to speak on the topic—one in dire need of addressing, he said.

‘It’s a disease that kills’

His statement is backed by statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in the United States rose 33 percent between 1999 and 2017. In that last year, it was the 10th leading cause for death, with more than 47,000 Americans taking their own lives and 1.4 million attempting to do so.

Suicide is on the rise in Indiana as well—increasing 72 percent between 1999-2015, according to an Indiana State Department of Health study published in 2017 for the years 2011-2015.

The study includes statistics by age range. During those four years, suicide ranked as the second leading cause of death for Hoosiers ages 15-34. But it was white males ages 45-54 who comprised the majority of suicides in Indiana during that time frame.

In the wake of those lost lives are family and friends. They themselves are lost in “darkness and chaos,” said Father Ron.

“What makes suicide so hard to deal with is that we’re just not wired to process it,” he explained. “It’s hard, but we’re better equipped to handle death by accidents or natural causes. We don’t have the internal circuits to deal with what causes someone to take their own life.”

While no one can see into the mind of those who commit suicide, Father Ron offered several insights and analogies to help understand what can lead to such drastic actions.

He noted that some take their life out of pride and arrogance, “but in most cases, we are dealing with a very sensitive person, someone too bruised and weakened to live,” he explained.

“In a sense, they die against their will. It’s like jumping out of a tall building that’s on fire. They don’t want to jump, but they’re forced to jump because their clothes and body are on fire. … It’s a disease that kills, often with a biochemical root.”

‘A certain darkness and chaos’

All who have lost a loved one must journey through the grieving process, Father Ron told the roomful of people who in various capacities accompany those in mourning.

“But suicide leaves a certain darkness and chaos in its wake” that consolers need to consider, he said.

One hurdle for many who lose a loved one to suicide is the mental battle with blame and second-guessing: “I should have been there. What went wrong? If only I’d done something different.”

Father Ron said they need to hear the truth, that “the reason you weren’t there is because they planned it so you wouldn’t be there. It’s part of the disorder.”

In addition to dealing with self-doubt and blame, survivors often feel “a sense of hurt and anger that the person took their own life,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s also guilt for feeling that way.

“It’s important for them to know that anger and hurt are natural after [a loss by] suicide—there shouldn’t be any guilt in feeling that way.”

One of the greatest shadows often cast on those mourning a life lost to suicide is shame, said Father Ron.

“We haven’t had a good history in dealing with suicide,” he noted. “That’s true of the Church and of society as well. It’s been seen as the ultimate taboo, the ultimate morally wrong thing one could do.”

Thus for survivors, Father Ron said, their loved one’s suicide often “becomes the prism through which their life is seen. So, survivors tend to erase the memory of their loved one. Pictures come down from the wall, they stop talking about them.

“Our test,” he told the crowd of consolers, “is to redeem their [loved one’s] memory.”

‘Jesus can descend into our hell’

There are several aspects of grieving and avenues toward healing for those in bereavement ministry to consider.

One aspect is the clinical side of the grieving process. Licensed mental health counselor Pauline Kattady addressed that topic.

“What grievers need most is acceptance and non-judgmental listening,” she advised. “Give them permission to grieve—it’s normal and appropriate. But when grief interferes with a person’s ability to function or cope, they need clinical help.”

Kattady noted that symbols and rituals can provide “an active and physical way to remember the person, such as planting a tree. One family I know burned a candle in memory of their loved one each day the month before their first Christmas without them.”

Another example is a theme song with motions that students at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis adopted after two students took their lives within two weeks during the fall of 2014.

Cathedral’s campus ministry director Charlene Witka, who attended the mission day, said the song “really pulled the students together. It gave them a way to remember and also to support each other. It was their theme song all year.” The song was introduced during a community prayer service at the school.

The use of prayer as a pivotal path to healing was addressed at the conference during a presentation by Father Peter Marshall, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis and archdiocesan director of continuing education for priests.

Among the resources he recommended to bereavement ministers was a book compiled by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for priests called Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, which also includes prayers for the dead. It is available in English and Spanish, and can be purchased online and in Catholic bookstores.

He also suggested mourners consider praying the Liturgy of the Hours or look through the Book of Psalms.

“Psalms enable us to enter into relationship with God sideways,” he said. “You can read them as poetry or prayer, and not face God directly.”

Father Marshall encouraged consolers to remind those grieving of Jesus’ empathy with those in sorrow.

“I think one of the most miraculous things you can share about God is that he chose to become one of us so he could weep with us,” he said. “When Jesus found out about Lazarus’ death, he didn’t start by saying, ‘He’s in heaven now.’ He started by weeping with [Lazarus’] sisters.”

Father Ron offered some closing thoughts of comfort for bereavement ministers to share when consoling those coping with a death by suicide.

He first noted that the Church now better expresses the mercy of God in such situations, reflecting the words of paragraph 2282 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” (See box below for full text of what the catechism says about suicide.)

“God’s empathy and understanding are infinitely deeper than our own,” said Father Ron. “God is tender with the weak. Jesus makes that clear again and again that the ones especially dear to him are those who struggle.

“People who commit suicide are in a hell no one can understand. Jesus can walk through any closed door we’re hiding behind. He can descend into our hell and do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.”

(For more information on the archdiocese’s Consolation Ministry and a list of resources, including support groups for those coping with the loss of a loved one by suicide and other grief support groups, go to

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