Whenever we hear the news of anyone dying by suicide, a dark pall is cast over us. The closer we are to the deceased, the more we fill our lives and minds with all sorts of questions that apparently do not have answers. Could I have done anything to prevent this from happening? Were there signs that were apparent, but were not within my mind’s attention? And the most fundamental one would just boil down to one, monosyllabic word – why?
The Church has, thankfully, changed and reformed its view of this mode of death and expressed this in the way that she gives the final rites for the deceased. In times past, it was rather “cut and dry”, primarily because we tended to label suicide as the ultimate act of despair, where hope in God and his love and mercy was not at all considered by the victim before he or she succumbed to that fatal end of life. Deaths by suicide were often denied Catholic funerals, and some bodies were not even allowed to be buried within Catholic cemeteries, which were often within the compounds of a church. The idea was that the deceased chose to live outside of the mind and heart of the church, and as such, was not able to be buried within the physical compounds of church.
Thankfully, with the advent of a broader understanding of human psychology and mental health, we have removed much of the ‘barrier’ mentality, principally because we have chosen to extend the greatest of compassion and mercy to the deceased, with the possible benefit of the doubt that even at the last moment of one’s consciousness and mental clarity, one may have had the faith enough to be penitent and sorrowful for this rash act, and asked for God’s forgiveness, and with all that was left of one’s will, handed oneself over to the loving hands of God. The Church has very little reason now to deny any baptized Catholic the full burial rites for suicide cases.
Yet, the fact remains that with each suicide, a whole trail of unanswered questions gnaws at the heart of those whom the deceased leaves behind. It is of course, sad, when one had died of after a long illness or of old age. Death always leaves a gaping wound. But this gaping would is not only compounded, but also made deeper when it is apparent that the evidence shows clear signs of suicide. What is the apt response that the baptized believer whose loved one dies in such a tragic way supposed to be? How does one handle one’s own heart that has been broken and shattered? Does one’s approach toward faith and God suffer?
The answer to these questions varies. In my encounter with the immediate family members of victims, anger with God is not uncommon, no matter how much faith one has in God. It is a reaction, much like a knee-jerk. After all, when one fully accepts that God is all powerful and almighty, one would hope that this same all powerful God would enter into the dark spaces that suicide victims often find themselves, and as a result, this same God would use his divine power to prevent the tragedy. But what we need to hold on in our faith is the corollary in this belief, which is the deep understanding that it is because God loves us so much that he respects the desires and will of every one of his beloved children, even when they choose to brush away the divine hand that offers them mercy and compassion in the darkest of times.
Yes, God is all-powerful. Yes, God is almighty. And this is, strangely, where the key to coping with such tragedy lies. Our God is powerful and mighty enough to go to places where we cannot on the other side of this life. Don’t we see in the resurrection episodes of Christ, that he entered into rooms, which had locked doors? These are not just physical doors that the gospel writers refer to. We have locked doors of all sorts, and the greatest bolts have been those that we placed on the doors of our hearts and minds. The faithful person would be doing himself a great service by locating these bolts and ask God to come in and do what he did at the Cenacle room, where he breathed his divine breath of forgiveness and love, so that peace can enter and reign once more.
On this side of life, there is often very little that we can do to prevent many things that others willfully choose to do. The fact that the deceased chose to die when no one else was at home means that this was his or her plan. The time was purposefully chosen such that no one could come to his or her aid.
But there is, thankfully, much that we can still do for the victim who now stands on the ‘other side’ of this life. We can keep presenting him or her to Christ, who knocks on each of the doors of our heart, and who never stops knocking to come in so that his divine light can flood the darkness and overcome it.
One of the great sins of the faithful is that of presumption. This means that we presume that God will redeem everything and everyone in the end, and so, it does not quite matter how we live our lives. Often, the result of presumption is twofold – firstly, it can make one very complacent about one’s faith, and lackadaisical about any form of evangelization, because after all, everyone would be saved. Secondly, it could make us stop praying for the deceased who go before us, because they are presumed to be in heaven no matter how they lived their lives.
The belief that Jesus can enter into the locked doors to hearts must not lead to the sin of presumption. It is based on the Christian virtue of hope, which is not just something that we need on this side of heaven, but that even souls who have gone before us and who need purification need as their means of ever attaining the beatific vision.
The unmistakable thing about death is that it does not stop our relatedness to one another. One does not stop being a son after one’s parents have passed on. One does not stop being a mother after one’s son has committed suicide. In our continued, though pained, relatedness, perhaps what we need to do is to continue to sustain and nourish this relationship by being committed no longer to suicide, but to something far more lasting and eternal – God’s mercy, forgiveness, and strength.