Updated: Apr 6, 2021
The following story originally appeared as part of a series of stories on the topic of suicide in the Jan. 15 issue of The Idaho Catholic Register. We will post more stories from the series in the days ahead.
Need is urgent for Catholics to understand, respond to suicide
Catholic teaching about the fate of a soul who has committed suicide was a major factor in leading Geri Wilkinson to join the Catholic Church not long after her husband, Jerry, ended his life by jumping oﬀ an Idaho Falls bridge.
And it was the support of Church members, especially her Cursillo prayer group, that made life more bearable for Gail Jampolsky of Lewiston after her son, Ian, took his life.
For other Catholics, the response, at least initially, was not as positive.
“The ﬁrst thing I found when I googled suicide and the Catholic Church was that suicide is a mortal sin,” said Tom Holstein of Boise, whose 17-year-old grandson took his own life.
“For me, at ﬁrst, the Church was not helpful,” said Holstein. “It’s such a touchy subject and I felt like I couldn’t get any help. It’s kind of taboo to talk about for most people, not just Catholics,” he said.
Holstein, a member of St. Mary’s Parish in Boise, eventually found the support he needed when he joined a suicide survivors’ group at the United Methodist Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise.
While Patty Wills’ experience with the Church after her son died by suicide was positive (her story is told on page 6 of today’s issue), a close friend of hers left the Church after the suicide of a loved one.
“Although her experience was with the Archdiocese of Seattle, it is very relevant as far as the wounds that are created for devout Catholics who have to ﬁght for a Catholic burial for a loved one who died by suicide,” Wills said.
CATHOLIC TEACHING that suicide is a mortal sin leads many in the Church to wrongly conclude that those who commit suicide go to hell. Nearly all of the people the Idaho Catholic Register interviewed for this series had friends or family members tell them as much.
Part of that misunderstanding is attributable to the Church’s former practice of denying Christian burial to those who commit suicide. Perhaps a larger contributor to the false notion about the eternal fate of suicide victims is a lack of proper understanding about what it takes to commit mortal sin. The three conditions identiﬁed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that must together be met to constitute mortal sin are grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent. (CCC, paragraphs 1856-1861)
The Church’s understanding of the mental state of those who commit suicide has increased along with society’s understanding in recent decades.
“By the time I was studying the issue at Mount Angel Seminary in the early ‘70s, we were being taught the mental health issues around suicide,” said Father Tom Loucks, a retired priest for the Diocese of Boise.
The Church walks a ﬁne line in getting people contemplating suicide to understand both the severity and ﬁnality of suicide while, at the same time, helping survivors to understand the extent of God’s mercy.
For many centuries, the Church taught that those who took their own lives could not be given a Christian funeral or buried in consecrated ground, writes Michelle Arnold, a former apologist for Catholic Answers. But, in so doing, the Church “wasn’t passing judgment on the salvation of the individual soul,” Arnold said. “Rather, the deprivation of Christian funeral rites was a pastoral discipline intended to teach Catholics the gravity of suicide. Although the Church no longer requires that Christian funeral rites be denied to people who commit suicide, the Church does still recognize the objective gravity of the act,” she writes.
Father Nathan Dail, parochial vicar at All Saints Parish in Lewiston, said the Church “does not profess that (those who commit) suicide cannot be saved, but it is important to remind all people, especially those facing temptations, of the grave wound it inﬂicts on the world,” particularly the tragic loss and grief for loved ones left behind.
Father Dail is reminded of a line in the Christmas classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life” when Clarence says, “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Gail Jampolsky with her son, Ian Curtis. A veteran, Sgt. Curtis completed two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before taking his own life. (Courtesy photo/Pam Jampolsky)
GAIL JAMPOLSKY will always feel the hole left behind from the suicide of her son, Ian, a Gulf War veteran who died in 2014. Ian was the link who reminded Jampolsky of Ian’s father, Michael, who died in a tragic accident at age 24 when Ian was a baby.
“I’ll never not hurt for the loss of my child. He was the only son of a husband I tragically lost. Ian was five months old when his dad was killed. That baby kept me going during those dark days. He was my tie to Michael.” Now that tie is gone, or so Jampolsky thought.
Ian’s son, Brycen, just a baby when Ian died and now almost 8, “has an uncanny resemblance,” to Ian. Life does go on.
For Jampolsky, it was her faith, her family and the community at All Saints Parish that made the journey through suicide bearable.
For his two sisters – one older and one younger – the healing is ongoing. “The oldest one gets emotional very quickly and the younger one who was closer to him in age kind of waffles in between being so mad at him for not being there for her wedding and her children and missing him terribly,” Jampolsky said.
