Archive for March, 2013

“He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.” This statement represents the fifth of twelve articles of Christian faith set forth in the Apostles’ Creed written in the early centuries of the Roman Catholic Church.

“Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’–Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek–because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned,” it states, “nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him,” adding, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (New York: Doubleday, 1995, #633-4).

In one of his 1985 columns, Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, expanded on Christ’s descent into hell by applying it to the tragedy of suicide. “Jesus still descends into hell, entering closed hearts, to breathe peace and love in places where there is huddling in fear and hurt,” he writes. “Most suicide victims are trapped persons, caught up in a private emotional hell which is an illness and not a sin. Their suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man whose clothing has caught fire might throw himself through a window. They are not, on the other side, met by our human judgments, but by a heart, a companion, a love . . .” (“Suicide, Despair, and Compassion,” http://www.ronrolheiser.com May 1, 1985)

Regarding Christ’s descent into hell, the Catechism offers Easter hope by quoting from a document it calls Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: “Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, [our Lord] has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him–He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son . . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead'” (Catechism, #635).

Read Full Post »

For those bereaved by suicide, second-guessing is an expression of guilt that is especially prevalent among those whose child has died. Clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh report that 92% of parents feel guilty for the suicide of their child and do, of course, call themselves into question repeatedly (Grief After Suicide. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 49).

Self-accusation after my daughter Mary’s suicide followed the usual “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” pattern. I considered it a kind of penitential self-improvement project I had a right and obligation to undertake–one which I didn’t want to be talked out of. One day when an acquaintance told me in the grocery store I shouldn’t feel guilty for what happened to my daughter, I couldn’t help thinking how ridiculously out of touch with suicide bereavement she was.

Still, Father Ron Rolheiser offers a slightly different perspective about suicide second-guessing that seems helpful. He describes it as “myth” that the suicide of someone we love could have been prevented “if only I had done more, been more attentive, and been there at the right time. Rarely is this the issue. Most of the time, we weren’t there for the very reason that the person who fell victim to the disease [of unendurable emotional pain] did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so that we wouldn’t be there” (“Suicide–Some Misconceptions,” http://www.ronrolheiser.com July 30, 2000).

My daughter began overdosing on her anti-depressant medication well after midnight behind the locked door of her bedroom. To rescue her, my husband and I would have had to find her in the middle of the night. That rescue was not likely to happen, and Mary knew it.

While it is essential to be clear about the warning signs of suicide and to ask whether a depressed person is thinking about suicide and has a plan, it is equally essential to make peace somehow with the “shabby, confused, agonized crisis which,” according to Alfredo Alvarez, “is the common reality of suicide” (The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1971, p. 12).

Read Full Post »

When Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, wrote a column in 2000 suggesting that most people who die from suicide are not “morally or otherwise responsible” for their deaths, he received a mixed response. While those bereaved by suicide tended to regard his views sympathetically, other people challenged them by quoting the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church which reads in part, “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life . . . [and is thus] gravely contrary to the just love of self” (New York: Doubleday, 1995, #2281).

In denouncing suicide throughout the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has also at the same time been emphasizing the inestimable value of life given by God for which we are “stewards, not owners” (#2280). Because human life is God-given and precious to self as well as “family, nation, and human society,” the Church will not, in my view, ever cease to condemn its termination through suicide (#2281).

But there’s more than condemnation in the Church’s teaching about suicide. That “more” is contained in the allowance for mitigating conditions that often surround suicide. In other words, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish responsibility of the one committing suicide” (#2282). Even more, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. . . The Church prays for persons who have taken their . . . lives” (# 2283).

Father Rolheiser makes the case that suicide is not usually freely chosen but is, rather, the end result of a disease which the person did not choose. “It’s truer to say that suicide was something they fell victim to than to say that it was something that they inflicted upon themselves.” He adds, “Every victim of suicide that I have known personally has been the antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, the strong, over-proud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (“The Notion of Suicide Revisited,” http://ronrolheiser.com Sept. 24, 2000).

My daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995 not because she was strong and proud but because she felt herself to be weak, insignificant, and forgettable. Suffering from depression, she wasn’t responsible for those feelings or for the suicide which followed from them. It’s likely that your mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, or friend is equally guiltless and deserving of compassion.

Read Full Post »

In writing about suicide, Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, often paraphrases Canadian poet Margaret Atwood: “Certain things need to be said and said until they don’t need to be said anymore.” Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He’s also a columnist and writer whose book The Holy Longing won the USA Catholic Press Award in 2000 for best hardcover book in spirituality.

Once a year, Father Rolheiser offers a column about suicide on his website. It’s part of his attempt to “say and say” something until it doesn’t need to be said anymore.

The first thing he says is that suicide remains possibly the “most misunderstood” of all deaths, adding that because it is self-inflicted, it is usually viewed as voluntary. “For most suicides, this is not true,” he writes. “A person dying of suicide dies, as does the victim of physical illness or accident, against his or her will. People die from physical heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS and accidents. Death by suicide is the same, except that we are dealing with an emotional heart attack, an emotional stroke . . . an emotional fatality” (“Losing a Loved One to Suicide,” http://www.ronrolheiser.com June 6, 1998).

In an earlier column, Father Rolheiser was even more emphatic about the act of suicide and the morality surrounding it. “[With suicide], there is no freedom not to die. Suicide victims are, like victims of sickness and accidents, not responsible for their own deaths and suicide should not be a matter of secrecy, shame, moral judgment, and second-guessing” (“Understanding Suicide,” http://www.ronrolheisser.com November 11, 1990).

In an endeavor of many years, I have studied the historical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in regard to suicide, and I have tried to understand my daughter Mary’s suicide and all suicides. What I have not encountered before is the clarity and boldness with which Father Ron Rolheiser writes on the topic. There will be more.

Read Full Post »