When a loved one has taken his or her own life, it may seem impossible for any good to emerge from the painful and often inexplicable situation.
Yet Renae Carapella-Johnson and Deacon Ray Garbach are using such tragedies as vehicles for helping others — through increasing awareness, prevention, support and open conversation about suicide and mental illness.
Serving as the ongoing inspiration for Carapella-Johnson is the memory of her brother, Raymond Carapella, who ended his life on Oct. 24, 2005, at age 19 — an event that spurred her to pursue a career in counseling. Carapella-Johnson, who belongs to St. Isidore and Maria Torribia Parish in Steuben County, opened her own practice, Ray of Light Counseling and Consulting in Savona, earlier this year. She named the practice in honor of her brother.
“Without question, Raymond is never far from my thoughts and always in my heart,” she said.
And Deacon Garbach, pastoral associate at Holy Spirit Parish in Webster and Penfield, is highly involved with Meg’s Gift. In addition to partnering with and raising fund for mental-health agencies, the initiative arranges for the presentation of suicide-prevention and mental-illness seminars in schools and other public settings.
Deacon Garbach and his wife, Kathy, founded Meg’s Gift in the aftermath of losing their daughter, Megan, to suicide on Feb. 17, 2014, at age 27.
“She loved everybody unconditionally,” Deacon Garbach said of Megan. “We did not want the way she died to define her life.”
Talk isn’t cheap
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,000 people in the United States died by suicide in 2017 — approximately one death every 11 minutes. Males taking their own lives outnumbered females by a 4-to-1 ratio. The overall suicide rate was up 31 percent from 2001, with suicide being the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34 — statistics Deacon Garbach considers hallmarks of a crisis, particularly among young people.
The CDC noted that suicide is frequently associated with mental illness, although other problems, such as those related to relationships, a current crisis, substance abuse, employment, finances, legal matters and housing, also can be contributing factors.
“I see suicidal thoughts as a reflection of intense emotional pain, and the person wanting to somehow stop that pain,” said Carapella-Johnson, who noted that she has counseled many people who have lost loved ones to suicide or are struggling with suicidal thoughts.
It’s vital for a person in distress to share his or her thoughts as soon as they arise, said Father Robert Werth, a former clinical social worker.
“Talk to somebody, do not isolate. Let them know what’s going on,” emphasized Father Werth, who serves as parochial vicar at Rochester’s St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish.
As for the person who receives that information — and/or detects warning signs of suicidal behavior — Father Werth and Carapella-Johnson said it’s best not to offer advice, but simply lend a caring ear.
“There is something pretty beautiful and powerful when we just sit with people and their pain, and listen. After we’ve listened, then we can work with the person to decide what next steps should be taken,” Carapella-Johnson said.
“Let them talk — listen, listen,” Father Werth agreed. “We don’t have a lot of good listeners anymore.”
Deacon Garbach acknowledged that discussions about suicide — either with somebody directly involved or in general conversation — can be frightening and uncomfortable.
“We were brought up in an era when you didn’t talk about that,” he remarked.
His advice: Talk anyway, because doing so could save a life. Deacon Garbach dismissed the notion that openly addressing the subject might make somebody more prone to going through with a suicide.
“It’s just the opposite,” he asserted.
Carapella-Johnson said that there’s a much better chance of assisting people in crisis “when we talk openly and honestly about suicide, bringing it out of the darkness and into the light.” Although she said society still has a ways to go in terms of erasing stigmas associated with suicide, she said good progress has been made in recent years.
God only knows
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church clarified its approach to suicide in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1992. While describing suicide as a grave action that rejects God’s gift of life, the catechism also states that the decision to commit such an act can be clouded by “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture” (No. 2282). The catechism adds that “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” (No. 2283).
Father Werth said this current teaching reflects greater compassion for suicide victims than the church previously offered; at one time, those who committed suicide were not accorded a funeral Mass or burial in a Catholic cemetery and were thought to be destined for hell.
“Who are we to judge?” remarked Father Werth, who said he refrains from any kind of judgment when presiding at the funeral Mass of a suicide victim. “You have to believe in the mercy and love of God.”
Carapella-Johnson recalled that her brother’s funeral liturgy, which took place at St. Joseph Church in Campbell, was a beautiful ceremony. He is interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Corning.
Deacon Garbach felt similarly about his daughter’s funeral Mass at St. Joseph in Penfield; she is interred at Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
“The liturgy was unbelievably comforting for me,” he said.
Deacon Garbach added that he receives ongoing comfort through his dedication to Meg’s Gift, saying he’s deeply gratified that so many folks have stepped forward to support its important causes. For instance, he noted, an annual golf tournament has brought in more than $250,000 in five years.
“People are just coming out of the woodwork (to help),” he said.
Carapella-Johnson, meanwhile, continues finding satisfaction in her counseling work. Although she deals with the considerable pain and suffering of some clients, “I also bear witness to overcoming and surviving,” she said.
“People have said I made a difference to them, and that means the world to me,” she added.
If you are in crisis, or somebody you know is, dial 211 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The hotline — which involves a national network of more than 150 local crisis centers — provides free, confidential, around-the-clock support to people who are experiencing suicidal crisis or other emotional distress.
In addition, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for information on warning signs, risk factors, statistics, and opportunities for treatment and prevention.