By Letty Lanza
“I feel like I can be there for people who are having trouble … I can help them and actually understand.” High school student Katy Smith (pseudonym) said that in the years since her father’s suicide she has grown more empathetic.
Her guardian believes the tender-hearted teen has developed a maturity beyond her years. That empathy and maturity may be the result of the support she’s received from her family and through counseling.
Katy said she has grown closer to her dad’s family since his death.
“They took me in and that’s who’s taking care of me,” she said.
In the United States each year nearly 43,000 people take their own lives leaving family members like Katy wondering why.
“It really upset me at that time. I had lots of questions. Like why he did this.”
Katy who was only 9 at the time of her dad’s death came to understand that he was “not in his right mind” so she says she was never angry at him.
But, Katy’s lack of anger, is atypical of many individuals who have had to deal with the loss of a loved one because of suicide.
Laurie Jones (pseudonym) is decades older than Katy. Her initial reaction to the suicide of a friend was anger.
“I wasn’t as angry with him as with the whole situation. He was in a great deal of physical pain as well as mental anguish for a long time. He was very depressed. I was angry with God initially. I think I needed someone to blame,” she said.
Jones said talking to a priest helped her deal with those feelings. Her pastor helped her see that beneath her anger was a great deal of sadness.
“I was so frustrated. I kept thinking about the last time we talked. When I finally cried, I thought I would never stop.”
Jones said her pastor helped her realize again that her friend was suffering from a chemical depression and that she was not to blame for his death. Jones also found support in talking to mutual friends and her family about her feelings.
Katy and her guardian both believe that the support Katy received from one of Catholic Charities’ programs helped her grieve her father’s death.
“Elijah’s Place helped me big time. And I felt more comfortable … they split us up into age groups and whatever was said in our group stayed in our group. It wasn’t shared,” Katy said.
Catholic Charities’ Elijah’s Place offers grief support for children and teens who have lost a parent or sibling through any type of death.
Although Elijah’s Place and Katy’s family helped Katy initially understand that her dad was not in his “right mind” at the time of his suicide, new questions arose as she matured.
“What if this happened. What if that happened.
“In the Bible it says if you commit suicide you go to hell. And I was really, really worried about that,” she said.
Katy’s worries were a concern for her guardian who asked the diocese’s vicar general Father Michael Jamail to visit with Katy.
Katy said Father Jamail helped her remember that her dad was not rational at the time of his death.
“Father Jamail made things so much clearer and explained things in a way I could understand. He told me that he believed my dad was not in hell but safely with God.”
Virginia Mullen, who lost her brother to suicide just six months ago says her feelings are still raw and “all over the place.
“I find comfort in the idea of the mercy of God. I pray a lot especially the rosary and the Divine Mercy.” Mullen also realizes that her brother was not mentally stable.
Father Jamail who, in addition to being a Catholic priest, is also a canon lawyer and psychologist said the Church teaches that suicide is morally wrong assuming that the person is “compos mentis” meaning mentally sound or in full control of their mental faculties.
“Over many years with assistance of mental health research, the Church has come to understand that is rarely the case in incidents of suicide,” Father Jamail said.
Those who take their own lives are often suffering in ways that have mitigated their free will.
“They are non-compos mentis,” Father Jamail said.
“Their responsibility for their act has changed. They are often suffering severe depression to the point of hopelessness. And are incapable of a fully rational act,” he said.
There is support locally for those suffering from depression or other types of mental illness through a NAMI (National Association of the Mentally Ill) group that meets each Thursday evening, 6-7:30 p.m., at the Family Life Center at St. Jude Thaddeus Church in Beaumont.
Friends and family members of those dealing with mental illness can also find help through NAMI. A family and friends support group meets the second Thursday of each month, 6-7:30 p.m., at the same location.
“At this point in time I feel at peace. I think dad is in heaven. I pray about it all the time just in case. I don’t think anything else is gonna’ come up but if it were to, I know who I would go to.”
When asked who that would be, Katy answered quickly and with a laugh:
“Father Jamail, of course.”
(Suicide: the days after is part two of an ETC series on mental illness. In the next issue ETC writers will deal with depression.)