Beyond Blue

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Group Beyond Blue member SurvivorForce started a discussion thread called “Are we damned if we commit suicide?” at Group Beyond Blue on Beliefnet’s Community. He wrote:  

I have heard that some believe suicide is unforgivable, and that God will condemn a person if they commit suicide.
Does God not know that we are human, with limits, with needs to escape, and our endurance is maxed?
Is it really a sin, or is it a way of coping with an impossible world that has imperfect solutions to imperfect problems?

I have wondered that question so many times. My former therapist told me that, with her religious clients, she would often stroke a depressive’s fear of hell and eternal damnation as a motivator for hanging in there. It was somewhat successful with me. I was afraid that if I took my life my soul would be trapped in a purgatory of sorts, saddled with the same issues I have now and unable to move on. 

But I can’t see how God would punish people like my godmother, my Aunt Mary Lou, who simply ran out of hope. I choose to believe that God embraces those persons who, in my opinion, died from their illnesses just as cancer victims died of theirs, that God would show them nothing but loving compassion since he knows how much they suffered, and that they merely wanted the pain to end. 
The Catholic Church once condemned all those who took their lives to hell. But they have changed that. Paragraphs 2280 to 2283 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church say this: 

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 obligated 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. 

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. 

If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law. 

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

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.

One of the most compassionate and educated voices about suicide in the Catholic community is priest and bestselling author Ronald Rolheiser, who devotes a column every year to this issue. Following is one such reflection: 

Every year I write a column on suicide because, among all forms of death, it’s still the one we struggle with the most. How can suicide happen? What makes a person take his or her own life??? 

Suicide, no doubt, is the most misunderstood of all deaths and leaves behind a residue of questions, guilt, anger, second-guessing, and anxiety which, at least initially, is almost impossible to digest. Even though we know better, we’re still haunted by the feeling that suicide is the ultimate act of despair, a deed that somehow puts one outside the family of humanity, the mercy of God, and (in the past) the church’s burial grounds.?? 

When someone close to us commits suicide we feel both pain and shame. That’s why suicides are often not reported publicly. An obituary is more likely to say that this person “died suddenly”, without specifying the cause of death. This reticence to admit how our loved one died speaks deeply about both the pain and shame that we are left with after the suicide of a loved one. To lose a loved one to death is painful, to lose a loved one to suicide is also disorienting.?? 

What needs to be said about suicide? A number of things need to be re-iterated over and over again:??

 First, that suicide, at least in most cases, is a sickness, a disease, a terminal illness that takes a person out of life, as does any terminal illness, against his or her will. In essence, suicide is death through emotional cancer, emotional heart attack, emotional stroke. That’s why it’s apt to say that someone is “a victim of suicide”. Suicide is a desperate, if misguided, attempt to end unendurable pain at any cost, akin to throwing oneself through a window and falling to one’s death because one’s clothing is on fire. Suicide is an illness, not a sin.?? 

Next, those left behind when a loved one commits suicide should not unduly second-guess themselves, anxiously examining over and over again what they might have done differently, why they weren’t more present, or how they somehow failed the one who committed suicide. Part of the anatomy of the disease is precisely the pathology of distancing oneself from one’s loved ones so that they cannot be present to the illness. When a loved one commits suicide we can’t help but ask ourselves: “If only I had been there! Why was I absent just on that morning?” But we weren’t there precisely because the person committing suicide did not what us to be there and picked the moment, the venue, and the means precisely with that in mind.?? 

Besides, we’re human beings, not God. People die from accidents and illnesses every day and all the love and attentiveness in the world sometimes cannot not prevent someone we love from dying. Suicide is a sickness and, like cancer, sometimes cannot be cured by any amount of love and care. Knowing this isn’t an excuse to rationalize our failures, but it can give us some consolation in knowing that it wasn’t our neglect or inattentiveness on a given day that led someone we love to suicide.?? 

Finally, we should not have undue worry and anxiety over the eternal fate of our loved ones who commit suicide. Why not??? 

First, in most cases, as we know, suicide victims have cancerous problems precisely because they are over-sensitive, wounded, too- bruised to be touched, and too raw to have the normal resiliency needed to deal with life. Their problem is not one of pride and strength, but rather of shame and weakness. What drives them to do this act is not the arrogance of a Hitler, but the weakness of an illness.?? 

That’s why we can make a distinction between “falling victim to suicide” and “killing oneself”. The former is done out of illness, the latter is done out of pride. On the surface they might look the same, but there’s an infinite moral distance between being too bruised to continue to touch life and being too arrogant to continue to take one’s place within it.?? 

And God, more than anyone else, understands this. God’s understanding and compassion are much deeper than ours and God’s hands are infinitely gentler than our own. If we, in our imperfect love and limited understanding, have some grasp of this, shouldn’t we be trusting that God, who is perfect love and understanding, is up to the task and that our loved ones are safe in God’s hands and God’s understanding??? 

Any faith that connects itself to a God worth believing in doesn’t have undue anxiety as to what will happen when God, finally, face to face, meets a bruised, gentle, over-sensitive, wounded, ill, struggling soul. Indeed, we have many scriptural references as to what happens, namely, God, who can descend into any hell we can create, goes straight through our locked doors, enters into the hell of our paranoia, illness, and fear, and gently breathes out peace.

You can read Ron Rolheiser’s other reflections on suicide by clicking here. 

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