Suicide – The Most Misunderstood of All Deaths

By Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Journey ~ Newsletter of the Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved, Summer 2005

Death is always painful, but its pains are compounded considerably if its cause is suicide. When a suicide occurs, we aren’t just left with the loss of a person, we’re also left with a legacy of anger, second-guessing, and fearful anxiety.

So each year I write a column on suicide, hoping that it might help produce more understanding around the issue and, in a small way perhaps, offer some consolation to those who have lost a loved one to this dreadful disease. Essentially, I say the same things each year because they need to be said. As Margaret Atwood once put it, some things need to be said and said and said again, until they don’t need to be said any more. That’s true of suicide.

What’s needs to be said, and said again, about it?

First of all that it’s a disease and perhaps the most misunderstood of all diseases.

We tend to think that if a death is self-inflicted it is voluntary in a way that death through physical illness or accident is not. For most suicides, this isn’t true. A person who falls victim to suicide dies, as the does the victim of a terminal illness or fatal accident, not by his or her own choice. When people die from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and accidents, they die against their will. The same is true suicide, except that in the case of suicide the breakdown is emotional rather than physical – an emotional stroke, an emotional cancer, a breakdown of the emotional immune-system, an emotional fatality.

This is not an analogy. The two kinds of heart attacks, strokes, cancers, breakdowns of the immune-system, and fatal accidents, are identical in that, in neither case, is the person leaving this world on the basis of a voluntary decision of his or her own will. In both cases, he or she is taken out of life against his or her own will. That’s why we speak of someone as a “victim” of suicide.

Given this fact, we should not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of a suicide victim, believing (as we used to) that suicide is always an act of ultimate despair. God is infinitely more understanding than we are and God’s hands are infinitely safer and more gentle than our own. Imagine a loving mother having just given birth, welcoming her child onto her breast for the first time. That, I believe, is the best image we have available to understand how a suicide victim (most often an overly sensitive soul) is received into the next life.

Again, this isn’t an analogy. God is infinitely more understanding, loving, and motherly than any mother on earth. We need not worry about the fate of anyone, no matter the cause of death, who exits this world honest, over-sensitive, gentle, over-wrought, and emotionally- crushed. God’s understanding and compassion exceed our own.

Knowing all of this however, doesn’t necessarily take away our pain (and anger) at losing someone to suicide. Faith and understanding aren’t meant to take our pain away but to give us hope, vision, and support as we walk within it.

Finally, we should not unduly second-guess when we lose a loved one to suicide: “What might I have done? Where did I let this person down? If only I had been there? What if …?” It can be too easy to be haunted with the thought: “If only I’d been there at the right time.” Rarely would this have made a difference. Indeed, most of the time, we weren’t there for the exact reason that the person who fell victim to this disease did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so that we wouldn’t be there. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that suicide is a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness. This should not be an excuse for insensitivity, especially towards those suffering from dangerous depression, but it should be a healthy check against false guilt and fruitless second-guessing.

We’re human beings, not God. People die of illness and accidents all the time and all the love and attentiveness in the world often cannot prevent a loved one from dying. Suicide is an sickness there are some sicknesses that all the care and love in the world cannot cure.

A proper human and faith response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the victim’s eternal salvation, or guilty second-guessing about how we failed this person. Suicide is indeed a horrible way to die, but we must understand it (at least in most cases) as a sickness, a disease, an illness, a tragic breakdown within the emotional immune-system. And then we must trust, in God’s goodness, God’s understanding, God’s power to descend into hell, and God’s power to redeem all things, even death, even death by suicide.


13 responses to “Suicide – The Most Misunderstood of All Deaths

  1. Your words are exactly what I needed to hear this morning. Thank you so much. My youngest son completed suicide on 2/9/17. The thought of Christmas without him is simply unbearable. He posted words from the final prayer in the movie ‘The Book of Eli” on 12/23/16. I knew in my heart that he was already gone. I’m sure he stayed long enough to see me through Christmas, my birthday and his 25th birthday.
    The only think different now is his physical body is not here for me to see and touch. My heart aches as do those of countless mothers this time of year. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    “Dear Lord, thank you for giving me the strength and the convicton to complete the task you entrusted to me. Thank you for guiding me straight and true through the many obstacles in my path. And for keeping me resolute when all around seemed lost. Thank you for your protecton and your many signs along the way. Thank you for any good that I may have done; I’m so sorry about the bad. Thank you for the friend I made. Please watch over her as you watched over me. Thank you for fnally allowing me to rest. I’m so very tred, but I go now to my rest at peace. I fought the good fght, I fnished the race, I kept the faith.”

    • Robin, thank you for sharing that quote. My heart hurts for you this first Christmas. I believe our sons truly did fight, they would not have chosen to hurt us if they could have seen any other way.
      The holidays are so difficult, especially the first year. Be kind to yourself, surround yourself with loving friends or family. I am going to post part of a presentation on grief I gave that deals specifically with the holidays. There are some resources you might find useful.

  2. Charlene Tonning

    Thank you so much for writing the words I so desperately needed to hear. My son Dominic was 23, just about to graduate from college, when he committed suicide. It’s hard for me to even say it, suicide. Dominic hung himself on March 1st. 2016. I pray every day that he is with our Lord. I know I shouldn’t even question it, Dominic was beautiful, inside and out. He was just too tender for this world.

