by Marc and Julie Anderson
OVERLAND PARK — Hope.
Although it’s one of the three theological virtues, it can be elusive.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says hope “keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude (No. 1818)”
Yet, how does one find hope, especially in the midst of tragedy?
Deacon Ed Shoener and Jennifer Hubbard said it’s possible.
The two spoke to approximately 100 people on Oct. 6 at Church of the Ascension in Overland Park during “Finding Hope: Surviving Suicide, Accidental Death and Sudden Loss,” an event sponsored by Project Chrysalis, a ministry “to help parents who have lost a child find hope through sacred Scripture and community.”
A permanent deacon in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and a founding member of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, Deacon Shoener said his daughter’s death led him to a new ministry.
As a teenager, the deacon’s daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For 14 years, Katie received treatment, but tragically lost her life to suicide in 2016.
“One of the ways I dealt with my grief was to read. I needed to read about what happened. I wanted to understand this, and I particularly wanted to understand the Roman Catholic perspective,” the deacon said.
Finding little to no Catholic literature on suicide and/or mental health, and few Catholic ministries, he was eventually led to collaborate with Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan of the Diocese of San Diego, who had lost two siblings and a brother-in-law to suicide.
Their first book, “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide,” features nine chapters, most written by prominent church leaders who have lost someone to suicide.
Both society and the church need to get to a place of open dialogue about mental illness, said Deacon Shoener, so “we can openly talk about this and recognize it for what it is.”
In his second book with Auxiliary Bishop Dolan, called “Responding to Suicide: A Pastoral Handbook for Catholic Leaders,” the two men said they had three goals in writing it.
First, they wanted Catholic clergy to understand the experience of families who have lost loved ones to suicide. Additionally, they want people to understand the church’s teaching — that while suicide is a grave matter and an evil act, the church also teaches it cannot know with certainty what happens to the souls of those who die by suicide.
“One of the most comforting things in the catechism is that the church prays for those who have died by suicide,” Deacon Shoener said.
The book’s final goal is to encourage others to minister to those affected by mental illness, something he is passionate about after losing his daughter.
The three lessons of loss
Like Deacon Shoener, Hubbard found that the death of her daughter led her on an unexpected journey of grief, but also one of healing and hope.
Catherine Hubbard was just 6 years old when she was killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And while the journey was painful, Hubbard found herself trusting God more as a result.
“We have to take God at his word. We really do, and God’s word is that he will restore beauty from ashes,” she said.
From the long road she’s walked, Hubbard said she has learned three main lessons.
First, God protects you and your loved ones, even when it doesn’t seem like it.
“I know Catherine is where we want all of our children to go, and, God willing, someday we will be reunited,” she said. “I can’t take that away from her. So, God protected Catherine, and God protected me.”
Second, Hubbard said she learned God always provides a path from grief to hope.
The path might lead to big things or more modest accomplishments. She now serves as executive director of an animal sanctuary named in honor of her daughter, for example.
Either way, the path is there for a person to find.
“God will provide a way,” Hubbard said, “and it is his will, through the one that you lose, that his glory will be illuminated.”
For a long time, Hubbard said, her purpose was to simply get out of bed and attend to the needs of her son Freddy, who was 8 at the time.
Every morning after Freddy got on the bus, Hubbard said she returned home and sat at her table, trying to make sense of things.
“If this is where you’re at and you don’t know what to do and all you want to do is sit and read, then I beg you to read the Bible,” she said. “You will encounter God in some way.”
In Hubbard’s own life, an encounter at the grocery store led her to begin journaling.
Eventually, Father Peter Cameron, OP, then editor-in-chief of Magnificat, heard of something Hubbard wrote and asked her to write for the monthly magazine.
And writing has been one way Hubbard said God has healed her.
So, that has been the third lesson this experience has taught her.
“God will heal you,” she said. “You may not want to hear that. You may think that when your heart is healed you’ve disrespected your loved one. But I beg to differ. Because when your heart is healed, you will embrace your loved one.”