In 2017, more than 47,000 people took their own lives in the United States. That’s one person every 11.1 minutes. A suicide is attempted every 27 seconds. Those over age 85 have the highest suicide rate. It is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 15-24. Death by suicide has even surpassed death by wars and homicide in annual global statistics.
Those stark numbers from Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception Father Chris Alar and Brother Jason Lewis, authors of the new book After Suicide: There is Hope for Them and for You (Marian Press, 2019), are evidence that suicide is a worldwide epidemic.
Compounding the shattering loss to those left behind by suicide is the belief among many Catholics that those who die by their own hand go straight to hell. But as the subtitle of the book indicates, there’s hope for the salvation of those who die by suicide and hope for the healing of the survivors.
Because God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful) he knows all the prayers we will ever make (no matter when we make them), and he has the power to apply those graces to any point in time — past, present or future. Since God is outside of time, one’s prayers can be effective to any point in time and may help a loved one to assent to God’s final offer of grace and mercy up to the point of their death and particular judgment, assert the authors, drawing on Church teaching. The best news? The spiritual principles are applicable to any cause of death.
Father Alar, who is a survivor of suicide in his family, ministers to those who have also experienced loss through suicide. He is a regular host and guest on EWTN, the host of the Divine Mercy Matters series at DivineMercyMatters.org, and heads the Association of Marian Helpers lay group. Brother Lewis has delivered theological reflections on EWTN’s 13-part series The Cenacle of Divine Mercy II and EWTN Live. He also gives talks across the country on Mary and on Divine Mercy. The authors recently spoke to the Register about their book, which was released Sept. 16. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you write the book?
Father Alar: The roots of it were planted in 1993, when my grandmother took her own life. I went for basically 10 years with a very heavy heart, believing my grandmother went to hell. I thought that was Church teaching. A lot of people think this is what the Church teaches. Ten years later, I met a priest who, in confession, enlightened me that this is not Church teaching — that a soul may still be saved. We underline may because there is no guarantee either way, that they are lost or saved. But the fact they are not automatically condemned to hell was a life-changer for me. As the years went on after this revelation, I began speaking on this topic, giving missions on it and was overwhelmed by the number of people also affected by suicide. After several years of this ministry I realized it was important to write this book.
Who did you write the book for?
Father Alar: It’s dedicated to my grandmother and teen suicide victim Clare Wood. Part 1 includes Church teaching and the story of my grandmother. Part 2 includes more Church teaching and the story of Clare Wood. The audience it is written for is any person who has struggled through a great loss, not just suicide, but any loss where they feel there’s no hope. The spiritual principles in the book apply not just to suicide, but also to any form of death and to any grieving person who feels depressed and dejected.
Share briefly what you see as the suicide epidemic.
Father Alar: The statistics that we focus on in the book are powerful. Suicide has gone up every year over the last 10 years. Since 1999 suicide rates have increased 33%. The shocking one, to me, is that every year in the world over, 800,000 people take their own life — that is more than the number of people who die annually in wars and homicides combined. That’s just shocking.
What is the root cause of the suicide epidemic?
Father Alar: The fundamental root cause is a lack of faith in God. Secondary factors that contribute to this lack of faith in God are a disordered attachment to worldly things — false idols — and the influence of the demonic.
What is the Catholic Church’s teaching on what happens to people who commit suicide?
Father Alar: As the Catechism states in Paragraph 2283: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of those who have taken their own life. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.” What that means is: We don’t know the eternal fate of those who have taken their own life, but we should not despair because we believe God will give them the opportunity to repent. We see an example of this in the diary of St. Faustina, Paragraph 1698, where Jesus says he gives the opportunity for a soul at death to repent.
What is the main message you’d like people to take away from the book?
Father Alar: The two parts of the book: There’s hope for those who have died, and there’s hope for those left behind. First, God’s love and mercy is so great that we never ever, ever think a sin is greater than his mercy. His mercy is so great that even a soul that takes its own life can still be saved. Secondly, there’s hope for those who are left behind. They do not have to think there’s no hope — there is hope. In the book we offer three spiritual principles to help those left behind deal with such a tragedy.
Brother Jason: Christ in his Divine Mercy can take that experience, even the pain of the loss, and transform it, and even use it as a means and occasion to grow closer to him in union with him and bring a greater good out of the suffering and out of whatever wrong was there.
Will you explain Catechism No. 1864, which addresses God’s great mercy?
Father Alar: Catechism, 1864, says: “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.” The only unforgiveable sin is putting yourself outside the mercy of God; a soul can be lost by rejecting God’s mercy.
Is there anything you would like to add or emphasize?
Father Alar: We feel this is true evangelization to bring people to the love and mercy of God. I want to emphasize that Catechism, 2282, also sheds light on that. The Church teaches there might be mitigating circumstances in the fact that someone took their own life; for example, grave psychological disturbances or mental illness can mitigate one’s free will. We know for sin to be mortal it needs to be grave, which suicide is; it must be done with full knowledge, which most people have; and it must be committed with free will. While I don’t know for sure, it seems my grandmother may not have had free will when she took her life. To me, it appeared she didn’t want to do it, but she saw no other way out and just wanted the suffering to end. This should never be taken to mean, however, that suicide is the answer. Suicide is a permanent and very serious response to temporary problems, and we should never be presumptuous of God’s mercy. So while these souls may still be lost, we can have hope that they accept God’s mercy with the help of our prayers and therefore are not lost.
Roxanne King writes from Denver.
There’s Hope for Them and for You
By Chris Alar and Jason Lewis
Marian Press, 2019
228 pages, $14.95
To order: ewtnrc.com or (800) 854-6316