28Jan What pastoral wisdom can we offer in the face of suicide?

Suicide is newsworthy these days. It has been on ‘The Late Late’; ‘Today with Pat Kenny,’ ‘Liveline’, ‘2FM’ and ‘Frontline’. The recent statistics have contributed to this discussion. I was even mentioned in dispatches myself on Lifeline recently following the funeral of a 20 year-old. Paulette O Connor (researcher with Frontline) and myself were also in discussion the past week. I decided not to join the Frontline programme Monday night. Why? I am fearful of the clichés taking over and it seemed too crowded a studio to allow any real comment on the issues. What I might have to say would hardly be popular but it would ask why.

I make a distinction between those who suffer for a long time and decide to end this suffering. I recall one mother sitting on a sofa one very sad morning. Her son had hanged himself. All she could say to me was this: “I have tried for years to die and there he has gone and done it. “ It was true what she said. Her poor little mind was very sore for years. Her own death wasn’t very natural either. But the son had found an instant answer to an immediate question. My questions are primarily around the young men who die by suicide and the devastation they leave behind.

I think our writers and readers on this web-site might have something to say from their experience. I have buried 18 people who were murdered and probably a very similar number who died by suicide. Those statistics I am sure can be multiplied across the country and by the readership of the website. Can we share our pastoral experiences? The days around a funeral are difficult but the months and years afterwards leave deep scars that never heal. In ways that is where we have to be: Listening and being there.

1. My most serious observation is with the apparent impulsiveness of many young men who die by suicide. How many young fellows now have a row with the girlfriend and then go off and kill themselves. I find that brutal and scary. Sometimes suicide seems like the action of a spoilt child and is like a tantrum. ‘I want something and I want it now and if I don’t get it. I will show you.’ And then I wonder.

2. I want to whisper: Does the ‘absence’ of God in our society and among the young, create a vacuum?

3. And I want to whisper again: What replaces God and Religion as a system of values and beliefs to define life? Is there something ‘missing’ in how we present God and Religion in our society? And what kind of God do we present?

4. I am also concerned about our Instant Society. We have instant coffee; vegetables all the year around; the values of the Celtic Tiger (‘you can have anything you want and now); do we pander to the children – giving them all they want; sound bites in the Media (even around the murdered garda, Adrian O Donohoe – a reporter on Morning Ireland, asking ‘how does his wife feel?’); instant pills for every problem; a cure for every need.

5. But life isn’t like that. Has society become impulsive? Do we expect an immediate answer to every question and now? We saw the same idea with the Frontline programme on the Presidential election. We saw it with the utter craziness in Anglo-Irish and the stupidity of our political system that didn’t see or bother to look at the long term effects of their short-term policies. The short-termism in politics and the superficiality of the Media can infect and affect us all. The now-now; me-me philosophy doesn’t work.

6. I watch some of these funerals. It sometimes seems as if this is High Drama. The youngsters come along dressed in their uniform (black trousers, black ties, white shirts); they write up the tributes on Facebook; they want the favorite music; they may even throw the ties into the grave. It almost makes the Drama attractive and glamorous. But this person is dead. This family is shattered. There is no future and no tomorrow. The moment (funeral) of the death becomes a peak moment of life. But it isn’t. How do get any of this across to young people? How do we stop the imitators?

7. I buried a much loved older woman some weeks ago. She used to use the cant “it isn’t all about you, you know.” She would throw that at her daughter-in-law in jest and it was always great fun. But somehow young people have to begin to see this: “It isn’t all about them. “ Life is bigger than now and bigger than them. The whole Christian outlook is one of love and regard for others and for God. How do we instil the values of ‘gratitude’ and ‘appreciation’ in these young ones? They can be so caught up in growing up; in smelling right; in dressing in the latest; in having all mod cons; in doing their own thing.

8. But my extra fear is this one: I see parents worrying now, if they are demanding or if anything goes wrong or if the youngsters are out late – wondering what might happen. There is almost an unspoken blackmail around. What can we do about any of this?

Are there any conclusions? We may want to shout and ask the youngsters to toughen up (we may wish to ask the Brian Codys of this world to do a job for us!); to face up to life’s obstacles; to be given less and to appreciate more; to be better parented and educated. Is Education a story of achievement of qualification or is it a Preparation for Life? What do we do as a Society to help? What do we do as a Christian culture or as a Church? What is our Catechesis like in our Schools or what do we think it should be like? Even our Sacraments now are so often Moments for Celebrating rather than Launching Occasions into a Community (and a way of life) where people commit to work together for the betterment of life and the celebration of God among us.

