Grappling with the suicide of a loved one


It was an Alaskan autumn, and I was 40 years old. I had a baby heading for her first birthday, which made me feel younger than I was. Life was good and full of promise.

At least for me.

Like all busy moms, I was pretty cocooned into my own little world. My daughter was taking her first steps, my three-year-old was starting preschool, and I had a daughter in elementary school. It was that time of life when you believe there will always be peanut butter finger prints on the sliding glass door.

Life was diapers, carpools, and interrupted nights of sleep.

It was also the autumn when my brother Bill committed suicide.

Bill was handsome and gifted. He had attended the New York Academy of Dramatic Art and was a popular caterer. He had started a theater company in high school. He is sorely missed. There’s no expiration date on the sadness and remorse that follow the suicide of a loved one.

As I write this, today might be the anniversary of my brother’s death. We’re not sure what day he died. My family — two brothers, a cousin, my mom and I — had traveled to New York City to do a surprise intervention with my brother. He had become dependent on cocaine, and my mother had secured the help of a fairly pricey interventionist who was going to lead us in confronting Bill and getting him into rehab.

Alas, we were too late. A suicide bequeaths to his loved ones a residue of guilt. Why weren’t we there sooner? What hints did we miss? The list of “what-ifs” goes on and on.

Before our trip to New York, I had written Bill a card full of love and encouragement. After the police found Bill’s body, we checked his mailbox. There was my card, delivered but never picked up. I still have that card. It moved with me from Alaska to Nebraska, but I can’t open it. I can’t throw it away either.

In the latest issue of the Irish Jesuit News, which I receive online, there is a review of a book on suicide by an Irish Jesuit, Brendan McManus. “Redemption Road: Grieving on the Camino” was written years after the suicide of McManus’ brother, Donal. Still in pain over his brother’s death, the Jesuit decided to walk the Camino, Spain’s pilgrimage road. This is the story of his journey and healing.

Like all good Jesuits, he seeks God in every situation.

In the review, an Irish psychiatrist is quoted as saying that “we do not know and we never know” why a suicide happens. Even reading suicide notes, he says, gives us no clue. When my family cleaned out Bill’s apartment, they found a trash can full of wadded-up notes. Each one said, “Dear Mom.” And that was all.

Fortunately, our church and the people of God have become much more merciful in regard to suicide than in olden days. Father Ron Rolheiser told me once that he writes a column every year on suicide, to reassure survivors of God’s love for their departed.

We can understand now that suicides are not in a state of sin, but rather in a state of abject mental breakdown and torment. A spiritual director told me once that God was waiting eagerly with open arms to comfort Bill who died in such anguish.

Father McManus’ book is available on Kindle and from Amazon and other booksellers. It’s endorsed by Jesuit Fathers James Martin and William Barry, among others. For those who seek healing, it sounds like a good investment.

The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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