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‘Remember’: New ministry serves Catholics grieving a suicide loss

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One of my last memories of my cousin Clare was when she was home for Thanksgiving in 2018. The family was sitting in my aunt and uncle’s living room playing Telepictionary, and Clare had drawn something so kooky and bizarre that we were all keeled over, laughing so hard we were crying. 

I have a lot of memories like that of Clare. She was funny and zany and had a flair for the artistic and adventurous. She was always drawing or painting or making something with her hands, like personal place cards for holiday table settings, or woven wall hangings inspired by her many travels. 

Credit: Solomiya Trylovska / Shutterstock.


Growing up, we spent a lot of time together, as she was one of the few cousins who was both my age and lived close by. We had countless sleepovers where we pulled pranks on my little brothers, or put on low-quality politically-tinged skits during election years (hanging chads, anyone?) or ran lemonade stands that sold everything from juice to friendship bracelets to my aunt’s garden produce. In high school, we traveled to New Zealand and Australia together for World Youth Day and got to dance in front of Hobbit Hole on the set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy - an all-time favorite movie series for us both. 

As an adult, Clare left her office job, pared down her possessions, and remodeled a van so she could live out of it and travel the country (as well as the world), exploring National Parks and other outdoor wonders, living what the internet has broadly called “van life.” In her own Instagram biography, Clare dubbed herself “an adventure waiting to happen.” 

Clare was living and working in Hawaii when, tragically, on June 15, 2020, during the height of some of the strictest lockdowns and restrictions of the pandemic, she died by suicide, drowning in the ocean. 

A note and other evidence recovered after she went missing confirmed that suicide had been her intent when she entered the water that day. A security tape showed the moment Clare entered the water, and it never showed her emerging. Despite a professional search over several days, Clare’s body was never recovered. She was about a month away from turning 29. 

It is one of the hardest and most heartbreaking things I have ever experienced, or have ever witnessed Clare’s family - my aunt, uncle, and Clare’s sisters - go through. 

Sadly, Clare is far from alone. According to the World Health Organization, more than 700,000 people die by suicide per year. It is the fourth leading cause of death for 15-29 year olds worldwide. In the United States, suicide falls in the top two or three leading causes of death for 10-34-year-olds, according to data from the CDC. Suicides have long been trending upward in the U.S., and increased by 37% over the past 20 years. While there was a brief, slight downward trend in suicides in the U.S. between 2019-2020, the upward trend has since continued, according to the CDC. Some have referred to the upward trend of suicides as an epidemic, albeit one with complex causes.  

Catholic suicide resources: few and far between  

After Clare died, Sr. Kathryn Maney, M.S. - Clare’s sister and my cousin - looked for resources to help her process the grief and trauma.  

“I reached out to Catholic Social Services to see what they might have in terms of help for our family, because I knew we couldn't walk in the midst of all this alone,” Sr. Kathryn said. 

She was connected to a group in Lincoln, Neb. called Mourning Hope, which offered a grief group called Survivors of Suicide. The group was helpful, Sr. Kathryn said, in connecting her to other people who were grieving a family member lost to suicide. But it was limited, in that it was a secular group, and therefore could not address matters of faith or questions about God.

As a Catholic and a religious sister, a member of the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln, Sr. Kathryn needed to process everything from not just a psychological standpoint, but a faith-based perspective as well. She decided to make a five-day Ignatian retreat, where she prayed over everything that had happened surrounding Clare’s death. 

“I really wanted to bring (God) into all the memories, and the hurts and the wounds that went along with Clare’s suicide,” she said. It was an experience that ended up being “hugely helpful.”

Sr. Kathryn said she wished she could have brought that retreat experience to her grief group, particularly to her fellow Catholics there. It was the beginning of an idea that would blossom into a ministry. 

In 2022, Sr. Kathryn was assigned to move to Kansas, to work at Benedictine College, and to head the small community of Marian sisters studying there. Because she would be leaving her Lincoln-based grief group, she looked for Kansas-based grief groups ahead of her move. 

There was not much on offer. While Sr. Kathryn found one Catholic grief group, she was disappointed in some of their content.

