By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Each year I write a column on suicide Mostly I say the same thing over and over again, simply because it needs to be said. I don’t claim any originality or special insight, I only write about suicide because there is such a desperate need for anyone to address the question. Moreover, in my case, as a Catholic priest and spiritual writer, I feel it important to offer something to try to help dispel the false perception which so many people, not least many inside the church itself, have of the church’s understanding of suicide. Simply put, I’m no expert, not anyone’s savior, there’s just so little out there.
And, each year, that column finds its audience. I am constantly surprised and occasionally overwhelmed by the feedback. For the last 10 years, I don’t think a single week has gone by when I did not receive an email, a letter, or phone call from someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.
When talking about suicide, at least to those who are left behind when a loved one succumbs to this, the same themes must be emphasized over and over again. As Margaret Atwood puts it, sometimes something needs to be said and said until it doesn’t need to be said anymore.
What needs to be said over and over again about suicide? That, in most cases, suicide is a disease; that it takes people out of life against their will; that it is the emotional equivalent of a stroke, heart attack, or cancer; that people who fall victim to this disease, almost invariably, are very sensitive persons who end up for a myriad of reasons being too bruised to be touched; that those of us left behind should not spend a lot of time second-guessing, wondering whether we failed in some way; and, finally, that given God’s mercy, the particular anatomy of suicide, and the sensitive souls of those who fall prey to it, we should not be unduly anxious about the eternal salvation of those who fall prey to it.
This year, prompted by particularly moving book by Harvard psychiatrist, Nancy Rappaport, I would like to add another thing that needs to be said about suicide, namely, that it is incumbent on those of us who are left behind to work at redeeming the life and memory of a loved one who died by suicide. What’s implied in this?
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 Nancy Rappaport does with the life and memory of her own 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” (Basic Book, N.Y., 2009). 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. Her effort mirrors that of novelist Mary Gordon whose book, “Circling my Mother,” attempts to come to grips with her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her death. Gordon, like Rappaport, is too trying to put a proper face on the diminishment and death of a loved one, redeeming the memory both for herself and for others. The difference is that, for most people, suicide trumps Alzheimer’s in terms of stigma and loss.
Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does a death by suicide, and so there is something truly redemptive in properly coming to grips with this kind of stigma. We must do for our loved ones what Nancy Rappaport did for her mother, namely, redeem their lives and their memory.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)