Church ministries counter stigma of suicide

Antoinette Wetzel joined a support group when her brother committed suicide 39 years ago. 

She was one of only three people. 

“It was such a scandalous and secretive situation in those days. There were not many places for people to go,” said Wetzel, who today runs a bereavement support group for suicide survivors at Mary Mother of the Church in Burnsville, Minn. 

Wetzel told Our Sunday Visitor that she is far along on her “grief journey,” and that she helped start the support group 10 years ago because she wanted to give back and help others who have also lost loved ones to suicide. Her brother, Dennis, suffered from severe mental illness before he took his own life at age 26. 

“He had been very troubled for many years,” Wetzel said. “He had different diagnoses. He was the kind of kid who was good looking, very intelligent, a great athlete. He was in Regis College in Denver when he started having troubles. He sought professional help all over the place, and he was just, I think, suffering from major depression. 

“We know so much more about brain illnesses these days,” Wetzel added.

A growing understanding

Society’s — and the Catholic Church’s — growing understanding of mental illness is changing perceptions of suicide. Where it once was seen as a scandalous, sinful, even cowardly act, more people are now realizing suicide often is the tragic result of a diseased mind seeking release from unbearable pain and suffering. 

“It’s an act of desperation. It is a statement that, ‘I can no longer tolerate the pain in my life and this is the only way out,’” said Father Charles Rubey, founder and director of Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS), a program offered by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago in collaboration with the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. 

Father Rubey told OSV that “many misconceptions” remain that make it difficult for suicide survivors to grieve and seek help. 

“There can be shame and embarrassment of how the person died,” Father Rubey said. “Our research shows people who died of suicide did so as a result of mental illness, but there still is a stigma attached to suicide. People wonder, ‘What’s wrong with that family?’ or ‘What’s wrong with that person?’” 

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” has sought to address those misconceptions in the wake of his son’s recent suicide. Matthew Warren, 27, shot himself April 5 after suffering for years with a severe form of depression.  

Warren and his wife recently started a petition calling on educators, lawmakers, health care professionals and church congregations to raise awareness and lower the stigma of mental illness and “support the families that deal with mental illness on a daily basis.” 

In previous decades, Catholics who committed suicide often were not given a funeral Mass or allowed to be buried in Catholic cemeteries, but the Church has struck a more pastoral approach in this area since the Second Vatican Council. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2281) still teaches that suicide “contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life,” that it is “gravely contrary to the just love of self,” and it offends love of neighbor because it “unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies” to which we have obligations. 

Suicide, the Catechism says, “is contrary to love for the living God” and if it is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the “gravity of scandal.” 

However, the Catechism also says that “grave psychological disturbances,” as well as anguish, grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish one’s responsibility for committing suicide. 

The Catechism (No. 2283) also says: “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.”

Mercy and compassion

Father Rubey — who believes the Church should remove suicide from the moral realm and view it as a medical issue — said his own faith has deepened as he has wrestled with the problem of suicide and counseled survivors. 

“Faith in God means to be willing to struggle with issues that impact our lives,” Father Rubey said. “Sometimes people lose faith in God because a loved one has taken their life. That can be a normal reaction. Sometimes the hiatus of non-belief is temporary and sometimes it is permanent.” 

Wetzel said it was “very hard” for her to return to church after her brother’s suicide. 

“Many suicide survivors are very angry with God,” she said. “I never felt so alone going to Mass after Dennis died.” 

Father Charlie Lachowitzer, pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Eagan, Minn., stresses the Church’s teachings on mercy and compassion when he celebrates funeral Masses for suicide victims. He tells the families — much to their surprise and relief — that God still loves the victims and does not withhold salvation from them. He uses the analogy of how nobody would pass judgment on someone dying from cancer. 

“My goal is to remove their fears of hell and judgment, and to get them to see it from the point of view of a tragic illness,” Father Lachowitzer said. 

Still, survivors often deal with intense feelings of shame, guilt and regret, in addition to the ordinary grief and mourning associated with death. 

“The grief with suicide is very complicated,” Wetzel said. “Mostly, people are looking back with huge frameworks of guilt. It’s called the ‘Tyranny of Looking Back’ that haunts us.” 

“Survivors are also faced with being scapegoated many times for not doing enough,” Wetzel added. “There are still, sadly, those who don’t know what to say to a survivor, so they will say inappropriate things like, ‘He’s better off now.’”

Feelings of guilt

“One of the more pervasive feelings that survivors of a suicide have is that of guilt,” Father Rubey said. “They ask themselves, ‘What did I do or not do that caused this loved one to take their life?’ So survivors struggle a lot with guilt. I was just with a mother the other day whose son died a couple of months ago of suicide. She said that she made so many mistakes as a mother. But she did the best she could. Her son suffered from mental illness. 

“People misconstrue what their responsibilities are,” Father Rubey added. “It’s the same for parents, siblings and spouses. They feel they let the person down, and that’s not predominantly present in other forms of death. And there’s remorse because maybe there was a fight they had with their loved one, and they felt that the fight they had was the cause of their death, but that wasn’t why that person took their own life.” 

Though she struggled with her faith following her brother’s suicide, Wetzel said she still prayed with her grandmother’s rosary, and that her Catholic upbringing had instilled a sense of hope. 

“It’s been easier for me to be hopeful in this role as facilitator because of my Catholic training,” said Wetzel, whose non-denominational group meets twice a week. On average, about 10 people attend the meetings. Last year, 73 people came to the group for the first time, and many of those attended meetings for more than one month. 

“Hearing from other people who are farther along in their grief journey gives them hope,” Wetzel said, comparing the grieving process to climbing up Mount Everest with a huge backpack. 

“Knowing they are not alone gives them hope,” she said. “There is no time line for grief, and we are there for them.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.