All family members agree it is important to talk about Ian. “I never believed that just because someone is dead, you don’t mention their name. Talking about them honors them and shows their life mattered. Ian wasn’t a saint, but I loved him deeply,” Jampolsky said.
Jampolsky also didn’t shy away from saying how her son died. The first line of his obituary in the Lewiston Tribune reads: “In a moment when memories of war mixed with alcohol proved to be too much to bear, Ian was unable to see tomorrow and took his life July 10, 2014.”
The wording of the obituary “was done for the sake of honesty,” Jampolsky said. “A 24-year old just doesn’t ‘pass away at home.’ We need to be honest. This isn’t a shameful thing; it’s the truth.”
Jampolsky doesn’t regret her approach. The obituary led to further stories in the local newspaper and beyond about Ian’s death and the need to address suicide, especially among our nation’s veterans. When the bronze sculpture, “The Silent Battle,” was unveiled by the national “Eyes of Freedom” organization (see limacompanymemorial.org) project, it was done in Lewiston because of the publicity generated by Ian’s suicide.
In another dramatic turn of events, an appliance repairman told Jampolsky that he received a call from a young man he had coached in basketball telling the coach that he decided against committing suicide after reading about Ian’s death. “I’m convinced that our decisions to share with others about Ian’s death where Holy Spirit-inspired decisions,” Jampolsky said.
IAN MICHAEL CURTIS was always on the go. “He never had a delay button,” his mother says. He started Scouting in the first grade and went on to become an Eagle Scout. He was in sixth grade when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center happened. “Before he left for school that day, he said he wanted to go into the military so people won’t fly planes into buildings,” Jampolsky said.
He was not an academic in school, “but he was a smart kid with great questions.” Six months after high school, he was in Iraq. He loved the discipline and regimen of military life. “I prayed for a tough sergeant, and he got one,” Jampolsky said.
After serving nearly a year in Iraq, Ian came home to marry his high school sweetheart, Elayna. He was then deployed to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, not an easy place for a young couple to be, especially for Elayna who had never been far from her Lewiston home. Barely past their teen years, the Alaska adventure was a strain on their marriage.
After Alaska, Ian was deployed back to the Middle East, this time in Afghanistan. After his return, Ian and his wife moved to Texas, where he was stationed at Fort Hood. That’s where their son, Brycen, was born.
“At Fort Hood, they separated him from his battle buddies and that’s very hard; they have that shared experience that only those who have served overseas get,” Jampolsky said. In Fort Hood, Ian’s drinking became more of an issue.
His deployment complete, Ian and his family returned to Lewiston. He had become a sergeant and thought about re-upping, but because of a drawdown in troop levels in the Middle East and because he was having marital issues, Ian received an honorable discharge.
Back in Lewiston, he was hired by a local outdoor shop that gave preference to veterans, but it would be awhile before he could start.
“It was three to four months without a steady job, the drinking was getting worse, and he was spiraling with his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Jam-polsky said.
“When he was in Alaska, he started buying guns, and that was very frightening for me,” Jampolsky said. “I asked him, ‘What do you need all these guns for?’ He said it was a feeling he had that he had to protect us because of the things he had seen.”
During all of this, even before the drinking started to get worse, before the marital problems and before the PTSD, Jampolsky and her son had many heart-to-heart conversations. “As things worsened, I even asked him about suicide. He vehemently said – many times – that he knew what it was like to grow up without a dad and that he would never do that to his son.”
Dealing with PTSD, Ian said he knew he needed to get professional help.
The counseling could not start until the job did and the job was still on hold. Ian, feeling especially despondent started drinking heavily. His wife and son in bed, he watched the movie, “Lone Survivor,” about the only Navy SEAL to survive a mission to capture a Taliban leader.
Just before midnight, Elayna heard gunfire. Her husband had fatally shot himself. He was 24, the same age as his dad when he died.
“Like I said, he didn’t have a delay button where he would stop and think things through,” Jampolsky said. “He was thinking, ‘I’ve fought to try not to drink, I’ve fought to put my bad memories of war behind me. I’ve fought for my marriage and my finances.’
He was at that moment where he just didn’t want to hurt any-more.”
Ian’s son was only 15 months old at the time. “I don’t think he ever logically thought about his child and the things we talked about. That wasn’t in his mind at the moment,” Ian’s mother said.
