Suicide Through a Father’s Eyes
In my retirement, I spend most of my time writing. I have written a few pieces about the failed leadership of the Catholic Church, but most of my writing is about my oldest son, a police officer who took his life four years ago. I have learned about cops and suicide, and I have learned about pain and grace. I try to write four days a week, but on Tuesdays, I don’t write, I volunteer.
I spend part of each Tuesday at the San Francisco Police Department doing suicide prevention training. I speak to around 25 cops about my son. How he lost his way. The high rate of police suicide, and about current research in this area. I tell them that if this can happen to my son, it can happen to any officer. I remind them that the very things that make them effective and safe on the street can destroy them in their personal life, and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. I think they are listening. A number of officers have told me that I have helped them.
When I finish the training and I’m back in my car, I usually fall apart because I have not been giving an academic lecture, but rather talking about the suicide of my son, my first born, my rock. I sit in my car revisiting the horror of four years ago. I feel God’s grace working in me, not eliminating the pain, but allowing me to feel some satisfaction and a sense that life is still worth living. I am always amazed at the intimate, symbiotic and still for me, mysterious relationship between pain and grace.
When I leave the police department, I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Quentin Prison, where I’ve been volunteering for over seven years. For two hours, I co-lead a spiritual group with 18 inmates, and on Sunday. I go to Mass with the men. I have never been in a place where God’s presence is more tangible.
Most of the men I have come to know at San Quentin have been convicted of second-degree murder and were sentenced to 15 years to life in their teens or early 20s. According to sentencing laws, if they fulfilled all the criteria for rehabilitation, they could be paroled in 12 to 15 years. Unlike fixed term prisoners, where the recidivism rate is 70 percent, the recidivism rate for these inmates when they are released is 1 percent. Should they have been held accountable and punished for their crimes? Absolutely, but they have done their time. They are not the same men they were when they did their crime. But the parole boards and governors have been politically reluctant to release them.
We need to see them and know them for who they are now, not who they were 20 or 30 years ago. We need to see them as living witnesses to the transforming power of faith. If we are followers of Jesus Christ, then we believe in forgiveness and redemption, and we need to live that belief. They are men of deep spirituality, full of insight and remorse for the crimes they have committed and the great harm and pain they brought to others. They are completely rehabilitated, qualified and capable of returning to the free community. In many cases when they get out, they will serve others.
The guys know about my son and they pray for him each year at Mass on the anniversary of his death. One night after the concluding prayer, one of the newer members of the group who had only just learned about my son, came up to me, gave me a hug and said, “You know, he is with God.”
Usually when I come into San Quentin on Tuesday, I am tired, depressed from thinking about my son and feeling sorry for myself. Usually when I leave at the end of the session, I am in awe at the faith, insight and spiritual journey of these men, who in their pain, isolation and suffering are closer to God than most people I know on the outside. And I know that God’s grace, not always obvious, is flowing inside those walls, and it also touches those of us who are privileged to come in there once in awhile.
Now when I get home late each Tuesday evening, I can say that I have honored my son, covered both ends of the criminal justice system and experienced tangible signs of God’s grace in both those worlds.
The secret of volunteer work is that it is a very selfish and rewarding activity. I do this for others, but if I am honest, I do it so I can keep breathing; I do it so I can believe. I do it so I can experience God’s grace.
– Brian Cahill, Executive Director of San Francisco Catholic Charities-