When someone we love dies through suicide our lives are forever changed. Our world has been shattered and now we realize that all of the old assumptions about life are changed. Our loss cries out for a context to experience meaning and hope. We need to establish a new relationship in faith with our deceased loved one and our entire network of friends and families. There are many challenges we have to undertake especially considering the circumstances surrounding our loss.
It has been noted that alarming statistics of depression are prevalent in our country. Many are feeling the weariness in our society. Multiple losses such divorce, loss of jobs, infidelity, and illness increase this weariness. This may well lead not only to suicidal ideation but also the act itself. This fatigue has to be addressed as we sadly realize that the radical solution of taking one’s life is no solution at all. It is an extremely painful act. Everything we as Christians believe about finding purpose in suffering is contradicted when suicide is proposed.
The Total Network
All of us have those whom we network with in our lives. Our families, friends, parish community, work community and even how we socialize. We establish bonds in varying degrees with all of these people. The entire story is not being told with “assisted suicide.” Part of the personal network will assist in the actual taking of life.
There has to be sorrow from those who have bonded with us in life. Anyone who has ever ministered to bereaved families is well aware of the chaos surrounding grief. We are aware of the divisions which occur in the usual course of events about decisions for care, subsequent funeral arrangements, and disputes over last wills and testaments. Certainly decisions about life and the continuation of life are far more complicated than we are being told.
When someone dies by suicide it is as if a pebble is thrown into the water and the entire network is symbolized by the circling ripples of water. There are many relationships and reactions to the event. There has to be some friends and relatives who question what is happening. There has to be those who are devastated by the decision. Family turmoil and division is occurring. There is division in the person choosing this but even more important there is division is Jesus name among those who believe that life is not ours to take.
Ministry to the Bereaved
We as a Church reach out to those who are suffering the loss of a loved one through suicide. Ministry is being with people especially at critical times. While we cannot and do not condone “assisted suicide” we still respond to those who are grieving with the Ministry of Consolation. As with all suicides the grief is deeply intense for those who have to continue. It is for many as if the chapters in a book with the main character have suddenly been ripped out. We need to rewrite and relearn about our world.
“When someone we love chooses to take their own life, reactions from survivors can be more complicated. Survivors have to deal with aspects that are beyond the usual grief process. There is the social stigma, anger toward the deceased or themselves, and guilt for not having prevented it. The mourners have a great deal that has to be discussed. Meeting with survivors requires helping them release feelings and authentically make them their own” (Terence Curley, Peace Beyond Understanding, Consoling One Another, Emmaus Design, Marblehead, Mass. 2010, p.122).
Revise and Rebuild
Ministers of care are especially called to be present to those suffering this intense loss. We are the loving listener to their stories as they want to “sort things out” in order to revise their old assumptions about life and rebuild their lives.
Our presence make all of the difference as we are present the transpersonal healing we communicate makes all the difference. Our being with them may well be non verbal. Our being with them may allow for the need to find comfort and consolation with an empathic listener.
Our resources in faith sustain us in times of deep sorrow. The scriptures bring a consolation the world cannot give. The Psalms especially unlock many of our innermost feelings and give expression which gives meaning. They assist us in our journey through grief. We are led through the dark valley. Our belief in the Good Shepherd who prayed the Psalms gives us direction.
The Psalms place our loss into the context of conversation with God. They assist us in naming and owning our emotions. They assist us in avoiding all denial and equip us to go through bereavement in healing and holy ways.
Frequent Cries in the Psalms
A frequent cry of the Psalmist is often found in the Psalms of Lament. Some of these psalms are proclaimed as individuals. Others are written for the entire community.
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” (Psalm10:1)
“Why are you so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22:1)
“Why do you hide your face?” (Psalm 44:23)
“Why do you forget our affliction?” (Psalm44:23)
“Why should the nations say, where is their God?” (Psalm 79:10)
When we proclaim the revelation in the Psalms as expressing doubts and suffering to God we communicate the depth of human needs. At the same time while we explore our laments with our congregations we find a foundation of faith “beneath” our doubt and suffering. When we find this foundation of faith or may be translated as “trust” it then becomes possible for us seek help with our emotions and present events. Out concerns and fears testify that we need to rebuild our trust in the Lord who is our help and our salvation.
Praising God By Way of Lamenting
Even while we lament we are able to praise God. During times of loss, especially critical times when death occurs we call upon the name of the Lord. It is at this time that we need help more than ever. The lament of affliction looks forward. In this expression the grieving person is petitioning for relief from the pain.
Our attention in appreciating the grieving process focuses on the lament of affliction and how it applies to our time of bereavement. We pray when terrible things happen to good people that we regain our balance. This cannot be done by ourselves alone but only through the Lord through whom we live and breathe and have our being.
