Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 2, 2009
Survivors traumatized by each suicide
The impact of someone's taking their life can haunt for years and calls for counselling, advocacy
NANCY FRAZIER O'BRIEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
Suicide has long-lasting and traumatic effects that go far beyond the person who dies, as an Oct. 20 Web-based discussion among a priest, a bereavement counsellor and a psychiatrist showed.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, said the "soul-scarring experience" of the suicide of a 22-year-old neighbour when he was 14 is "the reason I am a priest today."
MAKE SENSE OF A SUICIDE
"I didn't know him that well, I didn't talk about it with anyone, but it changed my life," he said, adding that much of his life has been spent "trying to make sense of a suicide when I was 14 years old."
Claire Woodruff, religious education coordinator in the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., and the facilitator of a Suicide Bereavement Support group, spoke about the suicide 14 years ago of her husband of nearly 23 years, Ken, whose "battle with clinical depression was short but very, very intense."
After Ken died, her family felt "God's love pouring into our lives" through family and friends, Woodruff said. But "the old Claire was long gone and I didn't know how to articulate that" to them.
Dr. Thomas Welch, a Portland psychiatrist who moderated the Web-based discussion, said teens, young adults and elderly white men are most likely to die by suicide, although "the demographics are changing" and the suicide rate is now increasing among middle-aged women.
The three were participating in a Webinar on suicide prevention and pastoral supports, sponsored by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability's Council on Mental Illness and other groups.
Calling suicide "the ultimate taboo" because it conflicts with the "most powerful" human instinct to preserve life, Rolheiser said he believes that "in most suicides, the person dies against his or her own will."
He said most suicide-prone people have "souls too bruised to touch" and are afflicted with something like "emotional cancer or emotional stroke or emotional heart disease."
Death by suicide "is akin to someone whose clothing is on fire and who jumps out of a building to end the pain, but does not realize that it will also end his life," the priest said.
Rolheiser also reviewed Church teaching on suicide, noting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as a grave wrong, but says, "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives."
Although earlier Church documents said those who died by suicide should not receive a Church funeral, the latest catechism is "glaring by its omission" of any such reference, he said.
Woodruff recounted the still-painful story of her husband's suicide and its "psychological devastation" on herself and her children. She said she found that the grieving process "takes longer than most people think it should."
She said he had been diagnosed with clinical depression only three months before his death and had begun to show "glimpses of his old self" after six weeks of hospitalization and several sessions of electroshock therapy.
"We will never know why he relapsed," she said.
Welch said family members and friends of those who die by suicide often feel there is something they could have done to prevent the death.
But, he said, "some people with mental illness, despite optimal care, die suddenly of their illness, not unlike people with heart disease or cancer."
"Death by suicide is not predictable, but might be preventable," Welch added.
He urged participants in the Webinar to help ensure that everyone has access to mental health services; to promote screenings in doctors' offices, in schools and on college campuses to identify depression, other mental illnesses, and alcohol and substance abuse problems; to educate themselves about warning signs; and to work to abolish the stigma of suicide, which "may prevent people from seeking help."
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