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Franciscan Spirit Blog

7 Things to Know about Suicide

Apr 19, 2020
sad man looks out a window
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, has been speaking and writing about suicide for decades.

So many people live with the pain of losing a loved one to suicide. I rarely go for even a week without receiving a letter, an email, or a phone call from someone who has just lost a family member to suicide. In virtually every case, there is a corresponding sorrow that there really isn’t a lot of material out there, religious or secular, to help console those left bereaved. Those left behind literally gasp for human and theological oxygen.

When someone close to us dies by suicide we live with a pain that includes confusion (“Why?”), guilt (“What might we still have done?”), misunderstanding (“This is the ultimate form of despair”) and, if we are believers, deep religious anxiety as well (“How does God treat such a person? What’s to be his or her eternal destiny?”) What needs to be said about suicide?


1. Suicide is a disease. We are made up of body and soul. Either can snap. We can die of cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks, aneurysms. These are physical sicknesses. But we can suffer these as well in the soul. There are malignancies and aneurysms of the heart, deadly wounds from which the soul cannot recover. In most cases, suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack.

Like any terminal illness, suicide takes a person out of life against his or her will. The death is not freely chosen, but is an illness, far from an act of free will. In most instances, suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man who throws himself through a window because his clothing is on fire.

Moreover, still to be more fully explored, is the potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide. Since some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.


2. Suicide is a tragedy, not an act of despair. For centuries, suicide was considered as an act of despair and despair itself was seen as the most grievous sin of all—ultimately unforgivable. Sadly, many church people still see suicide as an act of despair and as the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. But this is a misunderstanding. Suicide is not an act which cannot be forgiven. That suicide is an act of despair is not what the Christian Churches, and certainly not the Roman Catholic Church, believe or teach.

In most cases, the person who takes his or her own life does not intend that act as an insult or affront to God or to life (for that would be an act of strength and suicide is generally the antithesis of that). What happens in most suicides is the polar opposite. The suicide is the result of a mammoth defeat.

There’s a powerful scene in the musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables. A young woman, Fantine, lies dying. She tells of once being youthful and full of hopeful dreams; but now, worn-down by a lifetime of poverty, crushed by a broken heart, and overcome by physical illness, she is defeated and has to submit to the tearful fact that “there are storms we cannot weather.”

For reasons ranging from mental illness to an infinite variety of overpowering storms that can break a person, sometimes there’s a point in people’s lives where they are overpowered, defeated, and unable to continue to will their own living – parallel to one who dies as a victim of a drought, hurricane, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s. There’s no sin in being overpowered by a deadly storm. We can be overpowered, and some people are, but that’s not despair (which can only be willful and an act of strength).


3. We can love someone and still not be able to save him or her from death. There is a misunderstanding about suicide that expresses itself in second-guessing: If only I had done more! If only I had been more attentive this could have been prevented.

Rarely is this the case. Most of the time, we weren’t there when our loved one died for the very reason that this person didn’t want us to be there. He or she picked the time and place precisely with our absence in mind. Suicide is a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness. That’s part of the anatomy of the disease.

We, the loved ones who remain, should not spend undue time and energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might still have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with a purely physical disease, we can love someone and still not be able to save him or her from death. God too loved this person and, like us, could not interfere with his or her freedom.

This, of course, may never be an excuse for insensitivity to those around us who are suffering from depression, but it’s a healthy check against false guilt and anxious second-guessing. Many of us have stood at the bedside of someone who is dying and experienced a frustrating helplessness because there was nothing we could do to prevent our loved one from dying. That person died, despite our attentiveness, prayers, and efforts to be helpful.

So too, at least generally, with those who die of suicide. Our love, attentiveness, and presence could not stop them from dying, despite our will and effort to the contrary.


4. There is huge distinction between falling victim to suicide and killing oneself. I receive a lot of very critical letters every year suggesting that I am making light of suicide by seeming to lessen its ultimate taboo and thus making it easier for people to do the act: Wasn’t it G.K. Chesterton himself who said that, by killing yourself, you insult every flower on earth? But in most suicides, a person is taken out of life against his or her will.

Many of us have known loved ones who died by suicide and we know that in almost every case that person was someone who was the antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, the over-proud, hardened, unbending person who refuses, through pride, to take his or her place in the humble and broken scheme of things. Usually it’s the opposite. The person who dies by suicide has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is too sensitive, too wounded, too raw, and too bruised to possess the necessary toughness needed to absorb life’s many blows.

