Last month, coming up on Christmas, I was carefully planning out 2018 with the intention of making this blog a source of information and a starting point, if needed, for other pastors for discussion and research.
While working on this, I received a call from a friend, which lead to a funeral and has consumed by thoughts. The funeral was for his daughter, who was only a few years older than me. She took her own life.
There are 3 reasons this woman’s suicide has consumed my thoughts.
One, I have never once had a suicidal thought. Some trouble in life, but has driven me to anything like a suicidal thought. Likewise, I do not have any mental health issues and I have never used drugs or anything addictive that would cause suicidal thoughts or actions.
Second, from the military, through life, and in ministry, I have been pulled into, trained, and compelled to help anyone with mental health issues. Specifically, suicide seems to be the center of all this.
Third, as I sat with my friend, grieving over the loss of his daughter, I was struck with the incredible pain that many parents experience when they outlive their own children. When it is death by suicide, the pain and loss is magnified by a factor in which I can not place a number.
So, with my first blog post of 2018, I am reposting from August 2016. In this, I hope it is clear that in our efforts to help people and prevent suicide, we must also remember, love, and take care of the families and friends of suicide victims.
This is a blog post I wanted to write more than 7 years ago. Every time I began to pull my thoughts together, I could not. It became too long and was filled with pain, anger, arrogance, and frustration. Whenever the topic of suicide came up, it seemed that any conversation I might have with someone became to unbearable. If the other person stated an opinion based on misconceptions or stereotypes, my emotional response was immediately more than I can bear.
This week, a school principal in my county was found dead of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. When I heard the news, my heart sank. Yesterday, I was a substitute teacher in his school. Throughout the day, it was obvious that his death was a shock to everyone he knew. One mother I spoke with after school told me her son came home crying most of the week. The school, community, and students were amazing in their response as they reached out to and love the family and provide support wherever they could. Today, they will gather for a funeral and memorial service.
As I put my thoughts together about this, I think there are 3 things I think that help whenever anyone is directly impacted by the suicide of a friend of family member. The first is a theological point. The second and third are practical knowledge.
1. Most popular religious thoughts on suicide have no basis in the Bible.
Specifically, the religious thought here is the idea that suicide is somehow a mortal and unforgivable sin. This is an old and pervasive belief that exists in western culture. In some cases, depending on what Christian denomination a suicide victim and family belong to, a religious funeral may be denied for a person who commits suicide.
This has always been a troubling trend in Christian thought to me. In the last 10 years, I have counseled a few families and individual broken by the suicide of loved one. In my opinion, there is nothing more damaging than the idea of suicide being an unforgivable sin. In Christian thought, an unforgivable sin separates a person from God and heaven for all eternity.
The short answer I personally give to families is this. There is no mention at all in any of the 66 books that make up the Bible calling suicide a mortal or unforgivable sin. The nature of salvation is that it is 100% in God’s hands. Of the people I have known that committed suicide, some were confirmed believers in Jesus with an expressed and living faith. Out of all the people I have known, I do not truly know or understand what was going on inside their minds. But, there is nothing at all in the Bible that calls suicide “unforgivable.”
As a pastor, I will never deny a funeral request for any reason.
2. Sometimes, there are suicidal signs and symptoms, but intervention does not always work.
This is a troubling thing in the aftermath of a suicide. I know this from personal experience. It is one of the reasons I lose sleep. In some cases I have learned from families who lost a loved one, the signs and symptoms were obvious. The families I met did everything they could. They sought outside help. They asked the right questions of their loved one. Sometimes progress was made and a life was saved. In other cases, everything was done and that family member or friend still took his or her own life.
When someone is suicidal, sometimes intervention works. In fact, most of what I have been able to learn in training and from the current studies available is intervention has saved thousands of lives. But, when intervention does not work, there is nothing more devastating than this except for point number 3.
3. Sometimes, a person takes his or her own life without warning, without sign or symptom, and there is no explanation, no reason, ever.
I remember the day a friend told me about the pain she and her family endured from her husband’s suicide. There was no warning. There was no sign or symptom. There were no expressions of suicidal thoughts. There was no known depression or any history of mental illness. Unfortunately, most of the literature available says there are usually signs and symptoms without any mention of cases like this.
Since then, I have learned of a few other similar cases and found only one study involving 153 men and women who survived their own impulsive and completely unplanned suicide attempts. There may be more research on this, but I just haven not found much. All I could learn is that impulsive suicides do happen. Hopefully, some sociological with additional psychological research will help us learn more.
I want to be very careful with this subject. I am only a pastor who has had some crisis counseling training. With this, I and others like me have been able to intervene and prevent a suicide attempt and sometimes be there to help someone who failed in an attempt.
I also can not be more thankful for the experts in medicine and psychology who have taken the time to do the research and provide the information and training we needed. From what I observed this week, intervention and dealing with the aftermath of suicide is much better today than it was in 1991 when I started high school.
When considering these things about suicide, I think it is equally important to be a loving support to families and friends dealing with the loss that suicide brings. Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death in the United States. As such, very few people are left who do not know someone who has committed suicide. While there is no formula and each person will grieve in different ways, I think the best way to be a loving person and help during the aftermath is to grieve with them.