“For example, they were okay with the use of mediums (people who claim to have special contact with the spirits of the dead) in dealing with loss, and that's completely contrary to our faith,” Sr. Kathryn said. “It would just be wounding to those who they were trying to help. And so I couldn’t in good conscience continue to participate in that.” 

When another Marian sister, grieving a different suicide, came to Sr. Kathryn for looking for Catholic resources on suicide grief, all Sr. Kathryn could offer her was a book recommendation. 

‘Sister, you should do something’ 

Sr. Kathryn brought her distress over the lack of Catholic resources on suicide grief to her spiritual director, who told her: “Sister, you should do something.” 

Sr. Kathryn promised to pray about it. In her heart, she said, she already yearned for “Holy Mother Church to be in this place where her children are hurting, and accompany them.” 

As she prayed, the idea of a ministry called “Remember” flooded into her mind and heart. The name is significant on several levels.

“Anyone who's lost someone by suicide knows that you don't want the person to be remembered just for their death,” Sr. Kathryn said. “That's… what people are curious about and have questions about, but really, that's just one small moment of their whole life. You want to remember them for who they are, not how they died.” 

Another significance of the name “Remember” is as a reference to the Eucharistic prayer, where Jesus says: “Do this in remembrance of me.” 

“And where is it that we are most closely tied to those who have gone before us? When we receive Jesus in the Eucharist and that veil is lifted,” Sr. Kathryn said. “And that is when we can offer the most powerful prayers for the repose of their souls, too.” 

“It's our hope and prayer that at those last moments, there was a turning towards the Lord, please God in His mercy,” she added. “And that…we can have the hope that (those who died by suicide) could please be saved.” 

There is another point in a Eucharistic prayer where the priest prays: “Remember those who have gone before us marked with a sign of faith,” and Catholics pray for those who have died.  

And finally, in the Memorare prayer, the first word is: “‘Remember’ O Most gracious Virgin Mary,” Sr. Kathryn noted, as the rest of the prayer asks for Mary’s help and comfort in times of need. 

After being inspired to name her ministry “Remember”, Sr. Kathryn received permission from her religious superior, and a letter of approval from her local ordinary, Bishop James Conley, to proceed with founding the ministry.

But launching a new, mostly unprecedented apostolate proved to be a daunting task for someone who is a full-time bride of Christ, and holds a full-time job at the same time. 

Sr. Kathryn searched for help, but ultimately found her ministry idea in a “holding pattern.” 

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‘Let’s do this’

In January 2023, Sr. Kathryn attended SEEK, a large Catholic conference hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in St. Louis, Missouri.

She had not intended to do any work on “Remember” while at SEEK, Sr. Kathryn recalled. She was there to help her sisters run their community’s vocations booth, and to meet with college students. But one day she attended a SEEK talk by Dr. Matthew Breuninger, an associate professor of psychology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, simply because it sounded interesting.

During that talk, Sr. Kathryn said she felt God nudging her to talk with Breuninger about “Remember.”

“Okay,” Sr. Kathryn remembered thinking. “We’re here with some 20,000 people. I am one person, he is one speaker.”

Providentially, she said, Breuninger said he would be available for questions after his talk. Sr. Kathryn, the paragon of patience, waited in line for two hours before talking to him about “Remember.” 

“I wasn't expecting the answer that I received,” Sr. Kathryn said. “He said: ‘Sister, you are following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. You are acting under obedience. You have the approval of your bishop. I have letters behind my name. I can kick down doors. Let's do this.’” 

They exchanged contact information, and then started meeting weekly to develop a 12-week grief support series, which is now the pilot program of “Remember.” 

‘Remember’: A branch of Red Bird Ministries

A few months later, as “Remember” was still being developed, Sr. Kathryn said she kept getting (and deleting) emails from a group she had never heard of, called Red Bird Ministries. But one day, she got curious and decided to Google the ministry. 

“I was taken aback by the beauty of their ministry, because they minister to couples of child loss of any age or stage from conception to adulthood,” Sr. Kathryn said. “And it started because of their own experience of, namely, accompaniment through the loss of their children.”