About an hour after Ian’s wife had told Jampolsky and the initial shock had worn off, Jampolsky had an emotion she didn’t expect. Peace. “God could not have stood in front of me more. I knew Ian was at peace. I didn’t have to worry about my child anymore because he was at peace. I know that was an odd feeling to have, but I can’t deny it.”
WHILE IAN WAS young and struggling with a starting a career, Jerry Wilkinson wrestled with starting life over after retirement.
Jeri Wilkinson and her husband, Jerry. The two were married nearly 18 years before Jerry died by suicide. (Courtesy photo/Geri Wilkinson)
Wilkinson was a busy guy. When he wasn’t driving bus, hauling employees from Idaho Falls to the Idaho National Laboratory about an hour west, he was tending to his 30-acre farm. A veteran of the U.S. Army, he like to fish and hunt. In his later years, he took up gardening and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.
He married Jeri, his second wife, in 1994. The two made a good pair. They even had the same name and spelled it the same way until Jeri changed her spelling to avoid confusion. He was taking anti-depressants and confessed to Jeri even before they had married that he had attempted suicide previously.
But Jerry’s depression was manageable until he turned 75 and “something changed,” she says.
He decided he wanted to sell the farm and leave behind windy eastern Idaho winters for sunny St. George Utah.
“He loved the farm, so that was so out of character for him, but we put the farm up for sale and found a house in St. George.” But then Jerry started to have second thoughts, even after they had made an offer on the St. George house and auctioned off the farm equipment. “He started getting stressed and anxious, worrying about every little detail, even little things like would the movers unload the truck once we got to St. George.”
Because of his doubts, Jeri suggested they not move to St. George and buy a home or a condominium in Idaho Falls instead. He agreed to that, but, again, started having second thoughts and having trouble sleeping. “He would get very withdrawn. I tried to get him to talk but he would snap at me if I wanted to talk.”
Living in a hotel, they were trying to close on the Idaho Falls house, but Jerry’s mental state and anxiety worsened. “One morning, I suggested that we get him admitted for help. It told him I could handle getting the house closed on,” she said.
Later that same day, they were headed to the post office. He stopped to go for a walk near Idaho Falls’ Pancheri Street bridge, while she remained in the car, poring over house sale documents. “Then I couldn’t see him out the car window anymore.” Minutes later, she found him floating face down in the Snake River.
“I called 911 while I watched the current take him away,” she said. Two days later, Jeri Wilkinson divers found his body.
Jeri believes Jerry’s feeling of being overwhelmed by the sale of the house and by that morning’s conversation about admitting him to a hospital were the tipping points for her husband of nearly 18 years.
“I felt guilty, and I felt shame,” she says. “Once the shock started to dissipate, I kept thinking about what had happened to him. Is he in hell?” She spoke to a couple of pastors in their Lutheran faith, but was not satisfied with their answers.
She continued a search for answers, she said, “reading everything I could get my hands on.” She joined an online suicide survivors’ group called Alliance For Hope. One of the contributors to the online forum was a Catholic priest. “I got such relief from him,” especially his point that while suicide, in some cases, can be a mortal sin, in many cases, “when someone’s mind is that ill, it is an illness like cancer or anything else. God certainly has the power to find a way for them to have salvation, if it’s His will to give them that grace.”
Born in Rigby, Jeri was baptized into the Latter-day Saints faith when she was 8, although
her family did not regularly attend. She recalls that when she was about 12, her mother received instruction in the Catholic faith in nearby Rexburg. “We didn’t join, but it planted a seed. Over the years, I’ve always felt drawn to the Catholic faith.”
After she met Jerry, who was Lutheran, she decided to join that faith.
A year after Jerry’s death and needing a fresh start, Jeri moved to Boise to be closer to a son and daughter-in-law. It was at the time that she began to think about Catholicism once again. She enrolled in RCIA at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Boise. She persuaded her sister in Idaho Falls to take RCIA with her at Christ the King Parish 280 miles away. Jeri joined that Easter about six years ago, and her sister joined a year later.
Her husband’s suicide “knocked me down, I felt gutted and like I didn’t have control over anything, which made me totally lean on God,” Jeri said. “I have felt His providence in my life since then,” even though a challenging cancer scare made me “feel like for a second time in my life, I had no control.”
The Church needs to provide more support for those contemplating suicide and those left behind, Jeri said. “We have lots of support groups for widows and widowers, but we need suicide survivors’ group,” she said.
TOM HOLSTEIN of Boise found a support group at a nearby Methodist church when he felt like there was nowhere for him to turn within his own Catholic faith after his 17-year-old grandson inexplicably ended his life.
