In an effort to get us talking and to provide a resource for families in crisis, he recently wrote a book, Bruised and Wounded: Struggling to Understand Suicide (Paraclete Press). He talked with us about an issue he considers one of the “deepest taboos in human experience.”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 45,000 people take their lives each year in the United States, 123 per day. That would be five people during the next hour, on average. In addition, there are a whopping 25 times as many attempted suicides each year. Victims of successful suicide are mostly middle-aged white men (70 percent in 2016). Sadly, the rate of suicide has been on the rise since 2007. Slightly more American soldiers—close to 5,000—have killed themselves after coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan than have been killed in service in those wars.
One would think that something so widespread would get a lot of attention. But, says Father Rolheiser: “It’s something we don’t understand. If someone in our family or a loved one uses suicide, there’s a hush, almost a shame about it.” You never see it mentioned in an obituary, he observes. “They died ‘suddenly,’ ‘tragically,’ ‘sadly.’ It’s like we even struggle to mention the word.”
There is no out-of-the-box solution that would quickly reduce or eliminate suicide. We finally are starting to recognize it as the final stage of various types of mental illness. “The impulse for life is the strongest impulse inside of a human being, and suicide goes against that,” observes Father Rolheiser. “Thus, in all religions, it was seen as the ultimate act of despair.” We may not talk about suicide when it hits close to home. Yet, he says: “I don’t think anything devastates a family, spouse, or friends as much as a suicide. It wreaks horrible psychological havoc.”
Father Rolheiser says we need to think of the physiological causes behind suicide, to get beyond talking in hushed tones about this consequence of mental illness. “We have to begin to understand mental health the same as we understand physical health,” he insists. We need to switch our thinking to terminal illness. “When people die of cancer or they die of heart attacks or diabetes or pneumonia, we say, ‘There’s nothing this person could do.’”
We don’t say that, though, with suicide. “We don’t understand that mental health is like physical health. People die against their will, whether it’s through cancer or a stroke or whatever. Suicide, in the vast majority of cases, is the equivalent to an emotional heart attack or an emotional cancer.”
Sometimes suicide can come without warning, like a heart attack. “Other times suicide is like a terminal illness. Individuals have been depressed and struggling their whole lives and eventually they succumb.” In those cases, Father Rolheiser says, “It’s almost inevitable. Unless something changes, this person is eventually going to succumb to this.” Depression can often be treated with medical care.
When you dig a bit, a proclamation in the Apostles’ Creed sheds light on God’s mercy to victims of suicide and their families. “‘He descended into hell,’” says Father Rolheiser, “is the most consoling doctrine in all of religion.” It has a “catechetical iconography” of undoing the fall of Adam and Eve; that is, it stands as a compelling image of God’s saving action and stirs our faith. “It teaches us something about God.”
But there is another dimension, he adds. “Great theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa through to Julian of Norwich, to Hans Urs von Balthasar, would say that what that doctrine means is that, precisely, Christ can go through locked doors.” That speaks loudly in the case of suicide. “Some suicidal people I’ve known were wonderful, sensitive people, but they got themselves into a private emotional hell into which no psychiatry, human being, or love could ever penetrate. And they killed themselves. You can be sure on the other side, Jesus wasn’t inside their huddle of fear.” Father Rolheiser recalls the image in the Gospel of John of the disciples behind locked doors (Jn 20:19–23). “Notice Jesus doesn’t knock on the door. He comes right through the locked doors, right in the center of their fears, and breathes out peace.”
That liberating breath of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, is not just for suicide victims, of course, adds this priest. “Sometimes we can keep woundedness, bitterness, where nobody can touch it anymore this side of eternity.” We may not be able to get there, but “our great Christian doctrine is that Jesus can. That is the ultimate part of the doctrine of grace.”
After the person who commits suicide is gone, survivors are often plagued with guilt: What did I do wrong? What could I have done to prevent this? Why wasn’t I more attentive? In truth, says Father Rolheiser, survivors of a suicide victim had long ago been placed outside the loop. “The anatomy of suicide is precisely to do it when you’re not there,” says Father Rolheiser. “It’s part of the sickness, that as it builds up, suicidal persons begin to isolate themselves.” They become secretive; then they seal off their intentions. “So you aren’t there precisely for the reason that they’re planning that you’re not going to be there. That’s part of the anatomy of the disease.”
A feeling of relief might come after a suicide—the problem is finally completed, gone. That can cause waves of guilt. Perhaps a family feared suicide for years or months, keeping an eye out, calling, worrying. “As much as they grieved, they thought, Well, he’s finally at peace, and finally we’re at peace.” It’s like keeping vigil—like watching a terminal patient die.
“You could feel real guilty about it; it’s a natural reaction,” says Father Rolheiser. “But you could do nothing to stop it.” Perhaps one of the biggest struggles for those closest to a suicide victim, one that can go on for years or even a lifetime, is the hush and shame of having a suicide in the family or among close friends. “We automatically see the person’s life through the prism of their death,” observes Father Rolheiser.
The antidote is refusing to do that. He speaks of his good friend Virgilio Elizondo, a pioneering priest of international reputation who committed suicide in 2016. At age 80, Elizondo was plagued by health issues, and faced, from a year earlier, an accusation of sexual abuse that was never substantiated, even after his death (though the sexual abuse victim clearly had been abused by another priest). “Had [Elizondo] died of cancer, it doesn’t change his work, the person he was. Yet his suicide clouds his legacy.
We need to see suicide victims’ lives and their achievements and fruitfulness in the same way as you see everybody else’s,” Father Rolheiser insists. What led to the suicide is an illness. “It doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a magnificent man and did all this great work.”
Help in Community
Parishes could be a key to helping families victimized by suicide, says Father Rolheiser. Indeed, that’s a reason he wrote his new book: as a resource for people suddenly coping with suicide. That coping, at its best, could be community- wide. “Parishes could have adult education around suicide,” he suggests. This often happens in schools where there’s a suicide: Administrators bring in counselors to help students process the tragedy.
Talking about suicide in a healthier way is the key for Father Rolheiser. Although his work is generally well received, he consistently gets some pushback. Some people—comparatively few—say: “‘You’re making suicide an option. By removing the taboo and saying the person isn’t going to hell, you’re abetting suicide.’ They might say, ‘If you start having classes on suicide, you’re going to have a lot of people saying once you take the ultimate stigma away, then more people will commit suicide.’”
Nothing could be further from the truth, he insists. Removing the stigma, talking openly about suicide, honoring the victim’s life—all would be a tremendous service to the parish. Truly, it would go much further than that. Father Rolheiser is committed to changing attitudes everywhere. “As a young priest, one of the first funerals I had to do was a suicide of a 36-year-old man with kids,” he relates.
“I just thought, I have to address this. I can’t just give a nice, safe homily that we believe in the Resurrection and so on.” During his homily, he put the suicide into a healthier perspective, acknowledging the illness. That made the difference for that devastated community. And Father Rolheiser has been working to make that difference ever since.
• Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide: www.CatholicCharities.net/GetHelp/OurServices/Counseling/Loss.aspx
• National Catholic Partnership on Disability and its Council on Mental Illness: www.ncpd.org
• American Association of Suicidology: www.Suicidology.org
• American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: www.afsp.org
• Suicide Awareness Voices of Education: www.Save.org
• Jed Foundation: www.JedFoundation.org
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: www.SuicidePreventionLifeline.org 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours a day)
• National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention: ActionAllianceforSuicidePrevention.org
—Source: Catholic News Service and National Suicide Prevention Hotline