Reaching Out to Survivors of Suicide
Recently, Rick Warren announced the death of his son, Matthew, and courageously, also revealed his death was by suicide. In doing so, Warren brought a hushed subject to light and validated the anguish of those left behind when a loved one opts to take his own life.
Any death plunges family members and friends into a season of grief. But a suicide death intensifies emotions, and sadly, often leaves families feeling isolated and shunned.
Suicide usually isn't discussed, especially in the church. While it is a subject whispered behind cupped hands or alluded to in the form of a prayer request, suicide is rarely confronted openly.
One of the greatest deterrents to meeting suicide head-on is the centuries-old proliferation of myths and misunderstandings about the subject. Doesn't mentioning suicide to a depressed person plant the idea in his mind and encourage rather than deter? Isn't a suicide death a sure ticket to hell? Don't surviving family members feel better if no one mentions the manner in which their loved one died? The answer to all these questions is "no."
A Different Kind of Grief
Survivors of suicide desperately need the opportunity to talk openly about the complex emotions they are experiencing. Suicide literally explodes into a person's life like an earthquake registering off the Richter scale. Life changes in an instant for suicide survivors. One moment, they are blissfully traveling down the road of life, and the next, an event happens that opens the earth in a yawning chasm before them. As with the survivors of an actual earthquake, suicide families are in shock, simply existing in the wake of the destruction.
As if the death of a loved one weren't enough to handle, suicide survivors must deal with the social stigma attached to suicide. In general, people do not know how to react to or comfort suicide families. Suicide is akin to a sort of social leprosy. A shadow is cast across the entire family as if something is "wrong" with them all. And then, there is the thought that perhaps the whole suicide idea might be "catching." If you associate with the family, are you putting yourself and your family at risk of developing a suicidal mindset? While this may seem a far-fetched and unrealistic idea, it is not an uncommon thought pattern for those on the outside looking in.
As with any death, people often feel talking about it will upset the family so they avoid the subject. But survivors need to talk about what has happened. Healing will never occur if the gaping wound of suicide pain is covered over without being allowed to heal from the inside out.
Suppose an earthquake seriously damages the foundation of a home, yet the house appears otherwise intact. There are obvious cracks, but instead of making the necessary inspection and repairs, the owner opts for stuccoing over the damaged foundation. From the exterior, the repairs seem complete. However, one day an aftershock trembles the already insecure foundation and the whole house comes crashing down.
Waiting to address the damage done by suicide only postpones the inevitable. Talking about what has happened is a vital part of the healing process. Huge chunks of unreconciled pain lay scattered in the path of recovery for suicide survivors. While picking through the rubble, the ordinary things of life must go on. Amid the chaos of second-guessing and "what if's," survivors must deal with the mundane issues of the funeral, finances, paperwork, probate, and insurance claims.
How to Respond
Many Christians do not know how to respond to suicide, and in their ignorance, often do more harm than good. Often, Christians feel compelled to pass judgment on the circumstances of the death and speculate about whether the victim is in heaven or hell. This is never appropriate. God is the only Righteous Judge and the status of the soul of the deceased is in His hands. Church leaders especially need to leave judgment to God. Many a survivor has turned his back on the church and God following a judgmental statement by an overly pious pastor. When people don't know what to say, but feel they are expected to say something, their comments are often hurtful.
You can be the most helpful to survivors by being available and listening. Don't feel you have to inform or justify. Asking probing questions is neither appropriate nor necessary. Because suicide is an awkward, uncomfortable subject, people are tempted to avoid the truth. Hiding from the truth only makes grief more difficult. Simply be there to listen and comfort with your presence. In listening, you should be prepared to hear and accept a wide range of emotions. You may be uncomfortable with the intensity of expression of these emotions. However, it is important for survivors to express themselves without being silenced. Don't try to calm survivors down or cut short their expression of emotion. The freedom to work through anger and grief in an individual way will hasten the healing process.
Realize the most difficult period for the family is probably weeks or months later. During the initial period of shock, survivors are not feeling many of the emotions they will feel later. You may meet the greatest need six to eight weeks following the death and again as the one-year anniversary of the suicide approaches. Survivors need to know you care and need to discuss their feelings and frustrations. Your support and encouragement can make a huge difference.
How You Can Help
Can God change your life?
- Be bold in reaching out to survivors of suicide.
Don't be afraid to discuss the subject of suicide with survivors, but temper your comments. Grieving survivors need to be acknowledged, not ignored.
- Let them know you care.
As the well-known saying goes, "People don't care what you know until they know that you care." Sharing your concern for survivors helps them know they are not alone in their pain.
- Be a good listener.
Allow survivors to talk about what they are feeling. Listen much; talk little. Much of what you say will be ineffective because the person is in a state of mind that will not allow listening or absorbing. Do everything you can to let the person know you are there for them and willing to listen without judging or challenging.
- Encourage counseling or support group attendance. Make some calls for the person to help locate a counselor, clergy, or support group https://www.afsp.org/. Offer to drive your friend to and from the appointment or meeting.
- Be practical. What can you do for the person right now? Can you provide childcare, meals, or transportation? Instead of saying, "call me if you need me," be specific about what you are willing to do.
- Be available. In Hope for the Troubled Heart, Billy Graham writes, "Being available is difficult, because it takes time, but being sensitive to the small amounts of time we can give could reap large rewards in someone's life. It doesn't really matter what we say to comfort people during a time of suffering, it's our concern and availability that count."
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Portions of this article excerpted from AFTERSHOCK: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide (B & H Publishing Group) by Candy Arrington and David Cox. Used with permission.
Candy Arrington's publishing credits include The Lookout, Encounter, Focus on the Family, Clubhouse, The Upper Room, The Writer, and Writer's Digest. She is coauthor of Aftershock: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide (B & H Publishing Group) and When Your Aging Parent Needs Care: Practical Help for This Season of Life (Harvest House Publishers). Candy lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where she writes about the lessons God is teaching her. www.CandyArrington.com
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