I remember a comment I once heard at a funeral. We had just buried a young man who, suffering from clinical depression, had died by suicide. The priest had preached badly, hinting that this suicide was somehow the man’s own fault and that suicide was always the ultimate act of despair. At the reception afterwards, a neighbor of the man who had died came up and expressed his displeasure at the priest’s remarks: “There are a lot of people in the world who should kill themselves, but they never will! But this man is the last person who should have killed himself; he was the most sensitive person I’ve ever met!” Too true.

Killing yourself is something different. It’s how some of the Hitlers pass out of this life. Hitler, in fact, did kill himself. In such a case, the person is not too sensitive, too self-effacing, and too bruised to touch others and be touched. The opposite. The person is too proud to accept his or her place in a world that, at the end of the day, demands humility of everyone.

There is an infinite distance between an act done out of weakness and one done out of strength. Likewise, there is an absolute distinction between being too bruised to continue to touch life and being too proud to continue to take one’s place within it. Only the latter makes a moral statement, insults the flowers, and challenges the mercy of God.

man walks on a foggy beach

5. God’s mercy is equal even to suicide. The Christian response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the person’s eternal salvation, and anxious self-examination about we did or didn’t do. Suicide is indeed a terrible way to die, but we must understand it for what it is—a sickness—and stop being anxious about both the person’s eternal salvation and our less-than-perfect response to his or her illness.

God redeems everything and, in the end, all manner of being will be well, beyond even suicide. Given the truth of this, we need to give up the notion that suicide puts a person outside the mercy of God. God’s mercy is equal even to suicide.

After the resurrection, we see how Christ, more than once, goes through locked doors and breathes forgiveness, love, and peace into hearts that are unable to open themselves because of fear and hurt. God’s mercy and peace can go through walls that we can’t. And, as we know, this side of heaven, sometimes all the love, stretched-out hands, and professional help in the world can no longer reach through to a heart paralyzed by fear and illness.

But when we are helpless, God is not. God’s love can descend into hell itself (as we profess in our creed) and breathe peace and reconciliation inside wound, anger, and fear. God’s hands are gentler than ours, God’s compassion is wider than ours, and God’s understanding infinitely surpasses our own.


6. We die into the loving, tender arms of God. Few images are as primal, and as tender, as that of a mother holding and cradling her newborn baby. Indeed, the words of the most-renowned Christmas carol of all time, “Silent Night,” were inspired by precisely this image. Joseph Mohr, a young priest in Germany, had gone out to a cottage in the woods on the afternoon of Christmas Eve to baptize a newborn baby. As he left the cottage, the baby was asleep in its mother’s lap. He was so taken with that image, with the depth and peace it incarnated, that, immediately upon returning to his rectory, he penned the famous lines of “Silent Night.” His choir director, Franz Gruber, put some guitar chords to those words and froze them in our minds forever. The ultimate archetypal image of peace, safety, and security is that of a newborn sleeping in its mother’s arms. Moreover, when a baby is born, it’s not just the mother who’s eager to hold and cradle it. Most everyone else is too.

Perhaps no image then is as apt, as powerful, as consoling, and as accurate in terms of picturing what happens to us when we die and awake to eternal life as is the image of a mother holding and cradling her newborn child. When we die, we die into the arms of God and surely we’re received with as much love, gentleness, and tenderness as when we were received into the arms of our mothers at birth. Moreover, surely we are even safer there than we were when we were born here on earth. I suspect too that more than a few of the saints will be hovering around, wanting their chance to cuddle the new baby. And so it’s okay if we die before we’re ready, still in need of nurturing, still needing someone to help take care of us, still needing a mother. We’re in safe, nurturing, gentle hands.


7. We must work at redeeming the life and memory of our loved ones who have died by suicide. There is still a huge stigma surrounding suicide. For many reasons, we find it hard both to understand suicide and to come to peace with it. Obituaries rarely name it, opting instead for a euphemism of some kind to name the cause of death. Moreover, and more troubling, we, the ones left behind, tend to bury not only the one who dies by suicide but his or her memory as well. Pictures come off the walls, scrapbooks and photos are excised, and there is forever a discreet hush around the cause of their deaths. Ultimately neither their deaths nor their persons are genuinely dealt with. There is no healthy closure, only a certain closing of the book, a cold closing, one that leaves a lot of business unfinished. This is unfortunate, a form of denial. We must work at redeeming the life and memory of our loved ones who have died by suicide.

This is what Harvard psychiatrist Nancy Rappaport does in a moving book about her mother, who died by suicide when Nancy was still a child: In Her Wake, A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide. After her mother’s suicide, Nancy lived, as do so many of us who have lost a loved one to suicide, with a haunting shadow surrounding her mother’s death. And that shadow then colored everything else about her mother. It ricocheted backwards so as to have the suicide too much define her mother’s character, her integrity, and her love for those around her. A suicide that’s botched in our understanding, in effect, does that; it functions like the antithesis of a canonization.

