How Catholics Should Respond to Suicide Survivors

In efforts aimed at consoling the suffering and in saving souls, it is crucial to know the real danger that any initiatives to alleviate the pain and anguish of suicide survivors that depart from Catholic doctrine can be.

As we witness much of the moral order collapse around us, we see a concomitant alarm about rising—even skyrocketing—suicide rates. Rising numbers of suicides are and should be a major concern for the Church, who should guard against ceding too much of addressing the crisis to modern mental health professionals. 

I am part of a club in which no one wishes to be a part. October 8, 2022, marked the 30th anniversary of my mother’s suicide. I was 23 years old when she died. My mother was 17 days shy of her 48th birthday. On October 25, she would have marked her 78th birthday. 

There is a history of not only suicide but attempted suicide in my family. I will not belabor that here. It is bad enough to have had the one who bore me into the world take her own life. No one needs me to tell them that it is a grave, profound evil.

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At the same time, my mother’s suicide was one of the events that propelled me into the Catholic Church. My mother, by whom I was almost exclusively raised, had run from the Church and its doctrines, and she died a bitter and angry woman. At the time of her suicide, I was in the midst of something of a conversion anyway, and her death “pushed me over the edge,” as I concluded and thought to myself (and still do) that “this [her suicide] is what happens to those who reject and fight the Church.” That she had gotten involved in all manner of serious sin did not help. It is my experience that serious sin—almost always arrived at gradually, with antecedent, smaller sins—can or always does lead to serious mental disturbance and, sometimes, suicide. 

My parents more or less abandoned the Faith after their divorce (divorce also being grave sin when chosen, as it was in my parents’ case) when I was seven years old. Neither my brothers nor I were catechized in the least, and it is safe to say that we were “anti-catechized” in word and deed. Effectively, my brothers and I were “baptized atheists.”

It did not help that while my father openly and publicly flouted Catholic teaching, he was friendly with many churchmen and other Catholics, and they chose not to exercise their obligations as pastors and shepherds or people with an obligation to exercise fraternal correction, or even rebuke. We are all, no doubt, familiar with such men in Catholic history and in the present age—those who cast aside sound doctrine while daring to hold positions of leadership as shepherds in the Church, whether as parish pastors, bishops, or even cardinals and popes, or in various lay states.

My mother, seeing much of this, became bitter and angry. She had been humiliated by my father’s remarriage to a woman who had been part of a couple with whom my parents had formerly socialized. The situation was made worse when my father moved the second woman and her children into the marital home. The stage was set for disaster by foisting this way of un-Catholic living into our lives, although it is so commonly accepted and excused today, even within the Church.

It was on account of a holy and orthodox Dominican I met in my undergraduate days that I was first exposed to Catholicism and, ultimately, was confirmed in 1994 on Pentecost Sunday, with 50 eighth graders. My wife, Susan, when I first met her, also affirmed what was a nascent faith, one still very much in need of formation. But she confirmed that my attraction to authentic Church teaching was a good and holy thing. 

In our now almost 27 years of marriage, she and I have grown, sometimes better than others (and sometimes far too slowly), in our knowledge of God, the Church, and His ways. I only recently learned from her that, before we met, she was praying for her future spouse. If I get to Heaven, it will be in no small part because of her prayers, her witness, and her love. 

But even before reaching my eternal end, those same prayers, witness, love, and fidelity to the Church on her part have led to great healing for me, even as she has struggled mightily alongside Our Lord to help me break down needless psychological and spiritual barriers I have erected. Those barriers have at times impeded my own growth in holiness (including some very bad behavior) while living on this side of eternity. In the end, when our time on this earth is over, our holiness (or lack thereof) is all that will matter. As Our Lord tells us, “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30). 

To this day, however, my brothers have nothing to do with the Church, though my older brother seems to have some fascination with my faith, and with the Faith itself, and even with how my wife and I have managed to stay married for 27 years, including through some tremendous suffering.

In efforts aimed at consoling the suffering and in saving souls, it is crucial to know the real danger that any initiatives to alleviate the pain and anguish of suicide survivors that depart from Catholic doctrine and good Catholic practice can do and that such efforts separated from Truth will bear no good fruit. Catholic programs and initiatives, if not truly animated by the Holy Spirit and confirmed by sound doctrine and practice, never come to good ends, and ultimately they do more damage than good, regardless of how well intentioned. And modern psychology, as helpful as it can be, is fraught with dangers. 

