Frequently, when I speak to groups about death and dying, people will share their own stories of loss. At a recent event, a woman came up to me with tears running down her face, to talk about her daughter who had died by suicide. She had been raised as a Catholic, with the idea that those who kill themselves are committing a mortal sin, and therefore are forever separated from the love of God.
Because of this, she’d stopped going to church. She said she couldn’t believe that a good God would condemn her beautiful daughter for a pain she couldn’t stop. In the course of the conversation, it became clear to me that her daughter had been suffering from unremitting depression and had sought treatment, but had never found peace.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear in what the Church teaches about this. It says in paragraphs 2282-2283, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to Him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
Somehow, this teaching has not always been made clear or been accepted, even by various clergy, and unfortunately, condemnation has sometimes taken the place of compassion and hope. This would compound a family’s pain by suggesting that a loved one who commits suicide is in hell, but this has never been a church teaching.
The Church has never said that anybody is in hell, even those whom history has held up as demonstrably evil. The Church’s aim in its teaching is to protect the sanctity of every life, from natural conception to natural death. But surely God would not punish someone for a chemical imbalance that they couldn’t help or control.
To commit a mortal sin is to do so very deliberately, knowing that the sin is grave, that their actions will cut them off from God, and not caring, (CCC 1859). Padre Pio has said that this is rarely the case:
“I believe that not a great number of souls go to hell. God loves us so much.
He formed us at his image. God loves us beyond understanding.
And it is my belief that when we have passed from consciousness of the world, when we appear to be dead, God, before He judges us, will give us a chance to see and understand what sin really is.
And if we understand it properly, how can we fail to repent?”
-St. Padre Pio
“We have to understand that we are made to live,” says Fr. Russ Kovash, Pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Williston, N.D. “If you are in an accident, when it’s over your heart is pounding, and that’s because we cling to life. If someone clearly doesn’t want life, there’s something in them that is not wired right.” So for that person, God’s mercy would show all the more. “The mercy of God is something we can’t even fathom,” Fr. Kovash adds. “It’s a travesty to think that someone is unforgivable or that someone’s sin is bigger than the mercy of God.”
I was at the funeral for a co-worker who had also died by suicide. The young person’s father stood up and told the congregation that his child had always loved rabbits, had raised them and collected them. As this father was standing outside of the church gathering his strength to say goodbye, he said a rabbit hopped out from behind a bush and stood for the longest time just staring at him. And then it hopped away.
He went back into the church to find his wife, to tell her what he’d seen. After he shared the story, she told him, with tears on her face, that she had just been praying and had asked their child to send a sign, and more specifically, to send a rabbit, to let them know that they no longer needed to worry. It didn’t stop their grief or feelings of loss, but it did bring them comfort.
In a recent public audience, Pope Francis took a moment  to comfort a young boy whose father had died as an atheist. The Holy Father shared words of comfort and mercy that point to the very heart of Jesus.
“Maybe we could cry like Emanuele when we have pain in our heart. He cries for his father who died and has had the courage to do it in front of us because there is love in his heart – he underlines – his father was an atheist but he had his four children baptized, he was a good man. It’ nice that a son says his dad was “good.” If that man was able to make children like that, he was a good man. God is proud of your father. God has a father’s heart, your dad was a good man, he’s in heaven with him, I’m sure. God has a father’s heart and before an unbelieving father who was able to baptize his children, would God be able to abandon him? God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier to be a believer and to have children baptized than to be a non-believer and to have their children baptized. Pray for your dad. Talk to your dad. This is the answer.” Pope Francis
If we know someone who’s struggling with a loved one who has been lost by suicide, let us reach out to them, just as our Holy Father did with little Emanuele and share with them God’s mercy and the Church’s true teaching on this topic.