With this as a background, Nancy Rappaport sets off to make sense of her mother’s suicide, to redeem her bond to her mother, and, in essence, to redeem her mother’s memory in the wake of her suicide.


God's Empathy

A better understanding of suicide will not necessarily mean that the darkness and stigma that surround it will simply go away. We will still feel many of the same things we felt before in the face of suicide: We will still feel awful. We will still feel conflicted and be given over to guilt-feelings and second-guessing. We will still feel uneasy about how this person died and will still feel a certain dis-ease in talking about the manner of his or her death. We will still feel a certain hesitancy in celebrating that person’s life in the manner we would have had the death been by natural causes. We will still go to our own graves with a black hole in our hearts. The pain of a suicide leaves its own indelible mark on the soul.

But at a different level of understanding something else will break through that will help us better deal with all those conflicted feelings; namely, empathy for and understanding of someone whose emotional immune system has broken down. And that understanding will also bring with it the concomitant consolation that God’s empathy and understanding far exceeds our own.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain. The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.” (Letters and Papers from Prison)

Click here for ways to combat teen suicide.

After Suicide: Seven things for Catholics to Know


Fri, 11/06/2020 - 10:55 PM
The article 7 Things Catholics Should Know was very helpful even for a person of Baptist faith!!!! It helped me feel some peace and closure. Suicide really is born from depression. Once a person gets their mind set on jumping off a cliff they do it no matter how much they are loved. The survivor's can't blame themselves.
Sat, 11/14/2020 - 08:49 PM
Thank you. I am at peace, now with the suicide of my coworker and friend.
Sat, 12/19/2020 - 10:49 AM
Sun, 12/27/2020 - 05:32 AM
Thank you for that compassionate understanding and beautifully written piece. A masterpiece for the broken. Many thanks
Sun, 01/10/2021 - 11:38 PM
My Mother, a devout Catholic, committed suicide in 1978. She suffered with mental illness and because of her earthly attachment to religious dogma, I believe she was made more ill, this making an impossible situation even worse. Then there’s me... who was left to believe as an 8 year old child that I would NEVER see my Mother again. Not even in Heaven. I will pray every day that I can forgive the Catholic Religion for the pain it has caused my family.
Sat, 01/30/2021 - 03:24 PM
A dear friend of mine committed suicide and died; and on the same year, a son of a close friend. That year, it made me start to think if there was a chance for them to be redeemed, knowing this is mortal sin. It was good that I came across this article, I got clarity on how to comfort my friends, who up to now questions what happened. Thank you so much. Please help me pray that the Lord will use this answer to comfort them, heal them and move forward.
Fri, 02/19/2021 - 10:37 PM
Thank you so much for your much needed explanation of suicide and how it is viewed by the Catholic Church. I just lost my beloved 30 year old grandson to this terrible mental anguish. His mother is not only beyond grief with her lose, but is horrified that her son would not be in the arms of God. I hope this explanation will give her some peace.
Wed, 03/24/2021 - 08:16 PM
As someone who is currently wrestling with the desire to die, thank you for compassionately and accurately describing the struggle. This makes me less inclined to end it all.
Sun, 04/11/2021 - 10:34 AM
As a stranger stumbling across your comment, I can say that I feel very happy that you’re inclined to choose life.
Thu, 01/27/2022 - 08:36 PM
May the Lord bless you in this life and the next. Peace be with you.
Wed, 05/19/2021 - 10:39 AM
Thank you. I have been paralysed with grief loosing my sister 30 years ago. She was just 23 n left behind a nine month old son. It gives me relief to know she is in the arms of Jesus. Safe
Wed, 05/19/2021 - 03:24 PM
Remember the worst day of your life. The debilitating and suffocating pain you felt. When you could no longer see past the place you stood. The flood of tears that drowned your shirt. Your pleas and cries unheard. The dark confusion without any directional light. Your skin scorched and cold. And yet on that day you slept to awaken to the next. As bad as that was, you still went on. But for another the intensity and gravity was worse and they chose it to be their last day. So if you are alive, you have not felt the pain that a suicide victim has carried. Even on your worst day, it wasn’t scary enough to end your life. And for many suicide victims, they have carried your worst day, everyday. Empathy, compassion and understanding is what our victims to suicide deserve. I don't believe our God would feel the need to punish a soul any further for if so, he would not be God. God is love and Jesus taught us so. No way would Christ shame a person suffering from mental and emotional anguish. The people that shame are not strong. They are the cowards that compensate their own weaknesses by pointing out others problems. A calloused heart has never experienced the beauty of this world for if they had, they would also know everyone’s pain and take it on as their own. The strongest among us are the ones blessed and burdened with an infinite heart. And they don’t deserve to be ridiculed in this world and have it followed into the next.