Have we as a Christian Community something to say and to offer?

Seamus Ahearne osa, Rivermount, Finglas South, D11. (Email: seamus.ahearne@gmail.com)

16 Responses

  1. Kevin

    Interesting one for me. Will keep looking.

    Friend sent me this tonight. Nice, even apt C + W song. Beautiful singer and children. For you all.


  2. Mary O Vallely

    The first thing we need to do is exactly what Seamus Ahearne has done. We bring it into the open and we talk about it.
    I was speaking recently with a priest teacher in a boys secondary school and he told me that he knew nothing about homosexuality. I was so shocked. It was as if it had nothing to do with him when evidence shows us that this issue is often a reason for the high number of young male suicides. We need to talk about it and we need to tell our young people that, no matter what their sexual leanings, that they are loved by God who loves them as much as he loves any of His children, that they are indeed worthy of love and respect from all of us.
    I don’t really wish to start a thread about sexual issues but if we can allow our young men to express emotions, to cry and talk about how they feel, to not pretend they are “ok” as their fathers and grandfathers were trained to do, then that would be a start. We need to talk. Thank you, Seamus, for opening this thread and for showing such Christ-like compassion. This is a topic we all need to be concerned with so let us talk about it, not just here but in our families and workplaces and in our faith communities.

  3. Raymond Hickey Bordine

    My life’s work has been with the young, chiefly those between 15 and 25 years of age. Back in the day when I was young, the Catholic church was a support for youth, providing leadership and hope, insights, and affirmation of our youth. Many contemporary topics involving sexual issues, marriage problems, and religious doubts were simply ignored by church leaders. Blind faith was the norm: listen to what Father tells you.

    Then something happened in society, the people became educated and began to think for themselves. Questions arose about the authority and base of the Catholic church; sexual orientation; the purpose and meaning of marriage; the rational and theological foundations of faith. Unfortunately for those young, thinking Catholics, the leadership of the church had not kept up with modern developments in either secular subjects or theological progressive thought. Their answers for the modern educated youth of the past several decades were vapid, sterile and meaningless.

    The church issued proclamations about ‘intrinsically disordered’ people, sanctity of marriage without divorce, infallibility of the Pope, exclusion of half of the population for priesthood, creation of children as the purpose of sexual intercourse, etc. The church had made itself unsupportive, hopeless, apathetic, and critical of youth. The linkage between God and youth that was once a hallmark of the Catholic faith was now rotting and deteriorating. No hope, no affirmation, no creative leadership, no enthusiasm for life and then death by suicide. Take a look around you the next time you are at a Catholic mass, where have all the young people gone? Where is the enthusiasm, where is the joy, where is the spontaneous love? This church has already lost two generations and is now fervently working on losing the third.
    The prayer by the progressive Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, is appropriate for us now: “May the Risen Christ keep me young for God’s greater glory: Young, that is smiling, optimistic, active and perceptive.” Where have all the young people gone; long time passing.

  4. Debbie

    Father Seamus,
    the only answer that I can give you is the one that worked for me, and that is FEAR of the Lord, God bless the nuns who taught it to me. I was told that the only person in the Bible who ever committed suicide was Judas and he was damned for it. I in my turn, just a few years ago, told the same thing to another young person who was talking about killing themselves. I said that whatever was bothering him now would pass but Hell is eternal. He has once or twice since then, said to me, “I would end it if it weren’t for the fact that Got won’t let us”

