Monday, July 15, 2013

Suicide: What do you say at a time like this?

Suicide: What do you say at a time like this?


By: Pastor Bob Tousey

Over the years I have had numerous opportunities to be with families as they struggled with the sudden loss of a loved one from suicide.  When I was a fire department Chaplain, I was often with the family immediately after the tragedy.  More recently I have been called upon to officiate the funeral services.  Family and Friends always have questions and concerns. This blog will attempt to address some of them.

The first question I will deal with is often “the elephant” in the room at the funeral of a suicide victim.  

 “What about eternity?”,  “Is suicide the unforgivable sin”?

I have heard people say that suicide is the unforgivable sin.  This is not true and there is simply no biblical basis for that position.

First, while suicide is certainly tragic and falls short of God’s glory, there is no where in the Bible that God tell us suicide is unforgivable.  In fact, just the contrary is true.  In Matthew 12:31 Jesus tells us “And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”   

The only unforgivable sin is rejecting the Holy Spirit, a sin most theologians believe Christians are not capable of and in my opinion most, if not all, people of faith are not capable of.

There are seven accounts of suicide in the Bible.  They can be found in Judges 9:54 (Abimelech ordered his armor-bearer to draw his sword and kill him), Judges 16:29-31 (Samson collapsed a building on himself), 1 Samuel 31:3-6 (Saul ordered his armor-bearer to draw his sword and kill him), 2 Samuel 17:23 (Ahithophel hung himself), 1 Kings 16:18 (Zimri set his palace on fire around him) and Matthew 27:5 (Judas Iscariot hung himself).  

 There is no where in these seven Biblical accounts where God took the opportunity to tell us that suicide is unforgivable.

In fact, in Romans 3:23-24, which was written after all the Biblical accounts of suicide, took place, we are taught “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  Therefore, I think it is abundantly clear that suicide, like all other sins except rejecting the Spirit, is forgivable by God.

Family and friends often feel anger towards their loved one for ending their own life.   

This is a very understandable feeling.  Suicide has all the trappings of having been a voluntary decision by their loved one. It is important to remember that a decision to take one’s own life is often the result of a mental illness. Because of the illness their loved one was not in complete or balanced control of their decision making at the time they took their life.

Your loved one may have been struggling with depression, substance abuse, loss of hope because of job loss, illness, poor decision, etc..  All of these conditions and many others would have affected their loved one’s decision making process and therefore the act was no more voluntary than a death by cancer or heart disease is.

Understanding this is an important step to letting go of the anger and forgiving your loved one for the hurt that you are feeling.

After a suicide the loved one’s left behind often feel guilt.   

They feel they did not do enough to help their loved one and prevent the suicide.  First, as just discussed suicide is often the result of a mental illness. Even the best of care and the love of one’s family & friends are not enough to overcome the disease. Also, quite often the illness goes unnoticed and undiagnosed.   

Because mental illness carries with it some degree of stigma, people will deny they have it and go to great lengths to cover it up.  Someone suffering from depression, substance abuse and such will often wear a happy mask. Reasonable people will never suspect the hurt and pain their loved one is going through.

It is also my experience that people who are successful in taking their life do not talk about it.  They are already comfortable with their decision and have a plan in mind that they do not want interrupted.  They do not want others to know what they are planning and will work very hard at making sure others do not find out.  Chances are you did not miss anything and there was very little you could have done to prevent the suicide.

With the above discussion in mind I do feel a responsibility to point out that we should not ignore talk of suicide.  The very fact that it has entered someone’s thought process and is being discussed warrants professional attention.  For someone deeply troubled it might not take much to go from the talking & thought, to becoming comfortable with the decision and taking action. So please take any talk or thoughts of suicide very seriously.

Another question that occurs is how should we proceed with the funeral? 

Some families just have a quiet direct cremation and grieve privately; others have a viewing and service but just say the death was sudden, while others are open about the manner of death.

Like with any other manner of death there is no “right” or “wrong” answer.  Each family must make a decision that will help them cope with their grief and begin the healing process.   Every family will be different.

When a family decides to be open about the manner of death it is often a good idea to have a short “opening” service before the viewing with family and close friends with a comforting reading from scripture and some prayers asking for God’s strength and comfort.  It is often a good idea, if scheduling permits, for clergy to be present during the viewing as much as possible.  Mourners might have questions or just need to talk.  A loving and understanding Pastor can be quite comforting at a time like this.

The funeral service should acknowledge the tragedy, speak of God’s love for all His children and remind the family & friends that God does have a place in Heaven for those who take their own life.  It is important for the loved ones to be reminded that this is not good bye and there is hope of an eternal reunion in Heaven.

For families who choose to keep the manner of death a private matter then that decision should be respected and the service should be conducted as it would be for any other death.

Remember if you are called upon to work with survivors of suicide treat them in a compassionate and loving manner.  Do not be condescending, judgmental or express shock over the manner of death. 

For survivors of suicide is often a good idea to obtain some sort of professional grief counseling and get any questions you have answered by a caring and loving professional who understands suicide.

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