The Church’s Response to Suicide

Last week’s news of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain taking their own lives was shocking.  In the news reports for each one, either friends or family members said “we had no idea”.  Persons closest to them did know something, but they didn’t know how urgent and present the threat of losing their loved one was.  In the days since, I’ve had hushed conversations about the suicides.  Adults at church were hesitant to say anything out loud, not wanting to explain what suicide is to the young children in our midst.  A few folks have shared the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on social media (800-273-8255 for voice, 800-799-4889 for TTY, live chat for military vets, LGBTQ+ persons, or those who prefer text based communication available online here )

Suicide is a personal issue for me.  It’s personal because people I love have suffered the agony of losing a parent, a partner, a beloved family member.  Every single time there is news coverage of a death by suicide, my heart aches for the survivors.  The children who have grown into amazing young adults without one of their parents.  The widow and widower, left with the chaos of life and the overwhelming financial burdens, all which cannot be ignored despite their own grief and confusion.

Waves of Emotions

The swirling emotions and grief that follow a suicide death are troubled waters.  Walking with my friends and family members through this storm, I have come to no clear answers.  I only know that when the darkness surrounds a person’s mind and seems to blot out all hope, the best thing to do is to walk beside them.  To hold faith when they have none left.  To bring a meal.  To listen without judgment.  To know that love and anger can exist together, and that emotions roll like waves, and that my role is to stand with the person even as those emotions wash over us both.  To know that even years later, grief can come crashing back, triggered by a news report, a photograph, the scent of a favorite meal.

Once during a ministry internship when I was feeling certain of my call by God and yet uncertain of my abilities, a chance conversation reminded me of God’s unfailing love.  After our worship service I was shaking hands with parishioners at the far door.  Normally I stood with the senior pastor at the main entrance, but on this day I was alone at a door that few people used.  A person stopped and asked through tears what our denomination had to say about people who had committed suicide.  They were upset because something in the worship service had triggered a memory of a dear friend.  During the friend’s funeral, someone had said that they would not be welcomed into heaven because of the manner of death.  The words of Romans 8:38-39 were a great comfort, that nothing can separate us from the love of God – not death or life, not angels or rulers, not what we face in the present or whatever may come, not the powers that be, not our achievements or our despair – none of these can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reassurance of Grace

The person who asked me that question was a visitor to that church, and did not attend church in their home.  Most of the survivors I know do not attend church.  Well meaning people in church have too often said insensitive things (“haven’t you grieved long enough?  You should be over this by now” for example).  Their hearts have been wounded so deeply and the church hasn’t helped.  They need to have companions on the journey.  They need to hear the reassurance that nothing separates us from God’s love.  This is the antidote to “we had no idea”.  We do not offer answers we do not have, but we offer the reassurance of God’s grace and the companionship of friends.

When we consider the role of the church as the embodiment of God’s grace for the world, we think about how Christ encouraged us to love our neighbors, to care for those on the margins, and to always be discipling each other.  Being the church in mission is sometimes about loving our neighbors right where we live.  Being the church in mission means that people whose hearts are surrounded by darkness can find in us partners on the journey.  Whether that means standing quietly by a person as they work through the waves of emotions, or sharing meals together, or listening with respect to people as they grapple with the confusion of a loved one’s suicide – these are ways we can be the church in mission to our neighbors.  I pray that your local churches are brave enough to offer love and acceptance to those who need to hear a word of hope.

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