Psalms of Orientation-Disorientation and New Orientation
There are many movements in our lives. Our faith in God is affected by moments of harmony, separation and readjustment. The Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann has specifically listed Psalms which speak to our times of orientation or balance, moments of disorientation or separation emotionally from one another and our re-orientation or adjustment to losses, which are times of new beginnings and renewed hope.
When we apply these classifications as an outline to the Psalms we find new expression and direction. This application of the Psalms was powerfully stated in the early moments of the September 11 tragedy. We heard invoked Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the dark valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” As the anniversary of events continue we can appreciate the role of trust in a loving God.
The Psalms show us how to sing a new song amidst our disorientation bringing us toward our much needed new orientation.
Telling Our Stories
Like so many others in the past we will remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11. It seems that this is always the way it is with great crises. We remember the assassination of a President, civil rights leaders, a space shuttle disaster, school violence and many other incidents in very specific ways. We remember in the loss of a loved one or friend by suicide. We need to tell and retell our story about how we react in times of loss. We further need to tell the story so that it becomes real for us. By so doing we can begin to accept that the loss really did happen.
Telling and retelling our stories is essential for finding purpose and making meaning while we mourn. The Psalms unlock many of the ways to tell our story in the context of trust and hope. By so doing they act as facilitators for the grieving process. We speak to the chaos and upheaval in our parishioners lives. When we assist each other with better ways to identify our emotions we are receiving spiritual direction from God’s word.
How Long Will We Feel This Way?
Many of us wonder what to expect with the way we feel. How long will this last? Will I continue to feel this way? What should I do?
A few examples from the Psalter of similar questions are the following:
“But you, O Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:4)
“How long O Lord?” (Psalm13:2)
“How long shall I harbor sorrow in my soul?” (Psalm 13:3)
“How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13.3)
“How long, O Lord, shall the wicked exult?” (Psalm 94:3)
All of the above questions and many more are on our minds. It is not so much that we get an answer to these questions. With the ways of grief it is not so much finding an answer as that the answer finds us. There is a reversal in the very way most of us have been conditioned to think. The answer is that we receive a peace beyond understanding. It takes time for this to occur. In the meantime there are only ways that we are able to manage our losses better while we express our emotions.
Adjusting to Loss
There is no one complete theory or way to go through grief. If that were the case our approach would be simply to use it. However, we know that grief is an intensely personal response to loss. It is colored by many factors. Not least among those factors is our religious faith.
Our faith is central to our working through our losses. When we grieve it is important that our parishioners realize that spirituality is not something added on. Rather it is essential for our being able to live through our experiences of loss.
The Psalms have that spirituality which is timeless. The revelations from especially the laments speak to the human heart. They constantly remind us that we do have a converse with God about matters which trouble us in deep and profound ways.
Our communities of faith benefit greatly when we catechize them about loss. We do this is a variety of ways. The Psalms play a prominent role in our ways of communicating that our dialog with our loving God does make all the difference as to how we go through the grieving process with them. The Psalms are in many instances cries of the heart. They give expression to many of the losses we face in our lifetime.
The prayers offered in the Order of Christian Funerals are comforting to those who feel the sadness and violence from suicide. The mourners are included in the prayers (Order of Christian Funerals, par. 398, Nos. 44-45). The ritual is a compass for the bereaved in their sorrow. It sets the tone for bereavement. The prayers offered for the deceased throughout the liturgy personalizes the funeral.
Other adaptations to make the funeral liturgy more pastoral and personal may be by including special prayers in the petitions. Ministry and participation are the overarching characteristics of the funeral.
“It goes without saying that all deaths from suicide are not the same. Sometimes there is a history of attempts. Others are due to severe physical illness, while some suicides are cries for help resulting in death. Those who survive want to know the circumstances. This is in accordance with normal searching and wondering about death during bereavement. Survivors wonder for a variety of reasons, among them inheritability and guilt” (Terence Curley, ibid., p. 123).
Our ministry is to be caring with them as they search for meaning. Our hope is to advocate always for what is life giving and personal. It is the Lord alone who converts suffering into joy.
We must always be mindful: “that unless the Lord build a house, they labor in vain who build” (Psalm 127:1). TP
Father Curley, D. Min., LMHC, is a member of the faculty and teaches pastoral studies at St. John Seminary, Theological Institute for New Evangelization/Master of Arts in Ministry Program, Brighton, Massachusetts. Presenter at Workshops for the Archdiocese of Boston confronting Massachusetts proposed legislation about “assisted Suicide.” He has written numerous articles and books on the subject of bereavement. His books are available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.Com