‘When a Loved One Dies by Suicide’: New Film Series Is a Gift for So Many Who Suffer

‘When it comes to suicide,’ says Msgr. Charles Pope, ‘we must be very careful to remember that there is a person and a story, and this is very precious to God.’

Screenshot from ‘When A Loved One Dies By Suicide’
Screenshot from ‘When A Loved One Dies By Suicide’ (photo: The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers)

During this season of gift-giving, in his letter, St. James tells us, “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (James 1:17).

With that understanding, the new film series by the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (CMHM), When a Loved One Dies by Suicide, is certainly to be considered a gift from above for those suffering the loss of a loved one by suicide. The series, comprising eight videos, contains one testimony per video from those who have suffered the loss of loved ones by suicide, and was compiled by Deacon Ed Shoener, the founder of CMHM, and Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix, as a resource for individuals grieving in the aftermath of suicide, as well as for those who minister to their mental, emotional and spiritual needs. The film is based upon the award-winning book by Ave Maria Press, When a Loved One Dies by Suicide: Comfort, Hope, and Healing for Grieving Catholics, and is available for viewing on demand at Ave Maria Press, Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, and CatholicMHM.org.

“This film is not graphic, but it includes stories of suicide,” reads the text preceding each testimony. Following, phone numbers and mental health resources are provided for those in need of immediate support. Sarah Ruggier, a Registered Clinical Counselor in Vancouver, British Columbia, is then presented, standing within the interior of a Catholic church as soft music tones play in the background. Ruggier’s manner is sensitive and unrushed as she speaks about issues related to suicide loss and grief. “Everyone grieves in their own way,” she tells us, “And no two healing journeys are the same. In this film you will meet someone who has lost a loved one by suicide. Although their story is unique, it may support and encourage you as you seek to understand your own loss and find a way toward healing.” She recommends viewing the film series in “a safe place,” allowing time to pause, to take breaks or to walk away if necessary. Reach out to a friend, she suggests, or a family member, or a pastor if the film is too difficult to process. 

In this way, it seemed to me the film would be especially useful to those uncomfortable with processing suicide loss within a group situation, and who, instead, need a more intimate setting.

Although heartbreaking to hear, viewers will discover insights and hope as they listen to each of the seven testimonies. Each testimonial is filmed within the context of the speaker’s own place of residence, workplace or parish church, and the simple yet artistic videography provides a sense of God’s love and compassion throughout. Testimonies cover a variety of disorders and mental illnesses associated with suicide, including paranoid schizophrenia, which Msgr. Charles Pope describes as he shares the story of his sister, Mary Anne, who suffered from the affliction and died by suicide.

“When it comes to suicide,” he said, “we sometimes think of it in the abstract. But we must be very careful to remember that there is a person and a story, and this is very precious to God.”

Other testimonies are shared by:

  • Melinda Moore, Suicide Prevention Clinic Coordinator and Associate Professor of Psychology and Trauma at Eastern Kentucky University;
  • Catholic writer and speaker Leticia Adams;
  • Bishop Dolan of Phoenix;
  • Dr. David Jobes, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Suicide Prevention Lab at The Catholic University of America; and
  • Deacon Ed Shoener, whose daughter Katie suffered from bipolar disorder and died by suicide.

In her obituary, Shoener described Katie’s situation:

She died by suicide, but she was not defined by the way she died, and she’s not defined by this mental illness … she is a beautiful creation of God and that we need to do better as a society to help people that live with these illnesses.

Much to his amazement, the obituary then “went viral” as it was picked up by other publications and shared on social media platforms throughout the United States and around the world. The response revealed to him the great number of people that are affected by suicide of a loved one and in need of support. He and his wife received thousands of written responses to Katie’s obituary. 

Regarding suicide grief and how to cope during the holidays and at the present moment as Christmas draws near, Shoener recently offered reflections in an email. “The holidays can be difficult because there is an expectation that they be celebrated with happiness, yet when you are in the depths of grief it is not possible to feel happy. Oftentimes people who are grieving cope with the holidays by becoming numb and withdrawing. Layered on top of the emotions is the stigma, misunderstanding, and judgement that comes with suicide. The first holidays after the death by suicide of our loved one can be a burden and a time that cannot be enjoyed, but only endured. However, as the years go by, grief changes. We learn how to integrate the grief into our lives and accept the fact that it never goes away completely.”

To support those who grieve, he said, “Simply accompany them ... Let those who are grieving the suicide of a loved one know that you care and that you pray for them and their loved one who died. Realize that grief is exhausting, so doing little things to help with the many tasks that come with the holidays can mean a great deal.”

He said that offering to help wrap presents, helping with some of the cooking, helping with decorations, or doing other things will take some of the work of the holidays off their plate as a deeply appreciated way to provide support.

As a final word to readers and those who will view the new film series, When a Loved One Dies by Suicide, Shoener offers a spiritual reflection about Christmas:

Since my daughter Katie’s death by suicide, Christmas has taken on a meaning that goes beyond a sentimental affection for Christmas carols and holiday traditions. It has become a time of hope born through the grief that draws me to Christ. I believe that by coming into the world and ‘dwelling among us,’ Christ understands the human pain and suffering that leads to suicide. On Christmas Day, the gospel reading is from the book of John: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1:5) Christ came into the world to overcome the darkness of evil and death, even the evil that leads to death by suicide. That is the hope I now find in Christmas.