Even though he couldn’t find the help he needed right away, he knew his fellow Catholics cared.
The morning after his grandson died, Holstein attended Mass at Sacred Heart Parish on the Boise bench.
“During the Prayers of the Faithful when they asked who we should pray for, I said we should pray for my grandson who just committed suicide. I kind of broke down and several parishioners came over and hugged me. The priest said my grandson is on his way to heaven.”
Holstein’s grandson (who we will call “Dave” to honor Holstein’s request that he not be identified) was everything and more of what would be regarded as a stellar, all-around high school student. National Honor Society. Junior High Leadership Program. Class Treasurer. Debate team. Basketball, football, and, his favorite, lacrosse.
“He was a happy person until the very last day.” And that last day will forever be a mystery to the entire family.
It was not like Holstein did not know his grandson. “I had talked to him several times the week before (his death) via text or phone. There was not a hint that anything was wrong.”
The day Dave died, however, his friends, the family would later learn, noticed that something was wrong. They spoke to a teacher after school who contacted Dave’s mother. His mom finally contacted him. Dave said he was working his job at a nearby grocery store. When his parents drove to the store, they could not find his car in the parking lot. At about 5:30 in the evening, Dave sent a text saying he was at Simplot Park and for people “not to be upset with him or anybody else,” and that he was going to a better place. The friends who had noticed his peculiar behavior said he had sent a message over Snapchat showing a gun on the ground with the message, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Holstein said his grandson did not exhibit any of the signs that many people with suicide ideation experience. However, he was fascinated with the idea of reincarnation and left a suicide letter to his family that spoke of reincarnation.
Holstein not only had a difficult time understanding the Catholic teaching regarding suicide, but also found himself almost immediately facing tough conversation from family members who were not Catholic or no longer practicing. “Within three days after Dave’s death (a close relative) told me that the Catholic Church says that if you commit suicide, you are going to hell.”
The suicide survivors’ group at the Cathedral of the Rockies became an anchor for Holstein as did the Norman Vincent Peale book, “The Healing of Sorrow.”
After the funeral, Holstein said he commented to one of Dave’s friends that “I am so mad at my grandson.” The friend’s dad told Holstein, “You can’t be mad. He was just a kid. He’s 17. They still don’t know what’s going on with the world.”
Even though it has been more than three years, Davie’s mom continues to get counseling. Holstein said his son (Dave’s dad) “is trying to get through it the best he can.” Dave’s two brothers “are doing ok, we think, but the younger one will never talk about it.” That despite the fact that the family makes a point to talk about Dave “all the time as if he’s still here. We haven’t forgotten him and never will.”
SUICIDE REMAINS the second-leading cause of death for teens. In rural states like Idaho, the crisis is even more acute.
Deacon Sal Carranza, who heads up the Diocese of Boise’s Youth and Young Adult Ministries, notes that the increasing rate of suicide is taking its toll on the approximate 56 youth ministers across the Diocese.
“Youth ministers not only impart the faith, but also make sure it is relational,” Deacon Carranza said.
“Once you build that bond with them, they welcome you into their lives, including the messiness and struggles. That trust from our young people is a tremendous blessing because we can then help them, but it also carries a burden because as the young people empty themselves of their struggles, our youth leaders cannot help but walk away burdened for them. That’s just part of youth ministry during any year. Now enter COVID and the stress is heightened, not only in our youth but also in our ministers and their spouses and children.”
Two youth ministers have had recent experiences with youths in their groups who attempted suicide or who were close to friends in the community who completed suicide. In Burley, the youth minister and youths knew a young woman who committed suicide. Her husband called 911, and then he also took his life.
The Diocese recently sponsored a training session during which staff from Catholic Charities of Idaho trained youth ministers in how to deal with suicide and de-escalate suicidal situations.
“Our direct ministry is no longer just with the young, but with the ministers who help them,” Deacon Carranza said.
Father Dominique Faure, a Boise priest with the Verbum Spei fraternity, says the challenge for the Church as a mother is “trying to educate in showing the gravity of taking one’s life, but at the same time, she must show compassion for the families of those who commit suicide. She would clearly invoke the mercy of Christ, knowing so well that He came for those whose yoke is too heavy.”
He emphasized the importance of friendship and community. “It is fundamentally through friendship that once can give a new hope to someone who despairs. Apostles have to rediscover that their first call is to be friends of Christ and, then, experts in the science of friendship,” Father Faure said.
Parishes must become a “real community, a family where the voiceless can be listened to. We are less of a well-run organization and more a network of charity.”
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