Sr. Kathryn set up a meeting with the executive director of Red Bird, Kelly Breaux, for a consultation on how to start a ministry. Breaux shared some insights and tips, and thought the relationship would end there. 

But shortly after their meeting, Breaux went on a retreat, and felt God calling her to include “Remember” under the umbrella of Red Bird Ministries. 

“It was at communion, and the song ‘Remembrance’ by Matt Maher was playing,” Breaux recalled. Some of the lyrics include: “Lord, we remember you. And remembrance leads us to worship.”

“I just felt overwhelmed by God that I should offer our ministry,” Breaux said, as a host platform for “Remember.” Breaux said she and her husband Ryan knew the burden of starting a ministry from scratch, and they felt happy to relieve Sr. Kathryn of some of those logistical and financial hardships. 

Red Bird already had a platform, an app, a board of directors, and years of work behind their ministry. Breaux admitted that while she did not know where the money would come from to add “Remember” to their work, she prayed to God to make a way.

And God seemed to do just that. 

There are many Catholic priests, theologians and psychologists who have lent their expertise to the development of the “Remember” program, including Dr. Regina Boerio, a professor of psychology from the Fransican University of Steubenville, Fr. Chris Alar, MIC, author of “After Suicide: There's Hope for Them and for You,” and Dr. Gregory Bottaro, a Catholic psychologist, founder of the CatholicPsych Institute and developer of the CatholicPsych Model of Applied Personalism (CPMAP), among others. 

Breaux said she was grateful for the development of “Remember” because while she had encountered parents of suicide loss in her ministry, she had not yet had something specific to offer them. She wanted to do more, but said she couldn’t develop or lead the program herself because she had not experienced that kind of loss.

“It has to be authentic,” Breaux said. “It has to be developed by people who understand that experience, who have experienced it.” 

The authenticity of her ministry is something in which Breaux believes strongly. Red Bird Ministries began years after Breaux and her husband Ryan experienced the loss of their twins, a son Talon and a daughter Emma Grace. Talon died 15 days after his birth in 2005 due to complications from a premature birth. Emma Grace, also medically fragile, survived for three more years until she contracted H1N1 and ultimately passed away as well. 

The experience rocked the Breaux’s world. Their home diocese had no child loss grief support resources at the time, and so everything available to them as a couple, a family, or as individuals, was from a secular point of view. 

“We were forced away from the Church to find the healing that we needed,” she said. 

Breaux said she still suffered years of darkness, isolation, and bitterness after her losses. Her marriage suffered, her other relationships suffered, her faith suffered.

“I would say things like ‘Why pray? I prayed and my kids died,’” she said. It wasn’t until a friend who had also experienced child loss invited her back to the faith that Breaux began to turn back to God.

Everyone else had just been interested in seeing her “get better” or move on from her grief; they weren’t coming from a place of understanding exactly what Breaux had been through, she said. It was the authenticity of her friend’s witness - having experienced this type of loss, and having found healing with God - that was key to bringing Breaux back to her faith. 

Breaux and her husband founded Red Bird as a way to offer the resources they wished they had had when they lost Talon and Emma Grace. The ministry, based in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, is for parents who have experienced the loss of a child at any age or phase. 

The “Remember” branch is for anyone who has experienced suicide loss (not exclusively for parents). Red Bird trains its leaders in diocesan chapters and parish “flocks”, who are then commissioned to lead small grief groups. There are ways to connect to the group online as well. 


How is suicide different? 

Sr. Kathryn told me there are two different kinds of grief - simple grief, and complicated grief. I’m paraphrasing here, but simple grief looks like this: Grandpa dies at 99 years of age after a long and good life. You had a good relationship with him, and eventually he dies of old age. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t sad that your grandpa died; losing a loved one is always painful. However, it was more or less expected, and someone of that age had likely been preparing for death in some way or another. Hopefully they had the time to receive last rites, to prepare a will, to say goodbye to their loved ones, to pass on important mementos or family stories. Thanks be to God, three of my four grandparents had such a death. 

