The one-line text message struck like a thunderbolt during a recent office workday: “My brother has passed.”
I stared at the words from my friend Iris, a shocked chill flooding through my limbs. With shaking hands, I tapped my cell phone screen to call her as I ran into an empty conference room and shut the door. Even before she answered, I knew what had happened.
Jake had taken his own life.
Between sobs, Iris related a series of events that for some time we’d silently dreaded. Over the past several months, Jake had been steadily isolating himself from family and friends, even his dearest companions from childhood. His retreat wasn’t sudden — a delayed text reply here, an unacknowledged invitation there. His phone went to voicemail; sometimes he called back, but lately less often, and with little to say.
In truth, Jake hadn’t cut himself off completely. There was just enough contact to reassure most of those he knew that he was perhaps working a lot, or had found a new girlfriend, or needed some space.
Part of his withdrawal was, paradoxically, a good thing, because for the better part of his adult life, Jake had wrestled with a two-headed monster: depression and substance abuse. Among some of his friends, his demons had found company, and in the haze of a crowded bar, no one seemed in need of an exorcism.
Until one winter night, which proved to be a turning point for Jake. A darkness almost visible had enveloped his spirit, after three days of heavy drinking, he finally relented and entered treatment. He still loved his mates (after all, they’d grown up together), but they knew, as he did, that he needed to walk a separate path.
And against all odds, that path led back to the Catholic Church, where Jake became an active member at a small parish which welcomed his boundless talent and enthusiasm. Coffee in hand, he fixed broken computers, rewired sound systems, and created everything from holy cards to toilet lids on his array of desktop and 3-D printers. For a living Stations of the Cross procession, Jake portrayed Jesus in full costume, and slyly topped the cross with a GoPro camera so he could film a 360-degree video of the event.
But one of the most profound things Jake did during his return to the faith was probably the simplest and the least noticed: whenever he entered a church (which, as a daily communicant, he did often), Jake would genuflect and, for a long moment, look at the tabernacle. His intense gaze and faint smile spoke more eloquently than words; he knew who waited just behind the altar, and he was glad to see Him.
After a few sunny years, though, Jake’s smile began to fade, and lines of worry deepened across his forehead. Never one to confide in a lot of people, Jake managed to deflect even his sister’s concerned questions. He took on more hours at work and spent less time at his parish, although he still kept in regular, if not frequent, contact with Iris. “At least he’s still in touch,” she said, and though perplexed and hurt by Jake’s behavior, the rest of us took a vague consolation in that knowledge as we carried on with our daily lives.
Jake’s suicide utterly destroyed that false comfort, and our long and searing examen has begun. We now reckon with what we had done, and what we had failed to do for our friend and brother, who in his final hours suffered an agony for which relief, in his mind, required an irrevocable, self-imposed exile from this life.
The Catholic Church teaches that “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2283). The mercy of our God is unfathomable, and “by ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance” (CCC, 2283). For that reason, “the Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (CCC, 2283).
I don’t know what Jake saw in his last moments on earth. But with the eyes of my heart, I can discern someone with an intense gaze and a faint smile that speak more eloquently than words, and I believe He knew who was waiting to enter heaven’s gate — and He was glad to see him.
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