Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Homily for a Young Man Who Died by Suicide

The suicide of Robin Williams this past week likely opened up tragic memories for many persons who have lost loved ones to suicide.  Of the hundreds of funeral Masses that I have offered in my seventeen years as a priest, the memory of one funeral always causes my eyes to well up.  He was a young man, full of promise, who took his own life.  This was the homily I preached at his funeral.  I offer it for those who may find it helpful.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Since learning of John's death last Friday, probably like all of you, I have thought about little else.  And, perhaps like all of you, the more I think about it, the less comprehensible John's death becomes. I see John in his cassock and surplice serving Mass at this altar.  I see John coming down the stairs after Mass here just a few weeks ago.  I hear all of those who knew him repeat the same things over and over again.  Intelligent, generous, caring, kind.  The more I think of John and all of his good qualities, the more I am confounded by the nature of his death.

John was intelligent; his death, senseless.  John was gentle; his death, traumatic.  John was generous, kind, and compassionate.  Yet his death deprives us all of his presence. John was a young man whose life was filled with such promise; his death cuts short all of that promise.  John was given a family who deeply loved him; his death leaves them without him.  John was a young man who prayed, who received the Sacraments, and who listened to God's Word.  And yet, his death is not what God willed for him.

I so wish that today I could stand here and make sense of John's death, but I am at a loss.  We will never arrive at a moment when we will be able to say that his death now makes sense to us.  This is among the sufferings that we will all have to carry.

As if this suffering were not enough, we all carry another weight today.  We wonder if somehow we are at fault.  Did we not love him enough?  Did we not teach him well enough?  Did we fail to notice his struggles?  Should we have called, reached out, and encouraged him more?  Could we have better proved our love for him and better communicated how much we valued his presence?  I have found myself wondering whether had I preached better homilies or taught him better in religion class if this would have changed things.  Perhaps all of us ask these questions to one degree or another.  These questions--mostly unfounded and without merit--only deepen our grief.  They will only immerse us further into the abyss of darkness.

What then can we say?  Is there anything worth saying?  There is.  As difficult as it may be because we are shocked by the suddenness and tragedy of John's death, we must not become fixated upon it. Instead, we must direct our gaze upon the face of the Good Shepherd.  We must look toward the Good Shepherd and learn from him because he is gentle and humble of heart, and we will find rest for ourselves, for his yoke is easy and his burden light.

Today, we find ourselves in what the 23rd Psalm describes as the "valley of the shadow of death."  We are enveloped by the darkness of grief, but even in the midst of the darkness, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  He is at our side, leading us and nourishing us.  We all need the Good Shepherd because he alone can nourish and refresh our souls.  He alone can lead us through the dark valley of grief and into the green pastures of hope.  Yes, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and trust in his great love and in his great mercy.

John also needs Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  No other shepherd will suffice.  The Good Shepherd goes out in search of the lost sheep.  Somehow, like a lost sheep, John became disoriented and confused. He wandered far away from the truth about the goodness and sacredness of his life.  But thankfully, Jesus the Good Shepherd goes out in search of such lost ones.  He does not simply welcome back those who were lost.  No, he goes out and searches for the lost sheep.

Today, very little makes sense to us.  None of us will ever know what was in John's heart in those last moment's of his life.  But one thing I do know, and of this I am convinced: Jesus, the Good Shepherd loves John more than any of us can possibly imagine.  He loves all of us more than we can imagine.

In the midst of so much turmoil, confusion, and tragedy, let us listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow where he leads us.  Every other path that we take will lead us only further away from peace.  We mustn't follow the path of perpetually pondering the nature of John's death because this will only deepen our grief and increase our confusion.  Instead, we must listen attentively to the voice of the Good Shepherd--for he knows his sheep and he knows how to care for them.

In today's Holy Mass, we pray for our dear brother John, whom we deeply love; John who somehow lost his way and became ensnared in a terrible anguish.  We know and have confidence that Christ the Good Shepherd immediately went out in search of this lost sheep.  We who love John must now dedicate ourselves to praying for him.  This is how Christians love one another.  In every Mass that the Church will offer until the end of time, she will remember John and pray that Christ the merciful shepherd will place this lost sheep in his arms and carry him safely to the home of the Father.  May the Mass we offer today win pardon for our brother, bring consolation to his good parents, his sister, and to all those whose hearts are broken.

Today, we mourn because a sheep who was dear to us all has wandered away and gone beyond our sight.  His departure wounds all of us and afflicts us with profound pain.  Our consolation and our hope are now entirely in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  May he find our young brother, save him, and bring him to peace.  Amen.


  1. Well said. So beautiful and heart touching. Thank you Father.

  2. Dear Fr David,

    I want to thank you from my heart for your homily on suicide. I am a Deacon and my nephew/Godson took his own life. He was a young husband and father. I was asked to say the homily at his funeral. I was lost for words, partly because of my own grief, and searched the web for something to say. You said everything my heart wanted to say and I used a great part of your words to form my own homily. Thank you for your inspiration. God Bless you in your work!

  3. I am deeply sorry for your loss and I am grateful that you told me this. I am praying for your poor family in this tragic time of suffering.

  4. Fr David: Thank you for this homily. I am preparing now a homily for a suicide person. I find your homily very well balanced: addressing the reality and being sensitive and compassionate toward the family and friends. With Fraternal thanks, Fr Tom

    1. Thank you for saying that. Of all the blogposts that I've written, the most common search that brings people to my blog is this homily. Every time that I see that, I am shocked at how many priests must be preaching homilies for such occasions. I will say a prayer for you because I know that preaching at such a funeral--grace filled though it may be--is a great suffering. Thanks again. Fraternally in Christ.

    2. Dear Fr David, Thank you so much for your inspiration and very sensitive homily. It is helping me in preparing a similar homily for a tragic suicide in my parish. I love your approach & thought provoking words.

      Every blessing

      Fr Francis

    3. Dear Fr. Francis, Thank you for your comment. I pray that you and all of those affected by this death might find consolation and healing. Fraternally, Fr. David

  5. Dear Fr. David:
    I have the sad duty of preparing a homily for a man (49 years old) who recently committed suicide right on our church property, not far from where I was sitting in my room. While I didn't know him, I know his mother who is regularly at Mass each Sunday.
    Searching the web I came across the homily you gave for a young man as well.
    You approached the reality of his death in a compassionate and loving way, which is encouraging me to do the same and not ingore the sadness of the tragic manner in which he died.
    I spoke to his mother whose first concern was whether or not he could go to heaven given that he had taken his life. I told her that we all rely on God's merciful love and I am confident that he is with the Lord. I didn't say that simply to make her feel good. I said it because I believe it. Yes, I believe that God's merciful love is more than we can imagine.
    I am left with many questions. Why did he choose to take his life on church property? He wasn't a religious man from what his mother tells me? Could I have done something more?
    Thank you for your homily. It is helping me as I put together the homily I will preach at this man's funeral tomorrow.
    Fr. John