PHOENIX — Nearly six and a half years ago, Paula Cooper’s husband left for work — just as he had on so many previous occasions. But on this day, he never returned.
Paula and Robert Cooper had been married 25 years when he took his life, also leaving behind two children. A master sergeant in the Marines, Robert was a veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq.
Outside Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral Sunday, Paula teared up as she graciously took a few minutes to recall the death, its resulting pain, and her experience coping.
“Nobody knew what was going through my husband’s mind. Nobody knew,” she explained.
“It’s good to talk about it. It helps release some of the pain, and it educates others. You just never know what someone is going through,” she said.
Paula and over 700 others were able to find that release for an hour through worship and honoring their loved ones during the Diocese of Phoenix’s second annual Mass of Remembrance for Those Who Have Died by Suicide.
Family and friends were given a carnation – one for each victim – and following Bishop John P. Dolan’s homily, lined up to place the flowers before the cathedral’s side altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Diocese’s patron saint. Names of the loved ones appeared in a book before the altar and online during the Mass’ live broadcast over AZTV Channel 7 and on YouTube and Facebook.
The bishop, who has had three of his seven siblings die by suicide, led the procession.
He placed one carnation each for his brother, Tom, sister, Therese, and sister, Mary, as well as a carnation for Therese’s husband, who later took his life as well.
In his homily, the bishop described Mary’s death in October 2022 after several attempts, as a “gut punch” that generated much “pain and sorrow.”
‘GOD HAS NOT ABANDONED US’
Bishop Dolan has readily shared his story, instituted the Mass a month after his Aug. 2, 2022, installation, and established the Diocese’s first Office of Mental Health Ministry. He took these steps to raise public awareness of suicide and prevention, the Church’s developing position on those who have died, and the Diocese’s role in comforting and helping the grieving heal.
“Even though the veil of tears is so great that we may not be able to understand the mystery of death, especially the mystery of suicide…somehow, we know, trust and believe that our God has not abandoned us,” he told the congregation, which also included hundreds there for regular Sunday worship.
After Mass, the bishop reflected that it is often difficult to make sense of suicide, leaving one to ponder the mystery of his or her relationship to the Almighty.
“It’s a mystery to behold, sometimes celebrate, and sometimes simply just sit back and wonder. We may not have all the answers, and sometimes that’s OK,” he said.
The Diocese has encouraged those seeking help to contact their local parish.
Maricela Campa, program manager for the Office of Mental Health Ministry, responds as quickly as possible to prayer requests and resource references, but she, too, recommended the local route.
“The office is encouraging those in need to first contact their nearest parish. There is no one centralized location,” she explained.
The Diocese is teaching and training priests, deacons, other religious and laity and establishing venues within each of the Diocese’s 15 deaneries at one parish per deanery. Bishop Dolan said the goal is to have those in place by Jan. 1, 2024.
“We’re (doing this) slowly but surely. The first part was to sharpen the ax just by educating,” he said.
‘HE’S WITH THE LORD JESUS’
The Mass was one of several held across the country Sunday to coincide with the start of National Suicide Prevention Week, a campaign sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology to raise public awareness toward prevention.
Some 49,449 Americans died by suicide in 2022, provisional data released by the CDC earlier this summer show. That’s the highest number on record, according to the agency. Another 1.7 million tried to take their lives in 2021, the latest year those figures were available.
Campa believes several factors are driving the trend, but added isolation is a common thread.
“When there is some type of (mental or psychological) condition (present), isolation increases the risk,” she said.
However, suicide can occur even when the person is in touch with family.
Fifteen years ago, Pauline Ruiz saw her son gradually sink into depression. Ruiz said as her son’s situation worsened, she felt unable to thwart tragedy.
“I couldn’t stop that train,” she said, entering the cathedral with her husband, Rey.
The Heber, Ariz., woman said she found comfort in the Church’s position that suicide doesn’t guarantee an eternity in hell.
“I know he’s with the Lord Jesus. We’ll see him again,” she said.
Where denial into heaven was once the longtime Church position, it now addresses death by one’s own hand differently.
‘A PLACE OF HOPE’
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life” (2280), but goes on to state, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282).
Further, “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” (2283).
Paula Cooper’s brother-in-law, Chris Learned, said that principle was reinforced during Sunday’s Mass.
“Knowing there is hope and that Jesus is out there, looking for them, to bring them into heaven. That’s the message I took away. Then, seeing how many people placed carnations and were affected by suicide blows me away. It’s a bigger thing than I ever knew,” Learned said, standing next to his wife, Michelle.
Michelle Learned said she had read about the Mental Health Ministry and thought the Mass would be a good time to introduce her sister further into the Catholic faith.
“With the bishop having gone through personal suicide in his own life, it was ‘kind of a sign.’
I thought it was perfect timing,” Michelle said.
Paula said she found comfort.
“I am not alone. He (the bishop) is not alone. (There were) different circumstances, but it puts my mind at peace,” she said.
Bishop Dolan encouraged worshippers to continue to honor and ‘walk’ with their loved ones.
“We recognize that our God, a God of mercy, of compassion, of consolation, mends our hearts and opens to us the joys of the bright promise of immortality to our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, but also opens our hearts and helps us even in the midst of our pain, in this veil of tears; opens our hearts to find a place of hope,” he said.