by Russell Pollitt SJ

The tragic death by suicide of UCT’s dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Prof Bongani Mayosi, has put suicide in the spotlight.

As a survivor of suicide, Prof Mayosi’s death cannot but recall my own experience of losing a loved one. A mash of memories and feelings accost my mind.

Talking about suicide is not easy because we don’t know what we are talking about. We do not understand the anatomy, so-to-speak, of suicide. Many are now recognising it as the fatal end of depression, an illness and not a sign of a weak person or flawed character. We do not know how to talk about it because the stigmatisation – in society and the Church – is still very powerful. The few paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church do not address the issue adequately. One suicide survivor told me after her husband’s death that she felt wounded “all over again” by what the Church said.

Suicide is for many victims the only way out of an unbearable inner pain that we do not understand. It is as if someone, the victim, has found themselves in a dark hole, such a dark place, that they cannot conceive that there is any light. There is simply no hope. There is nothingness. Their emotional immune system has broken down. This is how the illness works. Suicide attempters often describe feeling despair, hopelessness, inner pain and isolation from others. They do not feel that they can reach out – despite the best efforts of loved ones and medical professionals to reach them.

Fr Ronald Rolheiser is one of few contemporary theologians who addresses the issue of suicide. He says that suicide is the equivalent of an emotional heart attack or stroke. It claims its victim against their will. Nothing family or friends do, despite their best efforts, can save the victim – the one who dies by suicide is a victim of their own unchosen darkness.

But suicide has more than one victim. There are those left behind. Often suicide survivors are left feeling deeply pained, guilty, helpless and ashamed that despite their best efforts they could not save their loved one. They also have to cope with the cultural and religious stigma attached to suicide.

Rolheiser tells the survivors of suicide not to worry about their loved ones. He says that any faith that connects itself to a God worth believing in doesn’t have undue anxiety as to what will happen when God, finally, meets a bruised, over-sensitive, wounded, ill and struggling soul face to face. He says that our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide are now inside of God’s embrace, enjoying a freedom they could never quite enjoy here. He says that they are healed by God through a touch that they could never quite accept from us.

The aftermath of suicide is like being at the epicentre of a quake that causes multifaceted destruction. The mop up is long and hard – maybe it’s never complete. The stamp of suicide is deeply engrained in one’s soul, it never goes away. It is like a tattoo: irremovable. That is why we must face up to this ever-growing tragedy in our society and church.