The Heartbreak of Suicide: Suggestions for Parishes, and Resources to Bookmark

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PAT GOHN

For many of us in catechetical settings in churches or schools, it is normal to encounter the daily hurts and struggles of the people we meet with deep familiarity and concern. When there is an uptick in news coverage of upsetting events like suicides of public figures, or similar tragedies regarding the sudden or unexpected loss of human lives, we know people look to their faith community for answers. There is often a greater call for prayers, for caregiving and compassion, for connections and counseling, and for ways to serve those most in need.

As a former member of a parish staff, I know how critical it is to be ready to receive anyone who calls or visits, or whom I might meet outside of the church setting, with a ready hand to hold, and words of encouragement. The gift of personal presence to one another can never be overstated.

Yet, for many of us, we need support as we seek to support others. Below are suggestions and resources that may be helpful.

Suggestions for Parishes:

1. Create a local network. Every parish team needs a list of local intervention specialists. In other words, prepare before a crisis.

Collect the names and contact information of qualified helpers within the community. This will likely include the local priests as well as medical or mental health professionals who can directly help someone in crisis or with an ongoing need. Speak to your local police and fire departments to understand the kind of specialized personnel they might recommend.

I always kept the names of trusted counselors and therapists in my purse, to hand out their cards when the occasion called for such.

2. Develop a bereavement ministry. Initial grief counseling is a very good thing. But ongoing support for those grieving, in the months following a death is also vital in a parish. This can have a support group model, but it also can be well-served by small prayer groups, or Masses and similar healing events offered throughout the year. But it can also be connecting on the level of person-to-person.

I was blessed to work on a parish staff that had a licensed counselor and social worker who helped those in need both directly and by offering referrals. Her friendly role helped to keep people connected to the parish when they otherwise might drift away.

3. Open the church for prayers … even spontaneously.  Years back, on the initial day of the attacks on 9/11, our church was open. We had a short prayer service with many other church leaders from the town. We prayed and we cried together.

But are we ready to open our churches when we discern the community might be helped? As much as possible, this should be considered.

There are likely many people in our church congregations who are “survivors” of suicide, either because they’ve considered it themselves, or they have had a family member or loved one take their own life. Events in the news regarding suicide may be moments when they might need a renewed connection with their faith. Offering a night of prayer followed by simple refreshments with compassionate parish members is just one way to reach out.

Our local church has also held Masses and meetings for people who have suffered losses like miscarriage, infant death, or loss of a child through abortion.

Brainstorm together ways your church can plan to pivot the church calendar to serve those hurting.

4. Teach people how to pray. This may seem obvious, but I’ve learned that many people do not know how to develop an ongoing prayer life. Offer how-to sessions on Lectio Divina, how to use the Liturgy of the Hours, or a Rosary. Are there people trained in spiritual direction in your region? Start a group using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Or offer annual retreats for men and women.

Here’s some suggestions for teaching children how to pray.

Prayers to the Divine Mercy (Jesus) are very helpful with regard to praying for the dying, or the dead. See these links:

Chaplet of Divine Mercy Novena

The Chaplet of The Divine Mercy

Don’t forget praying to the saints! As Catholics, we are blessed to be surrounded by the Communion of Saints. Ask them for their intercession. St. Dymphna, Ven. Matt Talbot, St. Joseph Benedict Labre, St. Christina the Astonishing, and Our Lady of Lourdes are saints mentioned in “Mental Illness: Five Patron Saints to Invoke” by Whitney Hetzel (Get Fed, April 7, 2016).

5. Offer a short course on dealing with depression, or stress, or anxiety. Many of our parishioners are dealing with these issues. How wonderful it would be to share information with them with the light of faith. You probably have parishioners or diocese members with professional training in these areas that you can enlist to help.

6. Know what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about suicide. 

Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. (CCC, 2280).

However …

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. (CCC, 2282).

This final excerpt is beautiful:

We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives. (CCC, 2283).

For more information see:

“What Does the Church Teach about Suicide?” by Simcha Fisher, National Catholic Register, Aug. 12, 2014.
“If a Person Commits Suicide, Is He Automatically Lost?” by Jimmy Akin, Catholic Answers, Nov. 4, 2014.
7. Review recent documents related to pastoral responses. 

Here are a few:

Hope and Healing a pastoral letter from the bishops of California on caring for those suffering from mental illness.

A Pastoral Response to Mental Illness – written by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

Every Suicide is Tragic – pamphlet available from the USCCB.

Scroll through the list at the USCCB – there is much about physician-assisted suicide, and more.

Resources:

Organizations that can help

This Catholic News Service article list several groups who can provide assistance, including these:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide, or LOSS, an entity of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago

National Catholic Partnership on Disability and its Council on Mental Illness 

For additional resources, see “List of organizations, resources on suicide prevention, help for families” by Tom Tracy (Catholic News Service, Aug. 14, 2014).

Articles

“Dying of Despair” – Aaron Kheriaty. The writer is an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Medical Ethics Program at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.

“Suicide Finally Gets Attention” – Sheila Laugminas. The journalist offers a well-written commentary that outlines the problem, but also adds important and helpful links.

“How Can We as a Church Do Better on Suicide?” – Fr. Matthew Schneider.

Books

The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty

Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Kathryn Hermes, FSP

From Catechist magazine

Age Appropriate Catechesis promoting the teachings on preserving human life and the fifth commandment.

Profound Respect for Human Life as an important part of our Catholic identity.

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Pat Gohn is the editor of Catechist magazine, and Catechist.com.

Many thanks to Paul McKibben of Catholic Digest for assistance with this article. 

Image credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc.

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