What have I, as a mother and a pastor, learned about care for suicide survivors in the four years since my son's death? How can we all help those who experience this devastating loss?
One of our twin sons died of suicide in September 2008, the day after his 24th birthday. Unlike Rick and Kay Warren's much publicized family situation, we had seen no warning signs. Our son had been a successful college student and had found a great job. We were to learn that we had missed signs painfully evident today, but at the time of his death it seemed as if a giant chasm had opened in the earth and swallowed him up.
At the time, I was a seminary student. Our pastors and friends were a tremendous help to us in their calm response and in their help in creating a beautiful service in which the cause of death was openly recognized, in which we were assured of the gift of resurrection, and in which the young people in the congregation were directly addressed.
As with almost any other form of care for others, the true gift in "talking about suicide" is offered in the form of "listening about suicide." Some things to remember:
1. Suicide is generally unlike other losses.
Each of the suicides we are most likely to encounter will involve the sudden, violent and lonely death of a physically healthy and relatively young person who has in some oblique and incomprehensible way made some sort of decision against life. Suicide violates every norm we recognize for human behavior. Regardless of whether the person has been visibly in a struggle for his or her life for years or has concealed his or her anguish from family and friends, the trauma to survivors is without parallel. Please: no judgment, no advice, no "guesses" about "what must have happened."
2. This is a chance for Christian pastors and friends to shine with resurrection hope and assurance.
Almost everyone, regardless of how tenuous or strong his or her connection with the church, regardless of whether he or she is a staunch atheist or a lifetime believer, has some sense or perhaps downright fear that the beloved friend or family member might be in hell, whatever he or she imagines hell to be. If ever there were a time in which people need to hear God's infinite grace and love proclaimed in a ringing public voice and in a quiet private whisper, this is it. Nevertheless...
3. Many, if not most, suicide survivors question or dispense entirely with faith.
We need to listen, without judgment and without proffering advice, to voices speaking of God's betrayal and abandonment and to anger leveled at God in ways and with a force which may make us uncomfortable.
4. The language we use is significant.
Try to avoid the term "committed suicide," which implies a criminal intentionality not relevant to suicide, and causes further grief to survivors. People die of or by or from suicide. (Would you say that someone had "committed cancer"?) We can have an impact on the healing process from the outset by using language which affirms mental illness in lieu of language implying that a criminal event has taken place.
5. As with any trauma, many survivors need to talk.
At length and in detail. And some do not. It may be possible to help with referrals to counselors and support groups; there is a tremendous amount of terrible experience and information to process.
6. Survivors need one another.
Anything others can do to help people make connections with those who have been there: other survivors, support groups, websites, books. There are things that suicide survivors say only to one another, and we need to help them find those others.
7. Loss to suicide is one of the most isolating of life's experiences.
Most people struggle to convey sympathy about expected deaths, but almost no one will bring up the topic of suicide. Do what you can to keep the lines of communication open via occasional phone calls and emails, and do not be deterred by a lack of response.
8. Topics for letters and emails and calls?
Be available to the endless processing and, if you knew the person, share stories whenever you can. With a suicide, the means of death tends to eclipse the life which preceded it. My most treasured emails are the lengthy ones from friends of my son who took the time to describe experiences they had shared and to tell me what they loved about him.
The greatest gift to survivors of suicide remains one of presence. If you are offered the gift of a survivor's confidence, please listen! We are all learning.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.