Wed, 06/23/2021 - 05:23 PM
My nephew died by suicide 3 days ago. He was a tender, loving and sensitive soul. At his best he was a character - he was funny, a great mimic of dialect, he was interested and interesting. He was a joy. His sensitivity caused his struggles throughout his adult life, and only his loving parents and siblings really knew how hard this life could be for him. For a few weeks before he died, he became overwhelmed with his illness and finally and tragically, he succumbed. His mum is my beloved sister and both she and his dad are devout catholics and live their lives in kindness and simplicity. I fear this tragedy - the loss of their youngest son could be too much for them to bear. But I found your article, and will share with them when the time is right. It is beautifully written, shows such profound and genuine understanding of the disease that is suicide. I would like to thank you so very much for sharing this - it has helped me too and I will be forever grateful.
Wed, 07/14/2021 - 06:56 PM
Thank you for this and for raising awareness. And thank you for the reminder that God is love.
Karin Szotak
Sat, 08/14/2021 - 06:32 PM
Karin Szotak
My son died by Suicide a little over a year ago. He suffered mental illness of many different forms for over 7 years until he took his life at 19. I miss him everyday. But I understand he is no longer in pain and for that I’m grateful.
Fri, 12/10/2021 - 09:29 AM
Still struggling 11 months into my grief. I will open up to understanding more about God and why my son is no longer here .
Mon, 12/20/2021 - 10:55 AM
I have battled bouts of severe depression throughout my adult years. Currently I'm in a very dark place and contemplating ending my life. I read your article as a soul in deep despair but your description of God's understanding of people who end their life prematurely had actually brought me much comfort and has encouraged me, that with God's help, I can keep fighting. Thank you.
Franciscan Media
Mon, 12/20/2021 - 11:11 AM
Franciscan Media
Keep fighting, Claire. Know the friars are praying for you. Please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you need to. 
Wed, 01/12/2022 - 10:30 AM
This article was helpful and brought me some hope. I was diagnosed as Bipolar years ago and years after the symptoms surfaced in college. For all this time I've worked very hard to act as if nothing is wrong and hide my frequent thoughts of suicide. It's a struggle and very tiring. This article expressed some new ways of thinking about suicide.
Fri, 01/14/2022 - 09:17 AM
Sending deep gratitude for this gracious, insightful, and much needed commentary on an exceedingly difficult subject. I am a therapist and a survivor of my own suicide attempt, and I can assure you, you’ve written some of the truest words I’ve seen about this condition that some of us fall into. Unfortunately, as we speak, more and more people are succumbing to this disease each day. I too, believe God‘s redemption and grace surpasses any or all of our human frailties - or conscious choices. The phrase you wrote, “we die into the tender, loving arms of God” is one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever read - and words that reflect profound love and wisdom. I pray that what you’ve written here may find many others like it found me this morning, and bring hope, healing, and sanity to hearts and minds that are breaking over these issues. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. 🙏🏼
Sat, 04/09/2022 - 06:37 PM
Thank you for your wonderful words you have helped so many going through this much peace and love to all
Thu, 01/27/2022 - 08:35 PM
I send my love and prayers for anyone suffering from thoughts of suicide. It literally torments you, off a day, on a few weeks, on and off thoughts of what am I here for? To those thinking about this, God loves you. I know he does, even when I doubt. I know that all of our challenges we face are just tests. Some of these vile tests are simply too difficult to accomplish, yet none of us are a failure. Those who exert their "free will" and leave sooner than others, they should be welcomed home by their Guardian Angel (Spirit Guide) who has been there with them their entire lives. They're aware that when this life was selected (oh boy, yes you choose this life) that some peaks and valleys would not be leapt over. You'd get stuck in a Valley and hate every second of it. If you're that person, stuck, I understand your pain, anguish, tears that won't cease pouring, I UNDERSTAND. Depression is a nasty and cruel mistress that sits on your chest looking upon your pain, and laughs. Sometimes you can't dump her, like you would a real person. She sits and waits, it's disgusting. Alas, try, put one foot in front of the other. I'm going to try, won't you? Try each day, and do not allow judgmental people, religious people telling you you're going to hell, judging ... excuse me? If you're judging then you're no better. Period! Those who Bible thump in your face ... they're just as miserable. Let them wither internally from their hatred. God is the Universe, LOVE, not hate and judgment. We are all light beings in a