In recent years suicide has been on the rise and has claimed many victims. In the cities where I serve as a priest, I have been present for too many prayer vigils and funerals for teenagers who committed suicide this year. I have stood next to their friends and family members, and provided an ear to listen to and a shoulder to cry on. As we approach the Christmas holiday, the emotions of loss re-emerge because they realize it is their first Christmas without their loved one.
During the holiday season, certain questions might arise within one’s heart, or asked by others. How should a person coping with the death of a loved one this holiday season respond? When thinking about death and the afterlife, I thought I would turn to Susan Tassone, an authority on Purgatory, to help answer some of those tough questions, and hopefully provide comfort and consolation, not only to the bereaved, but to our beloved dead as well, this Christmas season.
Fr. Looney: Those who lost a loved one, especially to suicide want to know if their loved one can go to Heaven. Over the years the negative stigma of suicide has changed in the Church. What can words can you offer for those coping with the tragic death of a loved one?
Susan Tassone: A few words about suicide. Often members of a family will have different feelings about the suicide of a loved one. It is likely when someone you love commits suicide you will experience a wide range of feelings. It is normal to be angry, sad, down, scared, etc.
Feelings are fleeting and change rapidly. One of the most common feelings is that of being ashamed. We blame ourselves for the suicide. You may feel embarrassed by what you feel. There is no right feeling. Remember feelings are temporary. They pass and change over time. Sometimes we may blame ourselves, others, or the person who died. Behind blame often are feelings of hurt or inadequacy. “If only I did this or noticed that.” Many of us look to assign blame. The more we can let go of blame the quicker we will heal.
People commit suicide for many different reasons. We need to focus our empathy on what pain a person must have gone through to decide to take their life. The less we judge and the more we can be empathetic the more likely we will feel the mercy of God’s healing.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2282-2283) says: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. 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.” This is a time to remember the ocean of mercy and kindness that is given to us by Our Lord.
Fr. Looney: During the holidays many people attend parties or family gatherings and might be asked about their loved one. What do they say to others?
Susan Tassone: You tell them that “So and So” was in great pain and ended their life. We ask everyone to be compassionate and to offer Masses and prayers so that she/he may be received into the arms of our merciful God. Our role is not to judge. Our role is to pray for healing both for the deceased and their loved ones.
Fr. Looney: How do you address the issue with a child?
Susan Tassone: It is important to shape your message to the level of understanding of the child. If they are younger, it is best to say that he/she died. They loved you very much and felt terrible in leaving you. You can pray for them and that way ask Jesus to comfort them and you. Nothing you or anyone did caused their death. It is sad to lose someone you love. But people feel many things when someone dies. Ask the child what they feel? Ask them to imagine that person is here. What would they like to say? No matter what the child says do not correct what they feel but acknowledge the pain. Give the child things they can do to help the deceased and themselves. Light candles, prayers that they can say or drawings they can make.
Fr. Looney: What is the best way we can remember our loved ones who have died?
Susan Tassone: The best way to move the soul to heaven is to have Masses offered, particularly Gregorian Masses. Gregorian Masses are a series of thirty Holy Masses celebrated on thirty consecutive days for the repose of the soul of a departed person. Gregorian Masses derive their name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, who was the first to popularize this practice. The Dialogues of St. Gregory tell of the soul of a departed monk who appeared and declared that he had been delivered form purgatory upon the completion of 30 Masses. The Sacred Congregation of Indulgences declared this hallowed tradition of more than 1,300 years “a pious and reasonable belief of the faithful on the authority of the Roman Curia.” The Church does not guarantee that souls are released from Purgatory after 30 Masses, but this practice focuses on the efficacy of the Mass. Contact the Pious Union of St. Joseph to arrange for these Masses. www.pusj.org
Fr. Looney: The stories of the saints are powerful witnesses that can bring us some comfort. Are there any stories that pertain to souls who commit suicide?
Susan Tassone: There is a story of St. John Vianney who told a grieving wife that her husband who committed suicide was saved. This story is described the Abbe Trochu in his biography of the Cure d’Ars. A certain Abbe Guillaumet met a lady on a train who was in deep mourning and when he said that he was going to Ars she asked, “Monsieur l’Abbe, will you allow me to accompany you to Ars? I may as well go there, as elsewhere…. I am travelling to distract my thoughts.”
When they reached the village, the priest led the lady to a place near the church and suddenly, St. John Vianney appeared. He stopped in front of the lady in black who, following the example of the crowd, had gone down on her knees. He bent over her and whispered into her ear: “He is saved!” The woman was startled and John Vianney repeated: “He is saved!” A gesture of incredulity was the only reply of the stranger. Whereupon the saint, stressing each word, repeated, “I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition. Our Blessed Lady obtained that grace for him. Remember the shrine that you put up in your room during the month of May? Though your husband professed to have no religion, he sometimes joined in your prayers; this merited for him the grace of repentance and pardon at the last moment.
The next day, the lady explained to Abbe Guillaumet that she had been in despair because of the tragic death of her husband: “He was an unbeliever, and my one object in life was to bring him back to God. I did not get the time. He committed suicide by drowning himself. I could only think of him as lost. Oh! Were we never again to meet? Now you hear that the Cure d’Ars told me more than once: ‘He is saved!’ I shall meet him again in heaven. Monsieur L’Abbe, I am cured!”
When all seems hopeless, we must remember there is always hope. Always have faith and pray for your loved ones throughout life. Have Masses offered for them while they are alive to give them the grace for conversion.
Fr. Looney: I’ve heard it said that Christmas is a very special day for the souls in Purgatory? Is this true?
Susan Tassone: According to St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Teresa of Avila more souls are released on Christmas than any other day of the year.
Fr. Looney: How would you suggest we remember those whom we loved but are no longer with us this Christmas season?
Susan Tassone: These are quotes from my book, Praying with the Saints for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Not only should we have Masses offered for our departed loved ones this time of year, but we should give the gift of Masses and enroll your family and friends, living and deceased, in spiritual membership, a spiritual solidarity of prayer. The Association of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Missouri, and the Marian Helpers in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, are two great organizations for these Enrollments.
Visit cemeteries with your children. Sprinkle holy water on the graves. Teach youth to pray the Eternal Rest Prayer. Light blessed candles. The burning candle is a sign of our prayer, a bright silent intercessor. Offer your Mass and indulgence for your deceased loved ones at Christmas Mass. Place a special ornament on your Christmas Tree or wreath in remembrance. Share stories and pictures of deceased family members, remembering them in prayer.
Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory: 365 Reflections, is another great book that helps to console those who are left behind. EWTN Host of Women of Grace, Johnnette Benkovic, lost her son to a vehicular accident. She highly recommends this book because it helped her through the grieving process. She shared this with me and all her TV viewers on her show: “This book got me through the death of my son.” It would be a great Christmas gift for anyone to begin the New Year on this soul-saving mission.
Fr. Looney: Susan Tassone has a great passion for the Holy Souls in Purgatory and reminds us we should never forget those who have gone before us. This Christmas season as memories of our loved ones flood us, allow them to become an opportunity for prayer. Although they are physically gone from us, they live on in our hearts and memories, and because of our prayers for them, they will never forget us. St. John XXIII affirms this, ““Our dead are among the invisible, not among the absent.” Jesus was born on Christmas day to set us free from all that enslaves us. Allow Jesus to bring peace to your troubled heart and soul this Christmas, and by chance, your prayers might bring peace to a loved one in Purgatory, helping to bring them home to Heaven this Christmas.