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Every Day Catholic - October 2009

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Beyond Suicide—Trusting God With Our Broken Hearts
By: Pegge Bernecker

Six weeks after my only child died unexpectedly, the victim of teenage suicide, I sent an e-mail to a friend: “I’m eating chocolate for Lent. That’s a first for me. But I decided that I’m suffering enough and don’t need to add anything or give anything up. I think my son’s unlived life is enough for now.”

Justin died on a Tuesday, probably about noon. No one knows the time for certain—he had stayed home from school, sick with the flu, or so we thought.

Monday night, before leaving to go to an evening class, I opened mail while standing at my kitchen island. A few feet away, Justin sipped chicken noodle soup. An unexpected package contained an advance copy of Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul 2 which included “One Mother’s Dream,” my story about becoming a foster adoptive mother—Justin’s mother.

I spontaneously asked Justin if he wanted me to read the story to him. He nodded yes and gave me a big smile. Reading the few pages took longer than I expected, but his 16-year-old blue eyes grew brighter and brighter as I spoke our story: my dream of being a mother, his dream of a forever family. A palpable love flowed between us. I didn’t know this would be the last conversation I would have with my son.

If I had had any inkling of the depth of his medical condition I would never have left him home alone the next morning. But I didn’t know. He simply said he still didn’t feel well and wanted to sleep. I decided to make my weekly office trip to Denver, Colorado, an hour away. When I called home later in the afternoon, the phone rang and rang. Unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong, I called my husband, Jim, insisting that he drive home to check on Justin.

Take up your cross

Half an hour later, as I walked across West 32nd Avenue in downtown Denver, my cell phone rang. Answering quickly, I listened to my husband’s voice carefully speak just five words: “Justin has taken his life.”

I stumbled toward the sidewalk, beginning to moan, “No, no, no.” I needed to stop time. Questions erupted in me: Why? How? What if…? If only…? Suddenly I stopped. A very deep part of me began to ask, What am I going to do with this?

I didn’t want this, wouldn’t choose it, but from a faraway place, I knew I would have a choice to make. Blessed shock began to flood my veins, numbing me to full comprehension of the nightmare beginning to unfold. My life had already borne witness to God’s transformative grace in difficult circumstances, and this would be no exception.

‘Take courage!’
(Isaiah 41:6b)

I refused to wear black to Justin’s funeral. Dressed in a white suit, my neck draped in a brilliant royal blue scarf the color of my son’s eyes, I deliberately chose to defy the darkness, confusion and desolation we were experiencing. I asked God to heal and console us—to send us the Holy Spirit. Nine hundred people stood together that day, bearing witness to faith and hope. Each person’s heart ached. We needed one another. And we needed a God who could help us live with an unfathomable mystery—suicide. We needed a God who doesn’t just make good news from suffering. We needed a God who is the good news.

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‘The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding’
(Isaiah 11:2a)

I find comfort in the words of Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I.: “’s a disease, something that in most cases takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack....we shouldn’t worry too much about how God meets a suicide victim on the other side....Most victims of suicide will awake on the other side to find Christ standing inside their locked doors, inside the heart of their chaos, breathing out peace and gently saying: ‘Peace be with you!’” (Our Misunderstanding About Suicide, 7/22/01,

Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M., offers sage advice, “We must be very careful about jumping to conclusions about suicide. Many say that because suicide is a mortal sin, suicide victims will always go to hell....Only God knows a person’s final disposition....To talk about sin and punishment is unchristian and unsympathetic to grieving family and loved ones” (Friar Jack’s E-spirations, 1/16/07,

My journey as a survivor has taught me…
• Suicide is first and foremost a medical issue—not a moral issue.
• No one who is mentally healthy ever jokes about suicide. Anyone who talks about suicide needs to be taken seriously. Seek professional help.
• Suicide can carry a burden of shame and an invisible social stigma.
• A crisis of faith in God can erupt when we question how God allows a suicide death to occur. God doesn’t interrupt our free will, cause deliberate suffering or punish us.
• God forgives; therefore, our spiritual question becomes Can we forgive?
• Choose a joyful and expansive memory of the person who has died by suicide. Allow this image to override what you may have seen, heard described or imagined.
• Go online to research suicide facts and prevention tips and resources. Share what you learn with others.

‘By his wounds you have been healed’
(1 Peter 2:24b)

Since Justin’s death in 2006, suicide has impacted five of my close friends. Dozens of people continue to share their stories with me. Whether it is days or decades since a suicide death, stories detail unresolved grief, regret, shame, guilt, confusion, blame, anger, denial, acceptance, forgiveness, understanding and healing. My faith response—our response—is quite simple: Be present to one another, offer compassion, listen and just show up. Our lives then become a healing balm when we put skin on God and pray with the psalmist: “And I say, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed’” (Psalm 77:10).

Permission to Publish received for this article, “Beyond Suicide—Trusting God With Our Broken Hearts,” by Pegge Bernecker, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 6-19-2009.

