OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Into the deep: suicide and the truth of death

  • November 1, 2023

Touch anyone and you touch grief, the grief of losing someone beloved. There’s grief, and there’s the grief born of a tragic death such as from suicide. Socially, and even as a Church, we often don’t know how to respond.

Some hide suicide away, not talking about it or acknowledging the deceased person’s existence. A certain beautiful, neatly trimmed cemetery has an iron fence. Outside that fence, in an untended corner, is one small tombstone with a name and date, a memorial to one whose burial was not allowed in consecrated ground. This might reflect a desire to protect the living from taking a path like suicide themselves, keeping the soul-wrenching anguish hidden.

But this fails the living, bereft by his death, in the immensity of the task they’re left with. They must bear life in face of the bottomless chasm this death opened, which can never again be unopened. How can they do this without the surrounding presence of the Church?

Can we hold life sacred and still face the truth of death, even such a tragic death as suicide?

Christians are called to live in this tension, suspended as we are on the Cross of our Master who did not free Himself from it. Rather He “humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a Cross” (Philippians 2) and “descended from it into hell” (Apostles’ Creed).

Such humble obedience is witnessed in the tears of a widowed man, struggling to raise his motherless children alone, weeping as he feels again and again the anguish of his wife’s loss, every atom of him loving her though every atom feels the agony of her suicide.

His tears don’t refuse the pain. He feels her pain, some of which he understands, but much he doesn’t. He feels what he’s lost, no longer able to touch or be touched by her, sharing day-to-day life. He’s stricken by memories of his own failings toward her, his unkindnesses, things he might have done but didn’t, or should have not done but did. He’s stricken too by his hurt and anger at her for leaving him, and remorse at feeling these things. He suffers the puzzlement and attacks of others on her and their family.

Because he loves her, he feels it day and night, body and soul. He feels it in remembering her. Each day he takes up anew the Cross of keeping in his heart their love, while facing her remembered suffering and his and his children’s present pain.

The Church prays for this anguished man. He continues to pray, too. Would he surrender the memory and love of his wife to lose the agonizing pain? No. Their love is unbroken by death, “even death on a Cross.” He prays for his wife, a sacred task which gives him an indispensable part in the healing of the person who has died.

If he can carry love through the very shadow of death, has he shared in the Cross of Christ that brings life to all?

For those facing the truth of death through suicide, meeting it with a broken heart’s love, might they open to something larger?

Through death itself things can be reworked, and not just for the living. This is an intuition forged in Heaven and lashed to the human heart. The relationship continues on both sides. This is not because death isn’t real or final — it is — but because Christ’s resurrection has reached through death and changed it ontologically. Where can we now run from His love?

How do we hold the tension? Of not defining the person’s life by the manner of their death, yet not hiding from that death. Of accepting the pain, not just once in a sudden terrible sword-stroke (though certainly that) but with every heartbeat, while not clinging even to the pain. Of bringing our immense human capacity for love to this task which we didn’t ask for but have been given and which will take a lifetime. Of not waiting till we love perfectly but allowing our imperfections, which also wound us, to be part of our offering.

It’s difficult to hold the tension, like the leaf that can hold the dewdrop only a moment, brilliant in the sun for that moment.

If we don’t, though, we might make a “monster” God who enjoys seeing people suffer or a lackadaisical God who waves everybody into Heaven without caring what they’ve lived. Something in us can’t settle for either.

When Christ descended into Hell, something changed forever. When we lose someone to death, especially a death as troubling as suicide, do we too descend into hell? Could it be that we also hold their hands clasped in Christ’s as He pulls us out and “into the deep”?

 “O Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the power of sorrow, that I may grieve with you.

Grant that my heart may burn in the love of Christ my Lord.¨

(Stabat Mater)

(Marrocco can be reached at mary.marrocco@outlook.com.)