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    For all it’s worth, here’s my kick at a few responses to your questions:
    1. I don’t believe you’ll find a great statistical representation on that one. If this does happen, I’m not sure it could properly be assessed. I would think extreme psychological trauma from an early age to do anything so dire and impulsive or an imbalance not properly diagnosed by parents.
    2. The vacuum in society exists. It is not created by an absence of God though. It is often created by a societal focus on an unethical corporate agenda and an abnormal disparity between the rich and the poor. There is where the absence of God is, not in the youth – just in practically everything we push towards them.
    3. Nothing replaces God, ever. But if I were to venture a guess at what could embody Him, it would certainly be words and not symbols – it’s a behaviour not a look. Is there something missing in how He is presented? No. What is missing is Him in everything else we present.
    4. Being concerned with Instant Society is like worrying that it is not going to get dark at night. It’s bound to happen. We revolutionize constantly as a part of our intelligence but corporate agendas have stifled our true creationary potential to provide a consumer driven “religion” to the masses.
    5. I don’t think society has become impulsive. I think that we prefer a quick statement because that’s when we truly get to see what people think. Short term politics versus long term dictatorships are superficial especially with individual opinions on human rights issues being given to a government representative (i.e. Because the government I was born into believes in war, does that mean I have to indirectly fund it through taxes?). Structure doesn’t matter much in that system, does it?
    6. Who better to know how the child would like the children to act then the children themselves? Is that to be left up to the corrupted adults? Do this in memory of me as I would have done it for you. And could the absence of God make the majority of these children believe and say things like, “See you soon”, “save a spot for me” and “we’ll meet again”? It’s second nature to them. How do you stop the imitators? They are crafty – tell me how to find them and I’ll show you how to stop them.
    7. Life is all about the youth and the generations to come and how we adults are setting them up. It has always been that way. They are bigger than life itself. How do we instil values in them? By taking a hard-line stance on certain issues which will show them we have both courage and foresight which will manifest in them as gratitude and appreciation. They have courage and foresight but they don’t see it in us. They see us as bogged down, confused and distracted from the most pressing issues we as a human race have ever confronted. Once the youth can see that we have our fingers on the pulse of their generation and our heads facing forward to the future, you will then see a decrease in suicides among young men.
    I spent years as a youth counsellor in a Roman Catholic community rocked by an abuse scandal in the 80’s. Often I felt many a young man would someday face this harsh reality, yet it did not happen to any; there were battles with drug/alcohol addiction, reckless/unpredictable behaviour, some young men were jailed at times for violent crimes yet none took his own life. I think it’s completely unnatural for this to happen, and when there is a high occurrence of it happening, like in the First Nation’s Communities, it points to one thing: not being able to clearly identify what the future holds for you and you not being able to see your true place in all of it.

  6. Con Carroll

    the first thing, is to be able to listen.
    having information on support groups and counselling telephone numbers
    allow the person to speak in their own language
    welcoming the person, accepting the person for who they are

  7. Kevin

    Anger is huge. I am a member on a forum of men who’ve been sexually abused, mostly heterosexual men, but open to any. Anger is a huge issue and an emotion difficult to fathom and navigate. Primary reason for self harming in whatever way – even it be with alcohol , drug, promiscious sex (acting out) and others. Many of the heterosexual men find it difficult to articulate their feelings, but when they try it, they have others who can immediately understand and empathise.

    Anger is huge in all these things. And they say that under all anger is pain. The anger much be acknowledged, understood as much as possible, and expressed in healthier ways.

    I do believe some kind of spiritual dimension to life helps. Does not have to be Catholic, even Christian. The message of Christ is one that says the human being much learn to love who they are. So faith, is ultimately in self. Helping someone with these things. Hopelessness, worthlessness – despair. Anger turned on self.

    And suicide thought of as an extremely selfish act might seem wholly different to the suicide. A suicide can truly believe that her/his taking their taking of his/her life be for the better of all in the end. They see it as temporary, the pain for family/friends – the suffering of family, friends – but ultimately far better for them in longer term with the individual and their ‘issues’ gone.

    I am sure we could all list myriads things. Sad. I believe most of us feel the temptation to suicide some time in life. For whatever reasons.

  8. Jo O'Sullivan

    Oh Debbie, I’m sure you mean well, but can you imagine how your words must hurt those who’s lives have already been deeply hurt by having a loved one who ended his/her own life.

    The Catholic Church does NOT teach that death by suicide leads to eternal damnation – that is sheer cruelty and the very nature of God is all-compassionate love.

    I’d love if someone more learned than me would explain how Catholicism now views death by suicide. Don’t let anybody who reads this thread go away feeling their loved one is suffering eternal damnation. They are suffering enough without that.

    And Seamus, thank you for your bringing to the surface a lot of the undercurrents which underpin my own reasons for desperately seeking a loving, compassionate church.

    ALl we have to offer to our fellow human beings is ourselves and our God-given love. If the message that we give out is “You must believe this” “You must not do that”, “You can’t even talk about the other”! then we’ve lost all hope of reaching those people who need to be accepted and cherished exactly as they are – as Con has said.

    I wish I had time to write more, but I really want to get it out there that death by suicide is a tragedy and not a reason for condemnation.

  9. Tony Butler

    Seamus, by way of “pastoral wisdom”…At some point at every funeral, at home, funeral home, reception of the body or during the Funeral Liturgy itself I always include a prayer for…..” those who have died and are not mourned, those maybe forgotten in death and all our brothers and sisters who have taken their own lives and their bereaved families and friends..”

