Archive for August, 2012

Odd as it may seem, some who are grieving a suicide may simultaneously experience relief. Researchers Jordan and McIntosh cite two reasons for a possible sense of relief following a suicide. First, the “disruption and problems” of dealing with a depressed and suicidal person “diminish or disappear” with his or her death. In some cases, the researchers note that a suicide survivor even feels guilty about feeling relieved.

The second reason for relief in suicide survivors is the perception that “their loved one’s psychological pain is now over and they no longer must bear that pain.” (Grief After Suicide. New York: Routledge, 2011, p.32)

I never experienced relief of the first kind. It was not the case that my daughter Mary caused disruptions and problems for our family. The opposite was true: she enhanced our lives uniquely, and her death was our diminishment.

But two mornings after my daughter died, I walked into the kitchen with this announcement: “I always wanted what was best for Mary. So if dying makes her happy, well . . . maybe it had to be.” Seated at the kitchen table were my mother, my sister, my sister-in-law, and some family friends. They looked at me as though I had lost my mind; and in a certain sense, I had.

Shock and denial had overtaken me. From the first hour of grief, in fact, shock had wrapped my inner devastation in cotton and denial had refused to admit the overwhelming loss. Despite the psychological defenses my mind had erected, there was a fragment of peace to be found on that dismal morning. It was the relief–the hope, really–that Mary’s pain had come to an end.

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“Angry feelings [in suicide survivors] may exist toward the deceased, oneself, or others,” state clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh. (Grief After Suicide. New York: Routledge, 2011, p.31). “The reactions of many (though not all) suicide survivors resemble the intense anger of homicide survivors toward the perpetrator. This anger may, of course, be made more complicated after suicide, considering that the ‘perpetrator’ is also the ‘victim.'”

To say that anger after the suicide of a loved one “may” be more complicated is understating, at least for those who feel anger. My youngest daughter has said she never felt angry toward her sister Mary for taking her own life, and my mother also said she’d not gotten angry with Mary. I eventually came to believe them on that point, but it took me a few years.

It’s probably that my own anger toward Mary was so fierce I couldn’t imagine others not sharing it. It’s been called rage, actually–this anger that suicide surviors often feel. Part of it stems from the sense of rejection, abandonment, and accusation that lingers no matter how many well-meaning people say, “Let it go.” (Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden. Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide. London: Jason Aaronson, Inc., 1997, p. 56)

In my case, part of the anger also came from Mary’s inability–or what seemed at the time refusal–to grasp the wonder of her own life. While I now can empathize with her and understand better what she was thinking on the night she died, it took a dozen years for that empathy and understanding to arrive.

What complicates grief after suicide is that the “perpetrator” is also the “victim.” As Mary’s mother, I know this to be true. I would alternate between anger toward her and compassion for her, sometimes twice within a ten-minute span. But I also know there’s more than one victim in a suicide–all the caring people left behind–and that vicitimization by suicide is a source of justifiable anger.

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There is hope to be found in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church for those who die by suicide and those bereaved by suicide. The Church has denounced suicide in the strongest possible terms since the fourth century; true enough. But in the twentieth century, psychological sensitivity entered into Church teachings on the topic of suicide.

First, a brief look at history. In a fourth-century pagan world enamored of “heroic” self-destruction, St. Augustine condemned suicide, making it clear to early Christians that life in Christ requires virtuous living, not dying at one’s own hand. He held that the killing of oneself is the killing of a human being and is therefore prohibited by the fifth commandment–“Thou shalt not kill.”

Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century offered three reasons why suicide should be prohibited: the responsibility of loving and cherishing oneself, the responsibility toward community of which each person is a part, and the responsibility of recognizing God as giver of life with power over life and death.

The following seven centuries of Church teaching about suicide were characterized by an accent on law and penalty. In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent maintained, for example, that the law forbids suicide and that no one has such power over his or her life as to end it. Up through the early decades of the twentieth century, in fact, the Church taught that Christians who broke God’s law by choosing self-destruction removed themselves from the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church and were to be considered, lamentably, as lost.

In 1994, though, the Catechism of the Catholic Church revealed a shift in thinking about suicide. While maintaining the traditional regard for the sanctitiy of human life and the human responsibility to “preserve” our lives for God’s honor and our salvation, the Catechism takes account of psychological disturbance, anguish, or grave fear which can diminish responsibility for the person committing suicide.

Moreover, the Catechism urges the faith community to pray for those who have taken their own lives and not to despair: “By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentence.”

The Church’s contemporary teaching about suicide, put forth one year before my daughter’s suicide, continues to be a source of hope.

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