But grief over a death like Clare’s is complicated. She was young, she wasn’t supposed to die. We weren’t prepared - it’s not like she had a long and visible bout of sickness, like cancer. She was only 28 when she died. She may have gone on to get married, have children, found a hippie, artsy yurt community in Joshua Tree. She was supposed to be there for things like weddings and birthdays and funerals and holidays for years to come. 

Loved ones grieving a suicide are also typically left with a lot of questions: Did we miss something? Is there more we could have done? What if there were arguments or unresolved complications in the relationship? 

“There's a lot of questions that can't be answered because the person who can answer them is no longer able to do that for you,” Sr. Kathryn said. “That can be accompanied by some undue guilt. There's a lot of forgiveness that has to go into that too, because what has happened is hurtful. Oftentimes…people go through a time of anger, of like, ‘How could they have done this? How could they do this to me? How could they do this to our family?’”

“So there’s a lot of forgiveness that needs to happen,” she said. “Forgiveness of them, forgiveness of yourself.”  

“Oftentimes the nature of the death is pretty traumatic, like people find their loved ones,” Sr. Kathryn said. “And they have to deal with intrusive thoughts and traumatic memories.” 

People grieving suicides also experience a difficulty in talking to other people about their family, Sr. Kathryn said. 

“There’s a stigma around it, and also your own woundedness in regard to the death, it's not easy to talk about,” she said. “Like when you're introducing yourself to someone for the first time and they ask you about your family, and you say ‘so and so is deceased,’ and they might wonder, ‘Oh, what happened?’ But that’s not something you want to start a friendship talking about.”

Sr. Kathryn said she has found herself simply telling new acquaintances that Clare drowned, rather than get into all the details. 

One of the co-facilitators in the pilot group of “Remember” is Tom Korta, the chief administrative officer at Pius X High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Korta lost his older brother, Bob, to suicide in 1986. Tom was 18 at the time, Bob was 19. 

Korta has spoken about the loss of Bob at retreats, and in talks he has given to students. When Sr. Kathryn asked Korta to become involved in “Remember,” Korta said he knew there was a need for this kind of ministry.

“And now that we’ve begun, I’m even more convinced of the need,” he said. 

Korta said losing his brother was “definitely a painful experience.” He said while he didn’t feel like his brother’s death was his fault, he struggled with wondering whether he had missed the signs that Bob was feeling suicidal.

“I feel like our family did not grieve well,” Korta said. “There just weren't good resources back then.” His parents tried attending a grief group of some kind, he recalled, but it wasn’t specific to suicide.  

“I think Sister is right in recognizing that there's something different about grieving a suicide. And…the Catholic perspective is so beautiful, but there's no one, or not very many, groups out there helping people to navigate this difficult experience.” 

Now, as a parent himself, Korta said he has renewed empathy for what his parents suffered, and what other parents suffer, who have lost children to suicide. He said he is now “fairly convinced” that his mom’s lung disorder, which developed after Bob’s death, and ultimately killed her, “was due to unresolved grief.” 

“I can imagine, and hate to imagine, what it would feel like to lose one of my kids to suicide,” he said. “I feel good when my kids do good things, when they make good choices…But I can see where the flip side of that would be…when a child commits suicide, that a parent would feel like they had done something wrong.” 

Korta said his hope for participants of “Remember” is that they feel less alone, and they feel like they have a place to connect with others who understand what they’re going through, and a place where they can begin to heal. 

“I made calls to each of the members before we started, and that was something that was a fairly common theme is that people were just saying that they feel alone,” Korta said. “They look forward to having other people to share the experience…now they have someone they can talk to about it who will really understand.” 

“Or even…we will be on a Zoom call and someone will say something like, ‘I can't sleep well at night,’ and you'll just see a lot of knowing nods from the others. That happens fairly often, other people nodding along when someone makes an observation. I think that's good. That's healing.” 

It also gives people a place to intentionally grieve, Korta said. While some people can be tempted to avoid dealing with their grief, it is important to process it. 

“Repressing grief just gives it more power,” Korta said. “The best thing is to enter into it and do it fully, and come out on the other side feeling whole.”

