“I am so sorry for your loss.”
Those words of sympathy are spoken in compassion daily as our lives are interwoven with the mystery of death. Through illness, age, injury and tragedy, all of us have experienced the sorrow of loved ones who have died and the gradual and often painful adjustments to their absence.
Increasingly, these condolences accompany death by suicide. In 2019, the latest year for which statistics are available, suicide claimed 47,511 lives in the U.S., the 10th-leading cause of death overall. There were over 1.4 million suicide attempts as well. On average, the annual suicide rate increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014.
Statistics broken out by age, sex, race, ethnicity and other factors abound. While the numbers are necessary and enlightening to understand the scope of the situation (these come from the National Institute for Mental Health), each death and each attempt is a personal story. And since we are joined to one another in a complex network of relationships, each of these stories has a life-changing impact in the lives of those who are touched by suicide.
I thank God for the many skilled professionals who support those affected by suicidal thoughts and suicide loss survivors. Those working with compassion in mental health, medicine, law enforcement, education, funeral service, grief services, and other fields deserve our gratitude, support and esteem.
My interaction with suicide in ministry is more sporadic, but in all humility and respect, I share five things suicide has taught me. I hope they can suggest ways readers might be a potential source of healing and hope to others.
1) SUICIDE CAN AFFECT ANYONE.
While there are identifiable stressors that can precipitate suicidal thoughts, no one is immune from them. Feelings of hopelessness can arise from accumulating health and financial worries, relationship difficulties, disappointments, significant loss or change, social isolation, struggles with mental health or addictions, anxieties about the future. Such factors impact everyone. Stigma, shame and fear of being thought weak or “sick” can block reaching out for help. When we recognize that all of us struggle at times, we are better able to be a compassionate and nonjudgmental presence to others in need.
2) LISTENING IS A HEALING REMEDY.
Those who have struggled with suicidal ideation have told me that what they most needed was someone to listen, to understand their pain and despair without solving problems, wanting to “fix” them, judgment or distraction. Talking them out of their feelings, trivializing their suffering, telling them to “snap out of it” or “grow a spine” or telling them stories of others who have it much worse — these do not help. They are not crazy for struggling with overwhelming pain. Just listen and care.
3) WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT LOAD ANOTHER IS CARRYING.
From troubles in family, work, school, past trauma even in childhood, personal goals and more, life bears many sorrows. Today, we experience an even greater burden with the range of impacts from COVID, political and ideological divides, uncertainty, social media and “doomscrolling,” and increased focus on the imperfections of our community and personal pasts.
While drawing appropriate boundaries to what is acceptable behavior is itself an act of charity, making allowances for another’s stressed times and the ways misdirected frustration may come out can defuse rather than escalate a tense moment. Kindness and patience never go astray. Your understanding, support and respect may be the first positive acknowledgment of another’s humanity they have experienced for a long time.
4) SUICIDE STILL CARRIES POWERFUL STIGMA, AND SURVIVORS CAN STRUGGLE FOR A LONG TIME.
Family members and friends wonder, “Am I responsible? Did I say or do the wrong thing? I look back now and see the signs; could I have done something more? How could God allow this? How could my loved one do this? Why?” These questions are added atop the layers of grief experienced with any loss of a loved one.
Here, too, suicide-loss survivors need supportive, compassionate listeners. Explanations, easy reassurances, avoidance because we don’t know what to say, overwhelming with sympathy that is more about making ourselves feel better than consoling the other — all of these can be well-meant but not helpful. Anniversaries — birthdays, the date of death, particular moments known only to the survivor — can be especially difficult.
Be sincerely, respectfully and quietly present and offer your time: “When you would like a listening ear, please know I am here for you”; or “If you’d like, tell me about …” to invite a memory of a loved one’s life. Allow them their feelings, whatever they might be. Help with a task, send a card or note; even small gestures assure survivors they are not alone or forgotten.
We cannot read the soul of another and somehow make sense of a tragic loss. Adjustment and grief may take years and the pain never truly goes away, though it typically softens and heals as people do the work of grief and move into a changed future.
5) THE CHURCH TRUSTS IN THE SAVING POWER OF GOD.
The unique combination of each person’s resilience and coping skills along with the challenging realities in their lives create a delicate and shifting balance that can be positively impacted by the care and support of others. In the Body of Christ, this can extend even beyond death. Praying for those who have died, regardless of circumstances, and offering Mass for their intentions, are spiritual works of mercy that do not return empty, for with them we call upon God’s unfailing compassion and boundless love.
In a most beautiful line, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in “Spe Salvi” (“Saved by Hope”): “In the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain” (No. 48).
Confident in this hope, we entrust those who have died to the infinite mercy of God, assured by the Lord’s cross that if in our love we would want what is best for the one who has died, infinitely more does God desire this.
I respectfully offer this prayer from the Order of Christian Funerals for those who die by suicide: “God, lover of souls, you hold dear what you have made and spare all things, for they are yours. Look gently on your servants. Remember the faith of those who mourn and satisfy their longing for that day when all will be made new again in Christ, our risen Lord.”
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.