Recently someone dear to me lost her fiancé to suicide.
My heartbreak is deep and jagged and ugly. It is not even my tragedy. My feelings of sorrow and remorse and anger must be pale shadows beside the darkness washing over those the young man left behind: his bride, his parents, his family and friends.
Grinding salt into the wounds is the vague notion plaguing my subconscious that suicide is a sin---images of unmarked graves at a crossroads and Dante’s forest of suicides haunt me. Surely this is not really what the Church teaches?
Luckily, hopefully, gracefully, it is not.
Respect for life, including one’s own life, is central to Christian—and especially Catholic—faith. Life is a precious gift, given by God but also for God. It is wrong to throw away such a gift.
The most clear and definitive magisterial teaching on suicide is actually from a letter to the bishops of Germany and Austria about dueling, written in 1891. Dueling. Like, with swords or Pirates of the Caribbean style pistols.
The letter reads:
“The two divine laws, that which is promulgated by the light of natural reason, and that by letters written under divine inspiration, strictly forbid the killing or wounding of anyone outside a public cause, unless forced by necessity to defend his own safety. But those who provoke to a private struggle, or accept a challenge of this; they lend their minds and their strength to this, although bound by no necessity, to take the life, or at least to inflict a wound on an adversary. Furthermore, the two divine laws forbid anyone rashly casting aside his own life, subjecting it to grave and manifest danger, when no reason of duty, or of magnanimous charity urges it; but this blind rashness, contemner of life, is clearly in the nature of a duel.”
If you’ve ever known someone who struggles with depression, if you’ve ever struggled with depression yourself, you might recognize the self-destructive behavior described in the letter above. Most contemporary Americans don’t run about dueling, but they might go sky diving or drag racing or hang out in seedy bars in the hope of getting hurt: choosing the adrenaline rush of adventure as a way to feel something other than pain or sorrow or hollow emptiness. There’s a Star Trek: Voyager episode about it.
I won’t pretend to understand why someone would commit suicide. I imagine different people experience the temptation toward suicide differently. I imagine not everyone “rashly casts aside his own life,” that some people are plagued every day by niggling thoughts and temptations no one else can see.
I do know what it’s like to be left behind. To experience the simultaneous guilt of “why didn’t I see this coming?” and “I should have done more to prevent it!” and anger of “how could s/he leave me?” and “doesn’t s/he know I love him/her?!”
And to worry. To worry that suicide is a sin.
Let me be clear: killing anyone is wrong. Killing a stranger is wrong. Killing a child or old person is wrong. Killing yourself is wrong.
But when someone chooses to kill him or herself, that choice is wrapped in evils for which they are not entirely responsible. The spiritual masters of the Christian tradition have referred to those evil niggling thoughts as logismoi: demonic little thoughts which attack our souls and turn even our good thoughts bad.
Neither God nor the Church hold people who are plagued by logismoi singularly responsible for the evils committed as a result of their temptations and torments. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide”—I imagine most suicide victims fall into at least one of those categories.
The Catechism continues, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. . . God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
Suicide is not a ticket to Hell. Those of us left behind are called to pray for the salvation of those we have lost, to beg God that in the cleansing fires of purgatory whatever logismoi attacked our friends and family and neighbors be burned away so that, filled with life and love, they may enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
If you have lost anyone to suicide, I invite you to pray these prayers, for your own comfort and for the one you have lost:
Prayer for One Who Died Suddenly
As we mourn the sudden death of our brother/sister,
Show us the immense power of your goodness
And strengthen our belief
That N. has entered into your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Prayer for One Who Died by Suicide
God, lover of souls,
You hold dear what you have made
And spare all things, for they are yours.
Look gently on your servant N.,
And by the blood of the cross
Forgive his/her sins and failings.
Remember the faith of those who mourn
and satisfy their longing for that day
when all will be made new again
in Christ, our risen Lord,
who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever.
If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, know that God loves you and wants you to live! Those who live in the United States can call 1-800-273-8255, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for help. If you live outside the US, please use Google to find a similar number for your country. You are not alone.
 (Letter, “Pastoralis Officii,” to the Bishops of Germany and Austria, September 12, 1891. Cited in Denziger #1939)
 Both of these prayers are taken from the Order of Christian Fuenrals.