The idea is also that members will want to stay connected after they participate in the program, Sr. Kathryn added, to continue supporting one another. 

What’s God got to do with it? 

People of faith are left with another layer of questions surrounding complicated grief. From my own experience, those questions look something like: “God, where were you? How could an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful God allow something like this to happen?”

These are the kinds of questions that “Remember” is designed to address. Sr. Kathryn said the 12-week pilot program is based on the idea that “grace builds on nature” - that both the psychological and spiritual components of grief must be addressed for healing to take place. 

“When you're talking about death and dying, you're talking about eternal things,” she said, “and we know as Catholics that there is life after death. So after someone I love dies, you're going to ask questions like: ‘Where was God in this?’ or ‘How do I relate to him in that?’” 

“The psychological part is more about caring for yourself in the here and now…and after you've taken care of the basic human needs, then you can be more free to address the deeper spiritual needs. Because if you're not sleeping and you're not eating and you're in shock…let's get you stabilized first, and then we'll go deeper,” she said. 

The first few weeks of the program deal with the “human side” of grief - it discusses grief generally, and suicide grief specifically. It addresses suicidality, which helps members understand what might lead a person to commit suicide. The members then learn to tell their stories surrounding suicide. 

Then, the group moves to address Church teaching on suicide. This can be difficult for some Catholics, Sr. Kathryn noted, as those who don’t have a good understanding of mental health may believe their loved one is in hell with no hope of redemption. 

“There's talk of, in the past, there weren't Catholic funerals allowed (for people who committed suicide), or people couldn't be buried in cemeteries because of it,” Sr. Kathryn said. “But that was at a time where we didn't have a good understanding of the culpability involved, and the psychology involved.”

Dr. Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian and the senior director of corporate engagement at IWP Capital, told The Pillar that while the Church teaches that the taking of any human life is a grave harm, there is also reason to hope in the mercy of God when someone has committed suicide.

“First of all, we simply cannot know the relationship that each soul has to God,” de Solenni said. 

Furthermore, she added, most people who commit suicide are experiencing great suffering and psychological torment, which affects their ability to think clearly. 

For a sin to be considered mortal, it requires not only grave matter, but also full knowledge and full consent of the person involved. 

“If somebody does (commit suicide) intentionally, that's a grave sin,” de Solenni said. “But it’s very hard for me to imagine a situation - and I've talked to many priests about this as well - …that somebody would be in a position where they clearly choose (suicide).”

Sr. Kathryn said she heard an analogy that described the experience like this: A person who is suicidal, who is experiencing deep psychological pain, feels as if they are in a room that is on fire. And while there are multiple exits from this room, the person has tunnel vision, where the only exit they see from their pain is death. 

“Usually, there's biological factors, there’s psychological factors, there’s often drug influence involved with mental illness, so they’re not able to think correctly about the things that they’re facing,” Sr. Kathryn noted. “There’s just lots of things to make culpability very, very low.”

Because of the multitude of factors that mitigate culpability in most cases of suicide, de Solenni said that from a moral standpoint, she is “very comfortable trusting in God’s mercy.” 

“I think a great consolation in this area has been Sister Faustina,” and her devotion to the Divine Mercy of God which she wrote about in her diary. “I just think, why would I limit God's mercy?” 

The mercy of God is also important to remember when forgiving a loved one for committing suicide, or forgiving oneself for not having done more to prevent a suicide, de Solenni added.

“I think people need to stop playing God, and step back and say, ‘Wow, I don't understand this. I feel terrible about it. I wish I could have done something differently. And I'm going to ask the Lord to help me heal,’” de Solenni said. “And maybe if I think I did something wrong, I’m going to learn from it, or learn to do differently,  but I'm really going to throw myself into his mercy.”

“Who's the true judge? It's God. And are we really going to limit his power? He can see clearly and he sees justly with a heart of mercy,” de Solenni added.  

Sr. Kathryn said that her faith has helped her in knowing that she has never been alone in her grief, and that Clare was not alone at the moment of her death. 

