Archive for the ‘remembering suicide victims’ Category

At the end of Mass one morning about a year ago, our celebrant announced the presence among us of a deacon who was to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest the next weekend in the Diocese of Richmond. Hearing Joe introduced to the faith community, I recognized his name as one my daughter Mary had mentioned occasionally in high school. There was the day she laughed about Joe pulling a harmless prank on the way home from school and the day she happily recounted the exact way he turned his name into a punchline when questioned by the school cafeteria monitor about misbehavior.

At least sometimes, Joe brought lightheartedness to my daughter; and that was reason enough to introduce myself after Mass. We talked about his upcoming ordination and a few of the life events leading to that holy outcome. Mary was in the conversation, too, in her own holy way. “No, I’ve never forgotten Mary,” Joe finally offered. It was a nice thing for him to say.

A few days after his ordination, though, I got a fuller sense of what Joe meant. “I carried Mary with me throughout the ordination,” he said. As the bishop imposed hands on Joe’s head, prayed, and conferred spiritual power and grace upon him, Joe was keeping Mary present in memory. For a Catholic girl ending her life at the age of seventeen–a sublime embrace.

“I’ve never forgotten Mary” took on added richness when Joe and I addressed a roomful of teens about suicide months later at a diocesan youth conference. “We’re here today to give this difficult topic a little air,” he told the high schoolers, “and to hear your concerns.” He added that the motivation was Mary. “People who die by suicide think they’ll be forgotten. When Mary died, I was sixteen years old and dumbfounded. But I pledged never to forget her.”

A priest’s resolution not to forget meant several dozen teens got to hear about mood disorders and suicidal thinking and what to do and where to turn. They paid attention and asked questions, some hesitantly and with tears.


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This year, my family reached an odd milestone: we observed our eighteenth Christmas without Mary after having celebrated only seventeen Christmases with her. She died by suicide in the fall of 1995, a life-altering wound to her survivors that presents itself regularly to me, her mother, but which no longer has the power to dampen an entire day, much less a day of celebration like Christmas.

It’s impossible that Mary has been gone for eighteen years. But suicide changes everything, as I’ve learned, including the way time seems to pass. So life events now tend to fall into two categories: those that occurred before Mary died and those that came afterward. And in our eighteenth year of “afterward,” I can’t quite believe my family is surviving–even thriving–without our beloved daughter, sister, cousin and niece. But maybe we’re not exactly without her.

“One of [suicide] survivors’ greatest fears,” write John Jordan and John McIntosh, “is that their loved ones will fade from memory and their very existence forgotten as if they never existed.” The authors say that as major religions use ritual to “make God [Yahweh or Allah] present during a ceremony in a sacred way,” families can make sure their loved ones are not forgotten by using ritual, as well. They suggest song or poetry, perhaps a toast, at a family gathering in memory of the one who has died (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 393-394).

Right after Mass on Christmas Day, my husband and I went to the cemetery to place silk poinsettias not only on Mary’s grave but also on the graves of my parents. It was a windy, cold, and sunny few minutes of securing wire flower stems to brass vases so the arrangements wouldn’t catch the wind and blow away. We prayed out of gratitude before trudging back to the car and heading, eventually, to my sister’s for Christmas dinner.

After dinner, eight of us swapped stories–most of them funny–about our parents and Mary. Out of respect for raw grief, those stories weren’t always told at family Christmas gatherings. But they were told yesterday and, like the cemetery flower-arranging, made present to us family members we love and miss and cannot forget.

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