Books can help Catholics start much-needed conversations on suicide

“When a Loved One Dies by Suicide: Comfort, Hope and Healing for Grieving Catholics,” compiled and edited by Ed Shoener and John P. Dolan. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2020). 128 pp., $11.95.

“Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders,” Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2020). 224 pp., $18.95.

By Loretta Pehanich | Catholic News Service

Many Catholics struggle to speak about death by suicide because it carries complicated grief, historic stigma, misunderstandings, and even feelings of shame.

Ed Shoener, a deacon in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan of San Diego, editors of “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide,” tell readers it’s time to discuss what has become the 10th leading cause of U.S. deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This book is true to its subtitle: It offers comfort, hope and healing for grieving Catholics. The second work, “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders,” should be in every parish library and book rack.

Shoener’s daughter died by suicide in 2016. Both books include her obituary which cries for change: “People who have cancer are not cancer. Katie was not bipolar — she had an illness called bipolar disorder. Katie herself was a beautiful child of God. The way we talk about people and their illnesses affect the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness, there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further.” Shoener’s loss drove him to help found the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers and two other ministries.

Mental illness is tied to fully 90% of suicides. Both books contain seven powerful, emotional and painful accounts, including Bishop Dolan’s personal grief at losing two siblings to suicide. The heart-rending stories reveal tragedies and pain, but also faith.

Both books contain pages of resources and sadly many of us will need them. Suicide rates are not declining. According to statistics from the World Health Organization and the CDC, suicide is the leading cause of death in the world for people ages 15-24.

Each book is nuanced for its audience. The first includes compelling prayers of encounters with God. The latter includes tips for mental health ministry, psychological lessons and assurances of redemption.

The “key points” section of each chapter offers a way to skim before engaging the book thoroughly. Chapter subtitles ease reading, too: “Changed Forever”; “Clinging to Christ, Broken for Us”; “The Rippling Effects”; “Mental Illness Affects the Whole Family”; “Turning Away Help, Compounding My Pain”; and “We Grieve Differently — Together.”

Scholarly chapters address poignant questions: What leads a person to suicide? What does the Catholic Church teach and what it did it used to teach?

Quotes from the current Catechism of the Catholic Church mitigate the pain of previous church instructions: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.”

“We violate the very image of Christ when we dare to make judgments that belong only to the merciful heart of the Father,” writes Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington. The church has a key role in “comforting people in the name of Christ — not shaming them with cruel comments that only intensify their grief.”

While the books can be repetitive and occasionally contradictory due to articles by close to 20 different writers, some truths bear repeating. For example, we as a church have historically responded to suicide in ways that stifle healthy expressions of grief, impose judgments and inflict “crippling spiritual wounds and psychological damage that never heals.” The church needs to do better, and Catholics — while examining preconceptions and their own attitudes — ought to offer comfort, prayer and assistance to affected families.

How? Ask people how they are doing (because many won’t seek help), visit homes and not just immediately after death, and prevent isolation. Shoener writes, “Although it may be frightening to enter into this deep grief, it is where Christ wants to be.”

Bishop Dolan’s closing reflection offers hope. While people may struggle to believe in God, God never stops believing in them. He writes, “Putting the Lord first, we trust that our loved ones are greeted in the loving arms of Jesus.”

Before I read the first few pages, I had already received four requests for these books from friends recently affected by suicide. We all need these books, especially in my home state of California, where suicide is legal and safeguards for people nearing death are being removed.

Small groups looking for books to discuss will find these perfect for this. Expect rich conversations as you ponder your own contexts and attitudes surrounding death by suicide.

Loretta Pehanich is a Catholic freelance writer, blogger, spiritual director and former assistant editor for the Diocese of San Jose, California. She is the author of “Women in Conversation: Stand Up!” (Renew International) and “A Book of Grace Filled Days 2022” (Loyola Press).


Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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