How do we as a Christian community reach out to those who have lost a loved one to suicide? This is a brief and in-no-way complete attempt to help us minister to our suffering brothers and sisters. For a more in-depth and excellent work, I highly recommend, “Coping with a Suicide: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Response” by Moncher, Allison and Bennett, put out by the Knights of Columbus.

Those who have suffered the suicide of a loved one or friend tend to experience an intense bereavement complicated by difficult feelings of guilt and shame, shock, denial, numbness, deep pain, fear and anger. They can be consumed with unanswered questions about why a loved one may have taken his or her own life. They may wonder if they could have prevented the death. The bereaved often feel angry with themselves or with the deceased for leaving them. They feel rejected, abandoned, betrayed.​

These emotions are legitimate and need to be acknowledged, expressed and processed in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

It is not uncommon for the loved ones of a suicide victim to assume unwarranted culpability: “What if I had forced her to get help?” “What if I had visited more often?” “If only I hadn’t fought with him this morning.” “If only I hadn’t gone out for the evening.” The level of self-blame is often disproportionate to any harm that they may have done.

Though feelings of guilt resulting from unresolved arguments or some other failure in the relationship with the deceased are understandable, they are generally not an accurate explanation of the decision to commit suicide. Even if some mistake was made, it is essential to remember that causing death was not the intent. It is not always possible to save loved ones from themselves. This is not a reflection upon one’s love and care for a person. If the “what-if” and “if-only” thoughts become obsessive, a referral to professional help is advisable.

Informing ourselves on the Church’s teaching regarding suicide will give one a solid foundation on comforting and ministering to the bereaved. I refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

+ “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).

+ “Although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God” (CCC 1861).

In Christian hope we are called to trust in God’s mercy for our loved one as well as for ourselves.

How to walk with them:

Share meals, mow the lawn, send cards, visit, listen, pray.

Do not ask why the person committed suicide.

Do NOT say that it was God’s will or that they are better off.

Remember that holidays, anniversaries and birthdays are particularly painful.

Know that this kind of grief will last a long time, so patience is essential. The first year is often spent in emotional numbness; the second year may bring intense pain.

Do no assign blame.Recognize that they may not want support or help at times.

Suggest a support group.

Encourage them to keep the memories alive, to receive the sacraments often, to pray (simply offering one’s anguish to God in prayer can be powerful), to reach out to others.

Follow up, stay connected.

—Shannon Trani

–Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.