The woman’s face was bleak, drained of all emotion. For days she had cried and cried until now no more tears were left. Yet the question remained. Why? Why had her lovely young son got up from the table, this very table where she was now sitting, gone out to the barn and hanged himself? What had driven him to such a terrible act? How could she, his mother, not have known something was amiss? If only she had been more alert. If only she had talked more to him. The torment went on and on.
More than most deaths a suicide leave deep wounds in the family. Some members torture themselves, like the poor mother, others are angry at the ‘selfishness’ of the suicide. Some blame each other, magnifying incidents, colouring the past, uncovering ‘signs’ of the dead person’s intent. Then there are those, family or friends, who are distraught, believing that the husband, wife, friend or whoever, is lost forevermore. They see it as an ultimate act of despair, an unforgivable sin. Victims of suicide, until recent times, were not buried in church cemeteries. Their names were often obliterated from family stories. It was as if they had never existed. And worst of all, there was the dread that they were condemned by God.
Today we have a better understanding and are less condemnatory of those people who felt driven to end their own lives. While it is always a tragedy when someone dies by their own hand it must not be seen as an act of despair.
In nearly all cases, suicide is a desperate effort to end pain that has become unbearable. The person simply cannot endure another hour. Those who loved them are devastated and feel if only they had known they could have prevented this death. But we know that sometimes no amount of love or care can reach a heart that is frozen in fear or pain.
We should not be anxious about the person’s eternal salvation or think that he or she has gone straight to hell. God’s loving compassion is wider than we can possibly imagine. The psalmist has some glimpse of it when he writes:
‘Will the Lord reject us forever and nevermore be favourable.
Will his kindness utterly cease, his promise fail for all generations?
Has God forgotten pity? Does his anger withhold his compassion?’ (Ps 77).
The answer of course is No. God’s love reaches far, far beyond our understanding. ‘O God,’ he continues, ‘your way is holy; what God is there like our God?’
At the Last Supper Jesus prayed to the Father for all of us, ‘that where I am they also may be with me’ (Jn 17). He does not want anyone to be lost but to be with him in heaven. His tenderness enfolds even the most abandoned soul. With faith in him we can entrust our ‘lost’ ones to the loving kindness of our God.
November is the month of the holy souls when we pray especially for all those who have died, and who may be in purgatory, including those who committed suicide. They cannot help themselves as they wait to be with God and all his saints in heaven. But now is our opportunity to reach out and help them, to pray and make sacrifices for them, so that God will take them to their final home. In our grief and loss, in our deep pain, we can do something for our loved ones who have died, something that gives glory to God and builds up our faith. This is a gift and privilege and when we intercede for the souls in purgatory we can be sure the Lord will hear our fervent prayer.
Sister Redempta Twomey is a Columban sister living in Ireland.