  10. Kevin

    As the Body of Christ, and individual members of that Body connected as we are at every level I believe – I also believe we can reach all others in whatever ways they may leave this world – through the power of our prayer.

    We can reach them, in love, at any point of their life in this world. You might not be there physically with her/him, as at the bed of the dying person – family member, doctor, nurse, cleric – whomever.

    But you yourself can be with any other human being through, with and in Christ – the power of God – of Love – in heart felt loving intent. Tim: 2:4 “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” We are to at least have faith, holding to the hope that God’s infinitely loving will be infinitely realised.

    The Church does not teach that anyone is in ‘hell’ as far as I know – though I might be wrong.

    Indeed those contemplating suicide are in a ‘hell’ of sorts.

    If the Cross is time meeting the eternal or eternity entering time – then we have that capacity, in love, to reach out to any individual at any point in time, in prayer for him or her. Through the power of God’s ultimate expression of Compassion – the Cross.

    Ask God to be with her/him in her pain and suffering – and through the power of that same Cross – the power of God’s Love, of infinite compassion – that person be embraced by the Light of Christ as they are to pass from this world. In a real spiritual way as if you are there with this suffering soul. Jn:1:5 5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

    Just as you would for any dying person – with him or her physically, or not. Not only the people who suicide – but any sick or dying person. Indeed anyone in any situation.

    Give Catholic its true power – Universal Love – Cosmic.

    Jesus descended into ‘prison/hell’ – and preached to the spirits there. (Peter: 1: 3:18)

    Meet him/her through the power of your prayer, your love, at any given moment – and believe God will respond in love because of you. (Faith – Hope – Love) ‘And the greatest of these is love.’

    It might not be much to a mother or father who has just lost a child this way – or wife a husband, etc.

    But in time, to someone overcome with the fear of hell – it can empower that person in a very real spiritual way. A true way.

    It’s all in the Catholic Faith, I think – especially in the Mass.

    Though again I may well be wrong. These are my own thoughts. “Mercy triumphs over justice.” (James: 2:13)

    “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Heb: 4:16.

    “There is no fear in Love.” (Jn:1 4:18)

    Romans 8:38–39 – says so much really too.

    “38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    May the Light of Christ embrace all seemingly lost through such darkness.

  11. Elizabeth

    Mary O Vallely, what you say is true. I was talking to a garda who told me that a huge number of the suicides he’d seen were by young men who were gay. Being gay is still not accepted in Ireland, particularly in rural areas and even when the families know the reason for the suicide they don’t want to say; maybe because they’re ashamed a child of theirs is unacceptable in the eyes of society and the church or maybe because they feel they have failed their child by not having accepted who they were.

    Rather than the church’s failing morality not being replaced with some other morality being the problem, I think the church’s morality still having some influence as being a large part of the problem.

    We have seen how brutal the church was in the past with the last Magdalen laundry only closing in the 1990s and it needs to stop now; those women and children were judged by the morals of the church and found wanting but now it’s seen (rightly) that it was the church that was wrong.

  12. MJT

    In this subject as in others, we would be wise not to make assumptions based on anecdotal evidence or indeed, on any other grounds, but to respect facts.
    In 2010 in the UK and N. I. suicide rates were highest, not among young men, but in those aged 45–74, at 17.7 per 100,000 for men and 6.0 per 100,000 for women. The rate was highest in males aged 45–74, in 2010, at 16.2 per 100,000. This was significantly higher than the rate for men aged 15–44 (14.3 per 100,000).
    The trend in suicides among women has been more consistent. Between 2006 and 2010, rates were highest in those aged 45–74. The rate for this group in 2010 was 5.5 per 100,000, which was significantly higher than the rates for those aged 15–44 (4.2 per 100,000) and 75 and over (4.0 per 100,000). These figures do not suggest that problems of sexual identity are likely to be an important factor.
    Nina Lakhani in a recent article wrote about suicides, from figures obtained from research published in the British Medical Journal. The research analysed suicide data and unemployment figures from 93 counties and local authorities across England. In general, the areas which have had the biggest increase in new unemployed, especially men, have had the most extra suicides. She concluded:
    “The figures should not come as a great surprise to the Government – the link between suicides and economic recessions is well known. There is also strong evidence to suggest the risks are mitigated and people protected in countries which have good employment programmes and social support, such as Sweden.”
    There are, no doubt, many causes of suicide, with problems of sexual identity, family breakdown and consequent loss of male role models for boys in particular, among them. In some cases confusion about sexuality may lead to suicide. Young people have a lot to contend with and we must try to support them and love them as they search for maturity of all kinds. But we can do that better if we are clearsighted about the problems they face, and it seems right to me, in view of the data on the subject now, that job-lessness and in our mercenary society, the hopelessness caused by it, must be taken into account.

