Church has role in helping families find hope, healing

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Ryan Pflipsen had just purchased his first semi truck and was looking forward to working alongside his dad Mick and brother Bill in the family trucking business near Melrose.

Known for his strong work ethic and easygoing style, Ryan could often be found working on their farm or spending time outdoors, hunting, fishing or riding his snowmobile or motorcycle.

So when Ryan spent more time alone in his room than usual one day, Mick recalls, he wasn’t especially concerned until the next day — when they discovered that Ryan had taken his life. They hadn’t seen any warning signs.

After Ryan’s death in August 2006, the Pflipsen family, including Ryan’s mother Marlene and sister Kristie (Schiffler) had many unanswered questions.

“We didn’t know where to turn,” Mick said. “There was no one to ask what to do or what the next step was.”

Mick said he felt like he had “a hole in his stomach that didn’t go away,” and approached Father Vince Lieser, their pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in Melrose at the time.

“There were many in the area grieving from suicide,” said Father Lieser, who is now retired. “So I called people together to talk about how they could help one another.”

One question people ask after a suicide is, “Why?” he said. Others ask whether they should have seen the signs.

“Often these questions are never answered, leaving a person with raw grief and a range of emotions: anger, guilt, self-questioning,” Father Lieser said. “It’s helpful to find somewhere to talk about it and connect with others who understand those emotions.”

The church’s teaching

In the Catholic tradition, years of stigma surrounding suicide, including a practice of not burying people inside the cemetery if they died by suicide, made it difficult to present a compassionate response, Father Lieser said.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that everyone is responsible for his or her life before God, who has given it to him or her.

“It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life,” the catechism states. “We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”

Father Tom Knoblach, consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud, paraphrases St. Thomas Aquinas, saying the desire innate in the human person is to continue to live.

“Therefore, pastorally speaking, suicide is a response to psychological or sometimes physical suffering,” he said. “This type of suffering overtakes one’s ability to think clearly. Often, the person cannot see any other way to relieve their suffering and sees suicide as a way to end that intolerable pain.”

Questions of salvation may arise as a result of suicide. The catechism also states: “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.”

“The church does not assume the person is condemned,” Father Knoblach said. “Judgment belongs to God alone, who knows the deepest part of our hearts.”

But, Father Knoblach said, the church never implies suicide is an acceptable way for people to express their sufferings. “God forgives and God understands, but the church always encourages people to find the help they need.”

A pastoral response

Father Knoblach said a good response is simply to be present to those who experience the loss of a loved one by suicide.

“Our faith gives us opportunities for preparation — we prepare for marriage, baptism, confirmation — but where we need focus is on follow-up,” he said. “Grief is a challenge unique to each person, and it may takes weeks, months or years for people to take the next step. The key is being present to people — over time — as they work through the range of emotions.”

“In my own experience, there is no making sense of [death by suicide],” he said. “Part of the value — and the humility — of our faith is to be able to live with unanswered questions.”

It has taken years for the Pflipsens to come to terms with their questions and they’ve relied on their faith to get them through.
“You have to give it time for the answers to come,” Mick said. “There are little gifts of faith along the way, little steps that help you make it through.”

One particular gift happened just after Ryan died.

“They say on the third day after death, your soul rises,” Mick shared. “On our ‘third day,’ three bald eagles flew right by our house. Marlene and I took the four-wheeler up to the field to see where they went and we got about 10 to 15 feet away. We’ve never seen them before or since.”

The Pflipsens have heard many similar stories from others in the Healing Hearts of Suicide Survivors support group they helped Father Lieser establish.

“Everyone who comes to the meetings walks in the same shoes,” Mick said. “I tell people not to come expecting something big to happen. It’s the small things — a word or comment someone makes — that you take with you when you leave that make the biggest difference.”

Healing Hearts meets every third Tuesday of the month. The time changes with the seasons — February and March, they meet at 7 p.m. in the basement of St. Mary Church in Melrose.

Clinical social worker Roxann Storms helps lead the meetings in Melrose and recently started a Healing Hearts support group in St. Cloud that meets the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Pastoral Center, 305 7th Ave. N., St. Cloud.

The Pflipsens will always feel the sorrow of Ryan’s death but hope that sharing their story will help others deal with their grief. They encourage anyone considering suicide or experiencing depression to seek help.

“I go to the support group now to talk when I need to but I also go to help somebody else who has the same questions I had,” Mick said. “They are in the same boots we were in so they come looking for answers and it is good for us, too, to share our experience and what we’ve learned.”

For more information about Healing Hearts support groups, contact Roxann Storms at 320-248-1563.