By NICOLE GREGORY     9/7/2023

When a person commits suicide, grieving loved ones can’t help but ask painful questions. Why did they do it? Wasn’t I enough for them to want to live? If I had been there, could I have stopped them? But answers don’t often come, and the loved ones can feel isolated and alone in their suffering.

This is exactly why Teresa Alva, a retired teacher, decided to facilitate a Suicide Bereavement Support Group at St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Dana Point.

When the third of her three brothers committed suicide in 2017, Alva sought out help. All three of her brothers had suffered from anxiety and depression and two had fought in Vietnam. Suicide can affect grieving family members “physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said.

She attended a bereavement group at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in San Dimas and found tremendous relief.

“It was amazing, very powerful,” she said.

Alva and her husband Randy, who is by her side at the meetings helping where needed, eventually moved to San Clemente and she signed up for the mental health ministry at the nearby St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church. At a training, Alva met Deacon Ed Shoener, who lost his daughter Katie to suicide, and who with Bishop John Dolan coauthored the books “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders” and “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide.”

Alva wanted to continue attending a support group but was frustrated that she could not find another one. So, she decided to start one herself at St. Edward’s. People from Orange County and further away signed up for her group.

But how to facilitate it?

Barbara Zahner, a chaplain and founding member of the Mental Health Ministry in the Diocese of San Jose, told Alva, “Just ask a question, then sit back and listen.” About eight to 12 participants met one evening each week for eight weeks. Alva opened each session with a prayer and then offered a question or topic to discuss.

This was a safe, confidential space where participants could express their grief, anger and bewilderment at the loss of a loved one by suicide.

“They are on a roller coaster of guilt and anger as they’re trying to deal with it, on top of losing that person,” she explained.

“There’s a lot of stigma associated with suicide,” she added.”

And some people don’t want it known how their loved one died. But in the support group no one was judged, and participants realized they were not alone with their feelings.

“Everyone felt safe enough to say anything they wanted,” Alva said.

Suicide among adults has increased in the U.S. over the last several years, reaching to 49,449 in 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Recognizing this, Pope Francis has been explicit that the Catholic Church must welcome and support people who have been affected by suicide, and not discriminate against them.

Alva modeled her suicide bereavement group on guidelines set by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention—with the addition of a Catholic perspective. She invited a priest to come speak to the support group about what happens to a person’s soul who has taken their own life.

“He told us that people don’t choose to have mental illness, they have not sinned,” said Alva. “When they die it’s between them and God. If you’ve suffered from depression or emotional distress, God knows your heart and that you’re capable of salvation.”

Following the Pope’s directive to welcome and support people who’ve lost someone to suicide, Alva hopes to coordinate another bereavement support group soon so that the healing can continue.

“In our group people know they can take all the time they need to grieve,” she said.