Tragedy struck our family in February of this year. My 47-year-old aunt Jeannine, with whom I was close, committed suicide during a night when she was lost in deep despair. A despair we hadn’t known she battled, until we read her journal entries after the fact.
Our family has been and continues to reel from what happened. Waves of sadness, anger, detachment and acceptance, all ebb and flow like the tide. Sometimes it feels more like a tsunami, where a flashback or certain emotion hits me out of the blue, paralyzing me for a moment, until I can gain my bearings again. Grieving a suicide is a unique type of grief. And healing will take a long, long time.
The Social Stigma of Suicide
There is such a stigma around suicide in our culture, which I now firmly believe only makes the problem worse. Our family has been open about what happened to my aunt, but more than one person cautioned us against being honest. Against calling it what it was. We didn’t want to add to the stigma, and made the decision to be straightforward about what we knew. Many people responded with gratitude that we were so open. It helped them begin to heal, too, since the veil of mystery was lifted. It helped many know how to frame their grief.
But there are also many who don’t know what to say, or do. Or who try to say something helpful, or meant to lighten the mood, that actually makes things worse. I am confident that almost everyone I’ve talked to about this has wanted to be supportive, even if they didn’t exactly know how.
And my hope is to continue that dialogue-opening work by writing about our experience. To let people know what it’s like from the perspective of someone who has lived through it. And to hopefully, through that increased understanding, help people who have friends or family going through a similar circumstance, to know how to provide uplifting support.
In this article, I wish to share some of the things I am thankful for, during a very difficult time.
Thankfulness in the Midst of Grieving
I had the honor of talking with my aunt about issues of faith several times over the years. I was always thankful for her openness with me. And as I grew more comfortable in my own faith, particularly since my Catholic conversion, those talks got easier. Three months before she died, my aunt and I shared a car ride together where we talked about God for a good, long while.
Three days before my aunt made the decision to end her own life, she told my mom she was Catholic.
I will never know on this earth what connected in her mind to tell my mom she identified as Catholic. She wasn’t at the place yet where she had decided to end her life. Maybe something inside that conversation we had a few months prior stuck with her. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was a thing she had temporarily settled on before she would have moved on and considered the next. Whatever it was, we were grateful to have something to go off of. Because of that, and because of her Catholic baptism as an infant, we planned for her a funeral Mass. I am thankful for that very special conversation in November and for her, seemingly random at the time words to my mother. It helped us know what to do.
Because of some family and friends relationships, Jeannine had a funeral Mass with two priests, a monsignor and a deacon. And it was beautiful. There was so much grace and love poured out for her between the wake and the service. And I grew even more thankful for my Catholic faith in a time of great sorrow.
I grew even more thankful for priests and deacons. They see life at its best and happiest, and at its worst and ugliest. And they were all so sensitive to our family, so full of compassion. A family friend who is a priest also came with me to Jeannine’s apartment in the wake of what happened. I had gone there to pick up some documents and pictures, and the whole apartment just had a feeling of heaviness to it. He joined me there and prayed through the space and blessed it with holy water. That helped give us peace as we had to return to the apartment for a whole day to go through it and pack up all her things.
I grew even more thankful for the mercy of the Church. Monsignor Michael Steber, my step-uncle, sent me the most beautiful brochure about the Catholic Church and suicide. It affirmed what we knew, that she wasn’t in a state of mind to make a clear decision, and that directly impacts a person’s culpability when making that tragic choice.
And I grew even more thankful that I can still will my aunt’s good with my prayers. The fact that God is outside of time has become even more important to me since this happened. I have clung to the hope that anything I pray for Jeannine now can be applied to her in the moment when she had the most need, to that moment in the past where she couldn’t see a way out. I can pray that she says yes to the hand of Love reached out towards her during a time when she felt surrounded by darkness. Because of these things, I can still have hope that she is at peace.
The Idea of God
My aunt struggled with the idea of God, but not with the idea of love. For part of our last big conversation about faith together, we talked about that. About how it was easier for her to attribute good things to a non-specific higher power than it was to attribute them to God. We talked about how, if that word is difficult for her, to know that God is love. So, whenever she was witness to or participating in an act of selfless love, she was seeing and experiencing God, even if calling Him by that name didn’t come easy.
After she set in motion the events that would end her life, past the time when anything could be done, I hope that she recognized God, recognized Love, and that she let Him wrap her up in His healing embrace. That she let Him take her home. I don’t know for sure what happened to my aunt after her death. But, thanks to the mercy of the Catholic Church, I will continue to pray. I will continue to be thankful for the Church’s support during a dreadful time.
And I will continue to have hope.