Ministering After Suicide

June 4th, 2014

Early in my ministry, a young parishioner completed suicide. Her death devastated our church, our community and me. Following her funeral, many attendees shared with me their story of a loved one who had died by suicide, and each spoke as if the death had just happened. Those painful memories were fresh and raw. I left the funeral heartbroken, my eyes suddenly opened to lives haunted by unhealed grief.

Recurrent pastoral encounters with suicide and mental illness have marked my ministry through the years. I still have much to learn about ministry within the context of suicide, but three practices have helped me along the way.

1. Speak openly about suicide.

A suicide leaves survivors—family and friends who deeply loved the deceased. Many people don't know what to say to survivors. Suicide is a taboo topic in our culture and churches. Most survivors of suicide are abandoned to work through their grief, while friends and family remain silent, whispering behind their backs but completely avoiding the topic in their presence. Much of this reaction is understandable: we hesitate to use the word “suicide”, so we speak in hushed tones, sharing vague details, hoping to change harsh reality through ambiguity. Suicide is painful, awkward and difficult to talk about, but avoidance doesn’t change reality.

In my experience, suicide survivors are hungry to talk through the details once they sense you will be a compassionate presence. Let them talk. Ministers ought not avoid the topic with grieving families because it makes us uncomfortable. Suicide is uncomfortable to talk about, but for the sake of those you serve, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

With the family’s permission, talk openly about what happened with others. Remove the stigma of suicide by addressing it boldly, lovingly and prophetically. Let us not perpetuate misconceptions about suicide by failing to speak with the confidence, love and honesty to which God calls us.

2. Remember that emotions are complex.

When people die by suicide, their surviving family and friends can feel a bewildering array of emotions. Sadness and pain are common in all grieving, but with suicide, less socially “acceptable” emotions can be just as strong. Experiencing these emotions is unpleasant for suicide survivors and hard for us, as the listener, to hear.

Survivors may feel great anger: “How could my loved one take his or her own life?” True, suicide is not really a choice, but the result of deep anguish and (oftentimes) mental illness. Still, let survivors be angry. Help them acknowledge and express anger safely and without judgment.

Many ministers are surprised when survivors express a deep sense of relief. Perhaps their loved one battled mental illness for a lifetime. That struggle was likely marked with times of success and relapse, emotional and financial struggle and relational difficulties. Repeated suicide attempts may precede the final, "successful" attempt.

Why should we be surprised when survivors express relief? The roller-coaster has stopped, and survivors can feel relief that their loved one’s pain is ended. But they may even feel a sense of personal relief that the ruthless “ups-and-downs” of mental illness have ceased. They don't want to feel relieved, but feelings, especially unpleasant ones, do not come and go at our bidding. Ministers must grant to survivors the liberty to feel unpleasant emotions, without being censored or "fixed".

When we deprive suicide survivors of a safe space to talk through difficult feelings, the grief stagnates. Survivors limp along, never fully healing, never fully returning to life. The grief associated with suicide is complex grief that may include crippling guilt and shame. Survivors unfairly bludgeon themselves for a lifetime for failing to do "more" to prevent the suicide. This is hard, messy stuff. We must enter into the survivor’s unique pain, and walk with them where they are, as they are.

3. Above all, point them to Jesus.

In all things, point them to Jesus. Jesus looked on people’s pain with the deepest compassion. He wept over death and died to destroy sin, despair, brokenness, and pain. Point grieving people to the God who died for them – the God who knows our suffering intimately. Our crucified and resurrected God understands the pain of even the most complex, unimaginable losses.

I don't have all the answers, and it’s been my experience that most grieving people don't really want answers anyway. They do, however, need a whole lot more than you and I can possibly give to them. They need something that only God can give: grace, healing, peace, hope, love and redemption.

Ministers can and must walk with suffering people, showing empathy and deep compassion, but it is Jesus who heals the broken heart. Point them to Jesus. Patiently, persistently and compassionately remind them that Jesus is with them. Help them see that Christ’s suffering reveals to us a God who is not distant from our pain, but enters into pain with us. Our God can be trusted to heal and deliver.

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