flesh sack. When we die, the light is released and eternity awaits. I have deep compassion for those who contemplate death. I have a huge heart for those who this life spits upon. May those judged by the self-righteous be blessed with forgiveness and the blessings of the afterlife. May God heal your soul and bring you forward into the light and love of your ancestors. To those whose relatives left early, they will be there waiting for you. They're in School learning the lessons of the Universe, happy and content, not in pain. See their joy, and live yours in love, they're still watching over you. I wish you the power of the Virgin Mary, her heart that is open to everyone, regardless of wealth, position in life, worldly belongings... which none matter when you're gone. May she watch over you and bless you with joy. My fellow humans, I love you. I don't show my love to those around me all the time. They think I'm horrible sometimes... I know this. I have to protect my heart. I'm sensitive, smart, and hopeful I will stay on this Earth to the bitter end. Peace!
Wed, 03/09/2022 - 07:27 PM
My whole life has been the worst anybody can imagine. I think God put me on this world to see how much a person can deal with before pulling the trigger. Last summer my oldest son die in my arms from a freak atv accident. He left behind a wife and a 3year son. I performed CPR and whatever I could think off but nothing work. He was 29 years old and my best friend. After this happened I have had problems at work due to supervisors, health problems and just life in general. I am just so tired and want all of this to end. Everyone has a breaking point I was glad to hear that God will be there if I go. Thanks
Franciscan Media
Wed, 03/09/2022 - 07:32 PM
Franciscan Media
Dave, the friars will keep you in our prayers. Please stay strong. 
Wed, 03/23/2022 - 11:39 PM
I have struggled for so many years of anxiety and depression, pain and being alone . I'm not without sin but I have always tried to help everyone in any way I could and for some reason I always lose everyone and I don't understand what I'm doing wrong I've went thru years of self harm and now I have nothing, I'm tired and just don't want to be here anymore I'm just afraid God won't forgive me.
Wed, 04/13/2022 - 05:13 AM
Dear Christine Please stay strong. You are loved by others.I lost a dear son in February, he was loved by us all We dearly wanted him to live. I understand your struggles as does God. You're not alone, you are loved Hugs to you.
Mark B
Mon, 05/02/2022 - 07:33 PM
Mark B
Many thanks for your amazing words and revealing the stance on suicide. I am in a very dark place and have been for some time, i'm trying my best, but it never seems good enough for anyone (including myself) and more and more things get thrown my way. Reading your words has given me some relief that should the final day come I will at least be welcomed by God - Thankyou
Franciscan Media
Mon, 05/02/2022 - 08:09 PM
Franciscan Media
Mark: Please stay strong. Know the friars are praying for you. Contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you need to. 
marianne hopkins
Thu, 06/30/2022 - 06:47 PM
marianne hopkins
Your thoughts were very comforting. I just lost my honey of 51 years and we are b oth 73 and 72. It was a marriage made in heaven. He died memorial day weekend, practically in front of my eyes. I kissed him on the forehead with a hug, saying it was going to be a wonderful day because we were together. I heard a loud thump while out of the room, only to find him unconscious, and probably dead on the floor, where he sat for breakfast, his eyes and mouth half open, I was so panicked, i could not even remember 911, or do chest compressions. We live in a remote area of hawaii. When we moved here I prayed to God, who was my friend, and put ALL faith in his compassion that he would not leave me, physcially compromised as I am, and take my honey and leave me. There ARE couples who go together. All I needed was FAITH in a miracle. That day was my nightmare. I did not go with my husband. God left me. And I am despaired. I want to DIE. I want to join my husband. I believed my husband was an angel, because he was so devoid of the human caracheristics that ever showed negativity. He was the embodiment of God's love in every way. So I believed that we would be protected, because God's love was so infinite, and he only gave me a glimmer of it through this almost perfect person. (as perfect as any mortal could be), Patient, enduring, loving, forgiving. I mean, how many couples go around saying I love you all day long? How many hubbies come a running for cuddles, when wifey pooh has to take a break from her work and lay down? several times a day? How many hubbies take over all the domestic, as well as any other responsibilities and try to protect their wives from every possible little pain? Our's was a perfect marriage. Made in Heaven, against all odds. I cannot adjust. I am not at SUICIDE yet. But it entertains my mind, is there something I must do to get divine mercy here? How long must I atone on this level for the sins that caused this separation? Was I too proud in believing my relation with God was so special, that he would give me the miracle, my only prayer? Now I think about suicide as an atonement for my sins. Offering my life as a sacrifice????

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