As a mental health professional I talk about suicide with clients and or colleagues on a daily basis, it is both familiar and foreign in many ways. As a professional psychologist in training we have been taught to think about client suicide as "when" and not "if" this is a tragedy that will come into my professional life at some point. We work hard to learn to assess and intervene before ideation turns into planning, we also work hard to treat those who have made failed attempts, and we breathe sighs of relief when are clients are able to keep their feet on this earth. The completion of suicide is always devastating, but I have mentally prepared for that horrible day sometime in the distant future as a clinician. I did not expect and was not prepared for suicide to come into my personal life.
Earlier this month (September: which happens to be suicide awareness and prevention month) my sweet eighteen-year-old cousin took his life. My cousin Jacob was more like a little brother to me and his death has completely devastated our family. His parents, his siblings and the rest of our family will never be the same. The void he leaves will never be filled and yet we must learn to carry on somehow without him. Time will only tell what the long term grieving process has in store for us individually and collectively.
Coming from a highly religious family and community I began to become concerned with the responses we might hear in the wake of this news. Through the years I have heard confusing and even shaming messages about suicide, and while I think many religious mental health professionals have attempted to correct myths and provide education around the topic some people are still misinformed. As our family was in the midst of the acute crisis all I wanted to do was shield them (especially my aunt) from any and all insensitive comments that may come her way from well-intentioned but frankly ignorant people. Much to my pleasant surprise we have received love, support and an incredible amount of understanding. The peace that has come to our family by way of the divine has only been rivaled by the peace that has come from the care and understanding we have received from extended family, friends, and our community.
There are two myths that are highly concerning to me.
One myth that continues to circulate around many faith traditions is that suicide is a sin. But I can state as a professional and I can testify as a person of faith that it is not a sin but a symptom. It is the fatal symptom of some mental health conditions.
Another myth is that concerning blame and guilt. Suicide is not the fault of loved ones. I know that people who are close to the deceased will ask themselves a million "what if" questions, and I would challenge that those questions will not be answered and blaming yourself for not preventing this tragedy will only add to the grief. This is of course a natural reaction, but try not to stay in that place too long. Again suicide is a symptom and therefore in many cases untreatable.
There were five responses/messages that I heard from religious people that accurately reflected Christ like compassion. These sentiments served as a healing balm, and brought a great spirit of peace to our family. I would encourage those who may be confused, conflicted, or unfamiliar with the complexity of suicide to focus on these messages when communicating with friends and family.
1. I am so sorry you are going through this: This is a basic statement of empathy and can be highly connective.
2. I love you and I am praying for you: When you don't know else to say, this is a safe route and hopefully it reflects your emotion and intention.
3. What can I do for you during this time? The offer may be rejected or they may not know what you can do, but offering support and or resources can be helpful. Of course nothing you do will interrupt the pain but having support whether that be food, funds (for funeral services), or just time are offers that communicate a willingness to walk this road together.
4. Jacob is so loved, by many people and by God: This statement is more nuanced and requires a close relationship. In our family it was very helpful for people (particularly church leaders) to talk about the love that God and Christ have for each us. Our family believes that my cousin is wrapped in the infinite embrace of the Savior and our Heavenly parents, and having that reaffirmed but those who share our faith has been very healing.
5. Sharing stories: I can't tell you how wonderful it was to share dear memories about our sweet boy. We gathered together and laughed and cried as we shared our memories and listened to others share their memories of Jacob.
This has been one of the darkest times for my family. The pain that my aunt and uncle are experiencing is palpable but slivers of light that have come by way of support and love have brought hope and healing.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.