  13. MJT

    It`s not surprising that no-one seems interested in the data I referred to above, considering that the least-visited on this site has been that asking about church response to the recent Irish budget- it`s not as “sexy” a subject as the meaning and incidence of homosexuality, or that of women being ordained to the priesthood, but it is disappointing nevertheless, as it is, after all, where the vast majority of people live – in the world of budgets and, nowadays, of economic hardship. We can always say The Church shouldn`t be involved in politics, but surely its voice needs to be heard more clearly than at present about social justice and inequality in society? Especially so as it seems indisputable that there are links between economic deprivation, hopelessness caused by it, and the incidence of suicide.

  14. Mary O Vallely

    I’ll admit to being blinded by statistics, MJT. My eyes glaze over when I see a list of figures (childhood terror of Maths) and of course there’s the old “lies, damned lies and statistics” of Mark Twain or was it Disraeli? No matter. You did the research and you have a point, a very good point about the disease/crime of poverty and its effect on the mind. Yes,there are many factors which can cause one to contemplate suicide.
    Bishop Dónal McKeown in an Ash Wednesday homily last year, reminded us of our duty with regard to helping to eliminate poverty:
    “… not just to give from our excess but to work for more just structures and trading arrangements around the world. A few pounds can help an individual’s impoverished circumstances. It will take a change of heart and of structure to change the system that creates the poverty.It is something which concerns us all.”
    I do think we can be proud of much of what many priests, religious and lay people in the Catholic Church have done and are doing to tackle poverty throughout the world. We mustn’t become complacent, of course. This thread is about suicide and MJT is right to bring the factor of poverty to our attention as being a factor in many suicides.
    My comment way back was about another factor, that of fear of facing up to one’s sexual orientation, especially in young men. Don’t have the statistics though. There are many other factors.
    As Christians we are supposed to be bringing Good News to the poor, setting the downtrodden free etc; We have a long way to go though much good work is being done. A good, timely reminder coming up to Lent, to think about poverty and how we can help eliminate it, both economic and spiritual poverty.

  15. MJT

    Mary, you are right about the extraordinary work for good being done among the poor around the world. We are privileged through charities like Trocaire to be able to support and to claim fellowship with heroic priests, religious and Christian laity in all parts of the world. But as you know the goal of the church is never just social or economic, it`s about spreading the good news, about God and faith.
    However, to bring Christ to the world we need a functioning church, a courageous leadership, committed priests, and an energised laity. I think all the threads on this site are actually addressing these, higgledy-piggledy: the governance of the church, its pastoral responsibilities, what Christian values are on a wide spectrum of subjects, evangelism, liturgy, and so on. Most of us, we may thank God for it when we consider the intractable nature of some of the problems, are given charge only of ourselves-hard enough to manage-and not of the church or of the world.

  16. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    MJT, excellent statistics. I am very happy to see these and I do follow up with posts. I was speaking from personal experience (5) and certainly what my conscience tells me about this subject – hate to bring in a common sense approach, but in many cases, it’s the only thing I have to offer. I would say that the Church shouldn’t be involved with politics but only in things that could be described as “unnatural” or “evil” and if this applies to politics, then the Church should be right in the very middle of it trying to instill an ethic where there is an absence. I think today, where life has evolved to something both beautiful and chaotic, spreading the good news is most importantly applying the Church’s core beliefs to modern matters. The new list of the seven social sins seems to attack this, but like you mention, the intractable nature of some of these problems puts them out of reach of the common man. It would be great if an NGO could be born to identify these intractable problems, worldwide, and focus on connecting not influence but individual numbers to address the issues. I think what is happening right now on this website is the closest we’ve been to seeing true democratic action taking place, if the ACP is successful in forcing a worldwide vote among parishioners for us to give feedback. Intractable, maybe, but we have a front line that continues to grow giving hope that our collective voice may be “polled” on an issue that is so important to many of us. The idea is to decide whether Canon Law can be manipulated by Church hierarchy to include rulings directly in opposition to the Natural Law. If Divine Law is first and Natural is second then these shouldn’t be messed with. “No” to celibate priests (not natural) – “No” to limiting women’s vocations – “No” to recognizing homosexuality as abnormal. This can be done but will the process bring about something bigger? Right now, that is for the ACP to decide.

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