While suicide is, in fact, a hallmark of mental illness, it is also a hallmark of the diabolic, and the two are most certainly interrelated. We know this not only from thousands of years of experience, but also from Holy Writ. We know that every single disorder and evil man faces stems from the Fall of our first parents after they took the Evil One’s bait, in whatever form that disobedience took and as is so vividly presented in Genesis. As the Catechism tells us:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay.” Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground,” for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history. (CCC 400) 

If God is the Author of Life (and He is), then surely the Evil One is, as Our Lord tells us, “a murderer from the beginning” (see John 8:44) and suicide is among the Evil One’s sick crowning achievements, so to speak.   

The only real healing I have ever experienced occurred only within the context of my own fidelity to Church teaching, even as I benefitted from the help of good mental health professionals (not all of them Catholic). And that fidelity has involved a rejection (while loving and honoring my parents themselves) of my parents’ choices and heterodox values, and the half-hearted attitudes (or outright rejection) they displayed (and my father still displays) toward the Church and her doctrines. Those doctrines are guaranteed by Our Lord Himself and, frankly, common sense and experience.

No matter how well intentioned anyone may be, it is disconcerting to see so many references to chemical imbalances and psychological references by various shepherds in the Church when talking about mental illness, and suicide in particular, but without any corresponding or proportionate references to spirit, or of sin.   

Indeed, if anyone is prone to sin, it is the survivors of suicide who, like anyone else, need help in holiness, and not to cave to despair and worldly ways of coping with the trauma of suicide, which is most certainly grave matter.  

It is cause for concern when careless and uninformed references are made to chemical imbalances and psychological impediments to the exclusion of the spirit and morals but are placed in the context of a kind of generalized call that “the Church is there for them [survivors of suicide].”  

It is true also that God wants us to come to Him in our sufferings, but that is so that He might transform us, not so that we will wallow in the tragedy and wail about it forever. As difficult as my mother’s suicide was and still is, God and only God matters. When we have Him, all our other relationships fall into place.

As Matthew the Evangelist has recorded Our Lord:

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)

As for the grave matter of suicide, it is grave matter not because of how it affects those around us, though grave matter always affects those around us, whether we see it or not. Suicide is grave matter because it is a direct contradiction and assault on the Fifth Commandment, regardless of the subjective components of the actor. As such, it either greatly offends Our Lord or, if the actor is not morally culpable, it still grieves Him. As the Catechism puts it:  

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.
(2281)

It is true that mental illness can be a complicated matter and often involves the fields of medicine and psychology. The Church recognizes that. But it would be a grave error to reject matters of the spirit (rejected by so much of medicine and science) and morals (also rejected by so much of medicine and science and, sadly, too many in the Church).  

As a well-intentioned psychiatrist I know (a Sikh, not a Catholic) wisely told me in the last few years, “we are not just a bag of chemicals.”   

I recently told a friend (more than one, actually) that if another person talks to me about the state of my mother’s “mental illness” and the state of her soul as if I need some comfort about her eternal ends, I am going to “spit nails.” I am not my mother’s judge, but neither is anyone else on this earth.   

The Catechism is clear when it says:

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. (2282)

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. (2283)   

More to the point, all I need is God and to bring as many people to Him as His grace will allow, and to beg mercy of Him for my failures. My mother has met her judgment, and she has been judged by an infinitely loving and just and merciful God. I pray for her, and if those prayers can be of no benefit to her, or if she is not in need of them because she is now with God, then Our Lord and His mother will surely find a use for them.

Even when mental health professionals work any kind of healing, it is ultimately God who does the healing. And when that happens, as I have experienced it, I declare with St. Paul:  

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

  • Christopher J. Brennan, Esq.

    Christopher J. Brennan, Esq. is a practicing attorney in New Jersey, and has been married for 27 years to his wife, Susan, with whom he has six children. Mr. Brennan has spoken on the subject of divorce law and the practical ways Catholics can stem the tide of divorce and preserve marriage. He resides at the Jersey Shore.

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