Sunday, September 11, 2016

Death needs to be handled with kid gloves, more so when it is the result of a suicide.

It is always a great challenge to handle and accept death when it happens.  Death is never timely.  A very common pithy statement made about death, especially when it happens to a young person is that he or she had gone too soon.  The problem gets compounded when the death was a result of violence, or an illness that had brought with it much suffering and trauma, or when there is no satisfactory reason for the death.  If suicide was the cause of the death, the ramifications are often not just far reaching but also lingering, defying the adage that time heals all wounds.

Blogs like this take risks when writing and reflecting on suicide.  It risks being misread as pontificating on the unspoken issues at hand, and some of the common ones are the apparent selfishness of the deceased, or how perhaps the community surrounding the person were somehow oblivious to the signs that were displayed of the deceased person’s emotional instability.  Often, the ‘elephant in the room’ is the question of whether the person’s death was something that was preventable.  The fact that the person is no longer alive bears testimony that it was not.  The object was to ensure death and what is left seems to be for the survivors to cope with this very regrettable loss.  Many don’t have the necessary coping mechanisms.

The Catholic Church has, thankfully, softened her approach toward such deaths.  By the very technical definition of suicide being a killing of oneself, it was taken to mean that the person died in a state of mortal sin as the taking of life (in this case, one’s very own) was deemed to be a both an act of despair.  It also signaled the loss and abandoning of one’s faith in God.  By denying the deceased the Catholic funeral rites usually accorded to baptized Catholics, the Church was highlighting the paramount importance of upholding the absolute sanctity of life.  Whilst this is true, the ritual sanction broadly applied may well have had corollary effects.  One of these was assuming that at the point of committing the act the person was really acting in true and full freedom. 

The current 1983 Code of Canon Law took into consideration that though acts of suicide are objectively immoral, the degree of culpability of this act also depends on the state of mind of the person when this act was carried out.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering and torture” as things or circumstances that can diminish one’s personal responsibility in cases of suicide.  And because the Church holds that only God can read into the very depths of one’s soul, the judgment of such actions should be left to God and God alone.  It is thus a noble act to continue to pray for the souls of those whose lives were lost by suicide, offering Masses for the repose of their souls, and imploring for God’s love and mercy for such souls as well as God’s healing grace to be bestowed on those grieving for the deceased.

This must be a source of good news to those have had the terrible experience of having someone close to them who have sought suicide as a solution to the problems that they were facing.  While outsiders looking on from a distance can feel compassion for their loss, it is the immediate family members who often suffer in silence.  It doesn’t help matters that in an Asian society like Singapore, we do not have the habit of putting our wounds on public display and wearing our hearts on our sleeves.  This blog is written with the special intention of giving some balm of solace to these families.

Perhaps some explanation is needed for a blog entry such as this.  A few weeks ago, two separate and unrelated cases of deaths by suicide were reported here in Singapore.  Both of them were committed by teenagers who were students in Singapore’s top junior colleges, and they happened within 10 days of each other.  These deaths were very quietly handled, as would be expected.

Families are often at sixes and sevens when broaching such deaths with their faith lives.  Many struggle precisely because of a notion of God that could do with some serious re-adjustment.  It is my hope that somehow, this blog entry gets to them and that it can help them to see anew how the compassion and mercy of God is expansive, and that there is no place that God doesn’t have access to, be it the locked rooms of their hearts, or the hearts of their loved ones that beat no more.  The line in the Apostle’s Creed that says that Jesus ‘descended into hell’ is pregnant with deep meaning.  So is the fact that after the Resurrection during Jesus' appearances to his disciples, that he could enter through doors that were locked.  It necessarily means that there is no place that is devoid of God’s saving love, and that includes the private hells in which we sometimes find ourselves being captives, behind doors which we may have securely locked and bolted.  When we are in those places, we may find ourselves doing other things – like locking others out because we are too wounded in our own pains, or full of fear, or for some other reason, paralyzed and immobilized.  But Jesus enters through doors that are shut and descends into those depths as he did after he died. 

But after having been raised from the dead, locked doors do not prevent Jesus getting to those places of pain and fear.  That Jesus descended into hell also gives us hope even when we think there is no hope. 


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  2. “The Catholic Church has, thankfully, softened her approach toward such deaths. By the very technical definition of suicide being a killing of oneself, it was taken to mean that the person died in a state of mortal sin as the taking of life (in this case, one’s very own) was deemed to be a both an act of despair. It also signaled the loss and abandoning of one’s faith in God....”

    I had a very good friend and classmate in Sixth Form (equivalent to your JC) who committed suicide when we were in Upper Six. We were close because we read a lot and we love Literature and in double periods of English, when the lesson became a bore, we would take to lampooning or scribbling rhymes and riddles to one another. There was never a dull moment when he was around and his quirky somewhat self-deprecating humor made him a class favourite. He was Catholic.

    He was the last candidate for a suicide. But one morning, whilst out on a class picnic, he calmly waded into the sea and never turned round despite the shouts that rose into frantic pleas and cries from those on shore. He was found the next day. They found a brief note in the pair of Bermuda shorts he left behind.

    His mother’s shrill screams still pierced the air, like the call of a strange bird’s....whenever I turn my mind to it. But what was more heart breaking were the hushed whispers, the disapproving glances of others when she goes to church. I was only a two year old Catholic then, but I learnt that not only is the suicide-dead “ostracized” by not being given a Christian burial but the family members were also given a wide berth.

    “The Catholic Church has, thankfully, softened her approach toward such deaths.......” - I couldn’t agree more! The loss of a loved one is already irreparable pain under such circumstances, why must those left behind be made to suffer further anguish? Writers like Fr.Ron Rolheiser made a point not to miss a yearly post on this subject. He writes with much sensitivity, compassion and ‘humaness’ that touches the memory of one’s heart and relieves somewhat the dull-achiness therein because when someone known and close leaves in such an abrupt way, the seasons and years cannot wipe away the emptiness and loss.....the void remains to be acknowledged each and every time one comes upon a suicide death.

    God bless u, Fr