    • Charlene – I know your pain and my heart breaks for you. Please now that the pain does become gentler in time. I found it helped to celebrate his birthday every year with family and friends at his favorite bar. That may sound strange but we would tell and hear great stories about him. Like your son he had a gentle soul and he also was full of fun.

  3. Thank you for the kind words, Im sorry for your loss. I have been medically diagnosed with having an Anxiety Disorder as well as Depression. While dealing with my sister and brothers deaths I was in school fulltime and I just recently went through a divorce after 23 yrs of marriage. My now ex got his 29 yr old fling pregnant but didnt want a divorce. Ive been in counseling ever since. Starting over I graduated with my BA Degree in Psychology with a minor in Criminal Justice but taking it day by day. My sisters kids are doing great, living life making plans for the future and jeeping intouch with their Aunts and Uncles. Take Care!

  4. Sadly I have also experienced the loss of loved ones way to often. Two brothers and one sister. One brother who hung himself 17 yrs ago, a brother who was 35 who over dosed two years ago in January and a sister who took her own life who battled with bipolar for years, it will be two year in April. She has 5 beautiful children and watching them bury their mother was one of the hardest things in this life I have ever had to do. She was only 47. Life is not fair.

    • I battle with anxiety and depression myself. As did my beautiful son. I would hazard a guess that your siblings shared a terrible genetic disposition to depression. Like a disposition to diabetes, it can lay hidden and be triggered late in life or become obvious earlier on. My son hated, hated antidepressants and how they made him feel, even more than he hated seeing counsellors. He was determined to overcome his depression his own way. He didn’t make it. In the end he may have convinced himself that his death was a loving act, that it was somehow the only good thing he could do. When someone is severely depressed their ability to reason is completely impaired. It is not about not loving us, the ones they leave behind, sometimes it is about doing what they think is the only loving thing they have left to do. It is misguided and tragic beyond words, and we will never be able to know and really fathom the degree of pain that brings them to that point.
      I hope your sister’s children will have ongoing counselling, especially in the difficult teen years. And I hope you, too, are being watchful of your own emotional health. I am so sorry we share this story.


    • I am so sorry about your brother. There is nothing worse than that feeling of impotence … Being unable to do anything to bring him back and so angry at those who hurt him. You and your family are in my thoughts. This will be, is, a terrible, painful time but i hope you can support each other.

  6. Its been a year since Aaron Jr. left us. I have so many question. I never suspected that he would have did this his self when he had so much going for him. His 7year old brother birthday was the next day. This year I was so empty that I couldn’t began to do anything for the baby boy and I don’t know when I am going to come out of this. I do have 4 other children. I try not to let on about my pain but it is so hard. I keep thinking that our parenting went wrong some were. Aaron had everything going 4 him last year of HS school, nice job, girlfriend, bank acc.,friends, family well known. Never showed a problem was there before July 15th, 2010 and when his 13yr brother found him in his room on July 16th, 2009. Thank you I throught I was all alone. It hurts so bad everyday is a unknown for me, because I was involved in all 5 of there lives (4 boys& 1 girl) I never throught I would feel lost until now.

    • Veneasha, I can feel the pain as I read your words. I don’t know how any of us make it through the first year. How awful for your 13 year old to be the one to find his brother. My son was getting ready to graduate from graduate school. It was a big transition…moving into adult life and having to get a career started…and he never did well with transitions. He had so many fears and insecurities even though he was already working in a job, had many friends, and had taken on leadership roles in the Biy Scouts. I don’t think he ever really believed he could make it. He knew we were there for him; he had moved back home after his undergraduate degree. But he worried about all the things he would have to learn about as an adult and I think he was overwhelmed. Sadly, boys have a harder time transitioning to adulthood than girls. Even in this enlightened era, girls still feel more able to ask for help from their parents, and feel less judged by society if they do so. Men, even young teenagers, face so many social expectations of being “in control”, ” a real man”, independent, and having it “all-together.” I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. But I do know that parents usually do their best for their kids, and it sounds like you love your kids. Hang on to that. Remind yourself that you loved Aaron, and that he knew it. And take some comfort in the fact that he is no longer suffering the agonies of fear and insecurity and self-doubt that he must have been overwhelmed with. And love your other children…and yourself…as much as you can every day.
      You are in my thoughts and prayers.

  7. I have one comment…..My husband and I lost a 35 yr old daughter from suicide 11 years ago. I cannot tell you how painful that was! I am unable to find any words to describe it. We miss her so much! And we didn’t understand that it was a “disease.” I feel so guilty about that. I have many regrets even tho we helped her so much financially and emotionally.
    My husband died of cancer 8 mos. ago and I feel so alone! I pray alot.
    We have 2 other daughters.

    Anne Larson

    • Anne, your feelings of guilt are understandable, believe me I have my own. But it sounds like you tried so hard (just as we did with Malc) to support your daughter. I imagine that on some level she knew clearly how much you both loved her, even if she never voiced that. If you believe in an after-life, and you say you pray, take comfort in the fact that your husband and she are safe in each others company and that she will never again feel any pain, and neither will he.

      I can’t imagine dealing with my grief over Malcolm without my husband. I don’t even want to imagine what this second loss must feel like. If ever you want to reach out for an electronic hug…. you can reach me at There are some web sites for survivors of suicide and for grieving…I am in the process of gathering some resources. I will be posting them soon.

      You are in my heart.

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