Pegge Bernecker is a spiritual director, retreat leader and author of Your Spiritual Garden: Tending to the Presence of God and God: Any Time, Any Place. The death of her son magnifies her desire for deep meaning and service. She lives in Kasilof, Alaska. Learn more at

Making Connections

■ Do I believe suicide is a medical issue, a moral issue or somewhere in between?

■ Would I wear white to a funeral? Why or why not?

■ Where do faith and suicide intersect for me? For my family? In my faith community?

Movie Moments

Ordinary People
By: Frank Frost

There’s a scene in Ordinary People in which Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) is with a date, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). She asks him, “Do you think people are punished for things they do?” “You mean by God?” he clarifies. A close-up of the scars on Conrad’s wrists makes it clear that she’s talking about his suicide attempt. The scene suggests a question about suicide that’s echoed in the hushed tones and avoidance language others use when talking about Conrad.

But Ordinary People isn’t about eternal punishment. It’s about the agony of here and now, the way a family is torn asunder by feelings of guilt, complicated by a sense of loss, grief, blame, shame and anger. And the damage extends beyond the family to school friends, business relationships and social standing. Ordinary People is a remarkably honest and reflective movie made in 1980 by Robert Redford with outstanding performances by Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore. It explores how the death of one son and the suicide attempt of a second son impact a family at its very core.

It’s apparent that Conrad and his parents have become distant from one another. Gradually we learn why. Conrad, after surviving a boating accident in which his older brother died, attempted suicide. This raises the ante on a loss his mother already cannot forgive. It emerges that father and son must also learn to face and accept what has happened. Neither accidental death nor suicide needs to be “somebody’s fault,” contrary to Conrad’s insistence. Rather, his father says, “It’s nobody’s fault. Things happen in this world—people don’t always have the answers.” Only when they learn this lesson can forgiveness unleash the healing power of love.

Next time you watch Ordinary People, ASK YOURSELF:

■ In order to get past his guilt and depression, whom does Conrad need to forgive, and why? Is he able to do this?

■ How do I interact with friends or acquaintances who have dealt with a family suicide? How might I react if I knew Conrad and his family?

Putting Shoes on the Gospel

John Gallagher
By: Joan McKamey

John Gallagher had a picture-perfect life: a nice home, a wife and four children. But the threat of being out of work sent John, then a corporate financial analyst in Pennsylvania, into a tailspin of worry that resulted in depression and, ultimately, two attempts to take his own life. John survived both suicide attempts and got the help he needed for his depression, but, in some ways, the challenges facing his family had only begun.

The medication initially prescribed to John for depression and anxiety helped some of his symptoms, but not the worst ones. He endured months of racing thoughts, heart palpitations, sleepless nights and severe headaches. He says, “I was on a downward spiral. I didn’t even think of my family. All I could think is that I couldn’t deal with life for one more second. The worry about losing control ate me alive.” John inhaled carbon monoxide from his car’s exhaust and later jumped from a window 40-45 feet to the ground. He says, “My only thought was ‘I’m going to have peace of mind.’”

John considers it a miracle that he landed on his legs; otherwise, he likely would have been paralyzed or killed. He says, “My legs were shattered, and I had abrasions all over.” He was initially furious that he hadn’t died and thought, “I still have the mental pain and now I’m really in physical pain too.” Months of psychiatric care as well as surgery on his legs followed. His wife, Patricia, was compassionate and sympathetic, yet the strain on the family was significant.

John was adamant about keeping the suicide attempts quiet. He tells Every Day Catholic, “I didn’t have the courage to tell even my father what had happened. I told my wife and kids to tell people I fell down the steps.”

John wouldn’t talk with Patricia and their children about what had happened. While still committed to each other and their family, he and Patricia separated. And then, nine years after his suicide attempts, John read an article about a young man who had survived a suicide attempt and wished to speak about his experience. The floodgates opened, and John realized that he could no longer hide the truth of his own experience. He believes that God spared his life so that he can share his story with others. He knows firsthand what can happen when the stresses of work, family and job loss aren’t addressed.

John and Patricia started out by sharing their story and information about depression with local groups. They have recently written a book, No More Secrets: A Family Speaks about Depression, Anxiety and Attempted Suicide, in which they, each of their children and even Patricia’s mother contribute a chapter. John says, “I pray every day and thank God for giving me a second chance. My purpose in life is now clear as a bell: talk to people and help take the pain out of their lives, out of their world. I don’t want anyone to go through the hell I put my family through.”

Learn more about the Gallaghers’ book and presentations to groups at

Passing On the Faith

Suicide Guilt
By: Jeanne Hunt


Steve killed himself in 2006, and Jonathan is still haunted by regret, remorse and guilt. “If only I’d known, I could’ve stopped him. We worked together for six years. I could’ve gotten him some help. Part of me is mad as hell at Steve for doing this to us!” 
A Response

Each suicide has multiple victims. When people choose to take their own lives, they take pieces of others with them. There’s a death within every loved one left behind.

