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Hope, Death, and Suffering

I recently finished reading After Suicide: There’s Hope for Them and For You by Fr. Chris Alar, MIC and Br. Jason Lewis, MIC (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press. 2019). As indicated by the title, the book is specifically written for those dealing with the suicide of someone they know. However, as the authors say, much of what they say is applicable to those dealing with any death or suffering.

They begin by discussing hope as they write, “Hope is also a mysterious word. Defined as the combination of the desire for something and the expectation of receiving it, it is often understood in our everyday language as a mere wish that we would like to see realized. But hope in its truest sense is much more than a mere wish. It’s a God-given gift” (i). Human hope may say, “I hope you have a safe trip.” We may really want the person to have a safe trip but Christian hope is more than just a nice gesture. Christian hope means we pray for them and trust that God will be with them as they travel. Ultimately, our Christian hope is rooted in our belief that if we follow Jesus, we will rise in the Resurrection. Here, Fr. Chris and Br. Jason go on to write, “Described as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” in the Epistle to the Hebrews (6:19, Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition), hope is the virtue that will ultimately be fulfilled in Heaven.

In seeking to help people deal with the grief of the suicide of a loved one, they quote from a guide on suicide prevention, “Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop” (13, quote from Melinda Smith, Jeanne Segal, and Lawrence Robinson, “Suicide Prevention,” Help Guide, Last updated: June 2019, accessed August 7, 2019, https://www.helpgide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention.htm). A few pages later they write, “They may be marginalized or treated as outcasts for many different reasons. Their pain is real, and they may lose sight of the fact that their life is a gift from God” (16, my emphasis). A person who commits suicide is dealing with something that is real. It may or may not be as bad as it seems to them but it is real.

They need help. They need our support but may feel they can’t ask for help because others won’t understand. Stigma about suicide may keep them from being willing to talk about how they feel (13). What they need most is the hope that comes from God. Unfortunately, as Fr. Chris and Br. Jason write, “When secularism takes extreme forms, aiming to remove God from every facet of our lives, our society is doomed to unhappiness and discontentment” (17). To remove God from society at large is to remove that which we are created for.

As Fr. Chris and Br. Jason remind us, “the Baltimore Catechism states, we are created “to know God, to love him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next” (18). We are created to know and love God. Without him, we cannot know the true joy and love that we are created for. Fr. Chris and Br. Jason continue later, “As Thomas Aquinas states, we cannot live without joy, so if we don’t have spiritual joy, we will seek joy in carnal pleasures” (21). Yet, carnal pleasures can only make us happy for a moment. Only the joy that comes from God lasts for eternity.

In chapter two, Fr. Chris and Br. Jason begin a discussion of why suicide is considered as grave matter but may not be a sin. Suicide is grave matter because “it is a violation of the love we are to have for God” (After Suicide, 24). It “hurts our neighbor, which is a sin against the virtue of charity…suicide contradicts love of self (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2281)” (After Suicide, 25). This is why suicide always is “grave matter.” However, for something to be a sin, it needs to meet three criteria. The first is grave matter. It also requires full knowledge and full consent (see After Suicide, 27, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2282).

In After Suicide, Fr. Chris frequently refers to the suicide of his grandmother. Following the above, he writes, “Thus, I doubt if her suicide was done with full freedom of the will and that she really wanted to complete such a desperate act” (28). Trusting in the mercy of God, it is not for us to judge. God knows what is the heart of one who commits suicide. God offers them mercy. We pray the person is open to the mercy that God offers them at their death.

The Church used to say that those who committed suicide had sinned and could not have a funeral in church. Fortunately, the Church doctrine on suicide has developed (see After Suicide, 33). Now, the Church understands more the psychological issues/mental health of one who commits suicide. We can and should have funerals in church for one who commits suicide to pray for God’s mercy for them.

Over several pages, Fr. Chris and Br. Jason offer a discussion on how our prayers after the death of one who commits suicide can help them. It does not change the act of suicide. What it does do is plead for God’s mercy upon them. Our prayers to God are to a God who exists outside of time. God can apply our prayers to the person at the moment of their death as He offers them his mercy. So, we pray for them after their death with faith and hope in God’s mercy but we don’t need to pray too hard. As God said to Sr. Faustina, “Those whom you love in a special way, I too love in a special way, and for your sake, I shower my graces upon them. I am pleased when you tell Me about them, but don’t be doing so with such excessive effort, (Diary, 739)” (61). We pray for our loved ones but we do so with hope, hope in God’s mercy.

Perhaps what Fr. Chris and Br. Jason say on praying those who commit suicide can be best summed up when they write, “The prayer of the Church cannot “change God’s mind” regarding the particular judgment of a soul. The key point to emphasize is this: The Church’s prayer for one who died by suicide can only be effective – or even make sense – if God is eternal and outside of time, and our prayers can make a difference applied at the moment of death” (65).

Fr. Chris and Br. Jason address our goal in dealing with the suicide of a loved one when they write, “you never “get over” the loss of a loved one to a suicide, but you “can and will get through it” (97). In the pages that follow they offer much needed discussion on types of grief (97-100). They discuss the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) on pages 101-104 (see my own discussion of the five stages in my article, “Allowing Ourselves to Grieve”, pages 4-5).

Fr. Chris and Br. Jason give three spiritual principles to help us in “healing from bereavement”. First, we need to admit “we are powerless over the loss of our loved one.” Second, we need to trust in Jesus, who in his mercy can “restore our lives to manageability.” Lastly, we need “to entrust our will, our lives, and our loved one to the loving care and protection of God” (109). I want to give particular note to the word “manageability” in the second principle. Our lives will never be the same following the loss of a loved one but God can teach us and help us to live with what we have experienced and the pain it has caused us. God does not remove the pain. However, God does show us how to manage our suffering.

Fr. Chris and Br. Jason go on to encourage us to deal with our pain. We cannot just put it on a shelf and expect it to disappear. We need to face our pain. We need to ask God in his mercy to help us deal with the pain (129). May God give you the strength and support you need to deal with your pain.

Suffering is something we hope to never face but the reality of life in this world is that there is suffering. We need to allow God to use our suffering “to convert and transform us” (After Suicide, 147). We must remember “There are no quick answers. The mystery of God is too great, and our minds are too small, too limited to understand his ways” (After Suicide, 166, quote from Cardinal Basil Hume, The Mystery of the Cross (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000, page 13).

We seek eternal life in the Resurrection. Fr. Chris and Br. Jason write, “We cannot have the joy and glory that comes with the resurrected state without first enduring the Cross that Christ bore” (172).

We face pain in the loss of a loved one. Pain means suffering but we do not need to suffer alone. God is with us when we suffer. Remember the suffering that Jesus endured for us in his Passion leading to his Crucifixion. His suffering was not the end of his story. He was resurrected. We will share in the Resurrection when we strive to follow Jesus. When we fall short, we rely on the mercy of God.

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

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