For centuries, suicide was considered an act of despair and despair itself was seen as the most grievous sin of all. In many religious circles, despair was seen as the most sinful of all acts and ultimately unforgivable.

Sadly, a strong residue of that remains. Suicide is still seen by many as an act of despair, an affront to God and to life itself, an unforgivable relinquishing of hope. Many Church people still see suicide as the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. But this is a misunderstanding. Suicide is not an act of despair and is not an act which cannot be forgiven. That suicide is an act of despair is not what the Christian churches, and certainly not the Catholic Church, believe or teach.

My purpose here is not to disparage what our churches teach about either suicide or despair, but rather to highlight with more accuracy what they do teach. The same holds true for people who still believe that suicide is an act of despair and an unforgiveable sin. I am not disparaging their belief but trying rather to free them from a false fear (based on a misunderstanding) which surely must cause them grief and anxiety vis-à-vis loved ones who have died by suicide.

Suicide is not despair. Dictionaries define despair as the complete lack or absence of hope. But that’s not what happens in most suicides. What does happen?

The person who is taking his or her own life is not intending that act as an insult or affront to God or to life (for that would be an act of strength, and suicide is generally the antithesis of that). What happens in most suicides is the polar opposite. The suicide is the result of a mammoth defeat.

There’s a powerful scene in the musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. A young woman, Fantine, lies dying. She tells of once being youthful and full of hopeful dreams; but now worn down by a lifetime of poverty, crushed by a broken heart, and overcome by physical illness, she is defeated and has to submit to the tearful fact that “there are storms we cannot weather”. She’s right, and anyone who does not accept that truth will one day come to a painful and bitter understanding of it. There are things in this life that will crush us, and surrender isn’t an act of despair and indeed isn’t a free act at all. It’s a humbling, sad defeat. And that’s the case with most people who die from suicide.

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