Candle in the Dark

September 02 2018 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I would like to ask you a question that has been worrying me for the past years. My daughter, 31-year-old Jeannie, committed suicide two years ago, and this event has left me and the rest of my family (my remaining two sons) devastated because it was not like her to do so. We knew she was going through a divorce and that she was scared of losing patronage of her kids.

In the last five years I have lost 3 family members: my wife, a son and now my daughter. I feel so let down by God because I have always prayed to Him for the well-being of my family. I am a devout Catholic and I am worried about where the souls of people who commit suicide go to after death. I know you are a strong Catholic, Dr. Popcak, and I would appreciate any help I could get from you.


Thank you for having the courage to write to me with your question. Sadly, your situation is far from uncommon. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 800,000 people commit suicide each year, almost one person every 40 seconds. Although people of every age are affected by suicide, the young are particularly vulnerable. Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 to 29.

As you are experiencing, suicide is tremendously painful for those left behind struggling to make sense of it all. “Why did she do it?” “What did I miss?” “Could I have done something to prevent it?” Are all common questions that keep loved ones awake at night.

Of course, Christians have additional spiritual concerns about the disposition of the souls of those who commit suicide. We recognize that life is a precious gift, given to us by God. Preserving and caring for our own life is not just a profound obligation that we owe to God, but the most deeply-seated inclination planted in us by God. That said, God’s mercy is so deep and so wide, that nothing we do could ever separate us from his love. The Catechism states, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives (#2283).”

It can be hard to trust in God’s mercy when we see so much pain in the world, and especially when that pain hits close to home. We must fight against this tendency to despair even when our feelings make it seem difficult or absurd to do so. In Spe Salvi (Saved Through Hope), Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us, “One who has hope lives differently.” Part of this Christian call to live differently means calling to mind the many, many reasons we have to rejoice in God’s love, mercy and providence, even when our circumstances attempt to cause us to deny these realities.

The fact is, grace is superabundant, but for it to have an impact on our lives and in the world we have to be open to it affecting us. Imagine holding a crying, screaming infant. Imagine gently cuddling the baby, offering it milk, trying to change its diaper, rocking it, singing, cooing, but all the while the baby is so upset, in so much discomfort that she keeps arching her back, locking her eyes shut, and fighting your best efforts to comfort her. Sometimes we can be like that. Grace is all around us, but the pain we feel causes us to close our eyes to anything but the pain. In those moments, we are capable of terrible things.

The good news is that if we can even open our eyes for a millisecond by calling to mind God’s mercy, love, and providence we give God a way in. For your daughter this means that we trust that God, in his mercy, could find a way to break through your daughter’s pain – in this life or the next. For you, it means that you must do everything you can to stand against the darkness of despair that seeks to consume each and every one of us. Every day, make what St Paul called a “sacrifice of praise.” Whether you feel like it or not, write down a handful (at least 5-10) small ways God has blessed you that day. Then, praise him for each one. Ask for the grace to see his grace at work in your life and to experience his love. If you struggle to do this, or continue to persist in your feelings of despair despite doing this, it will be important to seek the help of a good pastoral counselor.

Updated on September 02 2018