The grief that accompanies a suicide has a deeper, more painful intensity because we believe that we are somehow responsible. One psychologist said that those who commit suicide die of a terminal mental illness. Like every terminal illness of another, the path toward death is not ours to control. Too often, after a family member or friend averts one suicide attempt, there is another attempt. So, what are we to do with the guilt, pain and remorse that plague those who grieve a suicide?

First, we must not avoid grief. We must take it at our own pace, but take it we must. A good cry can begin our healing. It’s also helpful to find support in a friend, family member or support group. It helps to have the listening ear of someone who knows how we feel.

It’s good to speak openly about the suicide and to keep a diary of thoughts and feelings as we heal. Writing is a powerful way of releasing and healing grief. When you’re ready, you may wish to try this exercise: Find a chair and imagine your loved one sitting in it. Talk with her about your feelings. Remember together precious, happier times. Forgive him for choosing to leave you and release him into God’s merciful love. Bring closure to the unfinished conversation that the suicide created.

Finally, if we cannot find our way out of the heavy load of surviving suicide, we should seek professional help. A good counselor can offer the tools we need to dig out of the darkness of grief.

Jonathan went to the gym where he and Steve had often exercised after work. He sat in the locker room, imagining Steve next to him. He stared at the floor and began to talk. There were tears and laughter, but it soothed Jonathan’s ache. To this day, Jon swears that Steve prayed with him for mercy and forgiveness.


Healing Prayer for Suicide Survivors
By: Jeanne Hunt

Preparation: Place a picture of the loved one or something that belonged to him/her, a bowl of water, some rose petals, an open Bible and a lighted candle on a prayer table.


Gentle Jesus, come to us in this time of grief and heal the holes in our hearts. There’s a void where once we had the loving presence of __________________. Give us the courage to face our grief and walk forward holding our memories of _________________ as precious treasure.


“Be Not Afraid” or similar hymn


Joshua 1:9


Play some quiet music.

I invite you to listen to the music and reflect on something you would like to say about or to __________________. When you’re ready, come forward, place a rose petal in the water and quietly speak to him/her. (Allow ample time for everyone to come forward and for quiet prayer.)


May the Father bless us so that we may begin to see beyond the pain and grief to the time when life and laughter will return.

May Jesus touch our hearts so that our tears of sadness may be replaced with those of joy, and memories may become more precious than painful.

May the Spirit of Life pour out wisdom and respect that allow each of us to work through grief in our own way.

And, Gracious God, remind us that, when the pain becomes too heavy, you’re willing to carry the load and walk beside us.


Anthony Claret: The "spiritual father of Cuba" was a missionary, religious founder, social reformer, queen’s chaplain, writer and publisher, archbishop and refugee. He was a Spaniard whose work took him to the Canary Islands, Cuba, Madrid, Paris and to the First Vatican Council. 
<p>In his spare time as weaver and designer in the textile mills of Barcelona, he learned Latin and printing: The future priest and publisher was preparing. Ordained at 28, he was prevented by ill health from entering religious life as a Carthusian or as a Jesuit, but went on to become one of Spain’s most popular preachers. </p><p>He spent 10 years giving popular missions and retreats, always placing great emphasis on the Eucharist and devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Her rosary, it was said, was never out of his hand. At 42, beginning with five young priests, he founded a religious institute of missionaries, known today as the Claretians. </p><p>He was appointed to head the much-neglected archdiocese of Santiago in Cuba. He began its reform by almost ceaseless preaching and hearing of confessions, and suffered bitter opposition mainly for opposing concubinage and giving instruction to black slaves. A hired assassin (whose release from prison Anthony had obtained) slashed open his face and wrist. Anthony succeeded in getting the would-be assassin’s death sentence commuted to a prison term. His solution for the misery of Cubans was family-owned farms producing a variety of foods for the family’s own needs and for the market. This invited the enmity of the vested interests who wanted everyone to work on a single cash crop—sugar. Besides all his religious writings are two books he wrote in Cuba: <i>Reflections on Agriculture</i> and <i>Country Delights</i>. </p><p>He was recalled to Spain for a job he did not relish—being chaplain for the queen. He went on three conditions: He would reside away from the palace, he would come only to hear the queen’s confession and instruct the children and he would be exempt from court functions. In the revolution of 1868, he fled with the queen’s party to Paris, where he preached to the Spanish colony. </p><p>All his life Anthony was interested in the Catholic press. He founded the Religious Publishing House, a major Catholic publishing venture in Spain, and wrote or published 200 books and pamphlets. </p><p>At Vatican I, where he was a staunch defender of the doctrine of infallibility, he won the admiration of his fellow bishops. Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore remarked of him, "There goes a true saint." At the age of 63, he died in exile near the border of Spain.</p> American Catholic Blog The greatest tragedy of our world is that men do not know, really know, that God loves them. Some believe it in a shadowy sort of way. If they were to really think about it they would soon realize that their belief in God’s love for them is very remote and abstract. Because of this lack of realization of God’s love for them, men do not know how to love God back. —Catherine de Hueck Doherty

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