“I know just from my own experience and prayer, and bringing (God) into the memories and… recognizing his providential care and merciful love amid those times and incidences… brings hope because I wasn't alone and I know she wasn’t alone,” she said. It doesn’t make it easy, she added, but it helps. 

People of faith grieving a suicide also usually experience anger. I cannot remember a complicated grief that I have experienced that didn’t involve anger at the Lord. Sr. Kathryn has for years taught me to be honest with God about that anger, and she repeated that advice for anyone grieving a suicide. 

“Yes, the Lord knows that we are angry. It's not news to him,” Sr. Kathryn said. “And it's not disrespectful to bring that before him. And he can't speak into it and help us walk through it unless we're honest with him about it. That’s not a need for him, but it’s a need for us.” 

“In Scripture, specifically the book of Lamentations, that's literally being very honest before the Lord. That's an example of lamenting, of speaking to (God) of the hurts and the wounds and the wonderment and the ‘Why?’ and the ‘What happened?’ and it recognizes our dependence on him. And nothing can be really, truly healed until it's brought before him. It’s just being very vulnerable. And that vulnerability then leads to intimacy,” she said. 

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On remembering 

As for Clare, Sister Kathryn said she remembers her for her sense of humor, and her sense of adventure and her artistic ability. She always called her “God’s little light”, because Clare literally means “light”, and because of Clare’s personality. 

“I think of her smile and her way of interacting with people and her joy when she was doing well, because she did have her struggles. But she was like a reflection of God in that way,” she said. 

She still brings Clare up in conversations, she said, “because it’s not like she has stopped being a part of my life.” She has a plant from Clare’s funeral Mass that she named “Hope” that is still alive. She has a specific day of the week when she offers sacrifices for Clare, and of course, she prays for her often. She said she now considers her her “mission partner” in her work with “Remember.” 

De Solenni said that she believes anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide can still enjoy a spiritual friendship with them. 

“I would like to think that (the person who has died) can know God's love in a very tender way,” she said. “And as such, there's the potential that they could be a powerful intercessor for us, and we also have to intercede for them. The relationship hasn't ended… it's very much like the friendship that we had beforehand. We help each other in the ways that we can, it’s just that it's been taken into a much more spiritual realm.” 

Breaux said the idea of remembering loved ones not just for their death, but for who they were, was something that she felt strongly when her children died. 

“I remember telling my husband if we don't have a funeral (for Talon), people will forget that he lived,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh Ryan and Kelly's baby who died,’ they won't say: ‘His name is Talon, he had blond hair and blue eyes.’” 

Breaux said she didn’t want people to forget her children’s names, or that they existed at all. 

“That was very much a part of my heart then, and it impacted the decisions that I made after that. And so that remembrance part of (Sister’s ministry) is so important because I remember feeling that way, like people are going to forget that they lived,” she said. 

There’s a fear among some people grieving a suicide that healing means forgetting their loved one, Korta added. That is why there is a segment of the program specifically about remembering and relating to loved ones who have died by suicide.  

“And that's why Sr. Kathryn’s name of ‘Remember’ is just so important and so right on,” he said. 

“I don’t have any illusions that after 12 weeks with me and Sister, (“Remember” participants) are going to be all healed,” he added. “It’s more that they have the tools, and the permission, and maybe the courage to enter into the grieving process more.” 

Next steps 

“Once we get the pilot completed and the materials tweaked and perfected, we hope to publish journals and leader guides,” Sr. Kathryn said.

Those leader guides will be available to the diocesan and parish leaders who are already a part of Red Bird, who would then undergo specific training to lead “Remember” groups. There may also be ways to connect with “Remember” materials online, but Sr. Kathryn said she is not sure yet what that will look like. 

Sr. Kathryn said so far, everything she has done with “Remember” has been done gratis, through the generosity of all the theologians, priests, and psychologists who have generously offered their time and talents free of charge, although there is still some fundraising to do as the ministry continues to develop. 

Anyone interested in participating in a “Remember” group, or bringing Red Bird ministries to their local diocese or parish, can find more information at Red Bird’s website.

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