Visit our new site at

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wednesday EXTRA ~ How to Talk with Survivors About Suicide

When Martha Spong asked me to write for today's Extra Edition, I was both honored and apprehensive.  Like many people who have endured great trauma, I'd like to think that what I've learned might benefit others.  But in the aftermath of Matthew Warren's death, lots of attention has been given to issues of suicide.  Given the voluminous media exposure, I think I might best serve by speaking from personal experience. 

One of our twin sons died of suicide in September 2008, the day after his 24th birthday.  He and his brother had finished college one and one-half years earlier; their younger sister was a college senior.  And I was about to begin my second year of seminary.  Unlike the Warren family's much publicized situation, we had seen no warning signs.  Our son had been a successful student and had found what seemed to be a great job.  When he and his girlfriend broke up during the summer and he began to question his corporate work choice, we viewed his despondency as a reflection of challenges typical of young adulthood.  We were to learn that we had been wrong about almost everything, but at the time of his death it seemed as if a giant chasm had opened in the earth and swallowed him up.

Our pastors were a tremendous help to us in their calm response, in their willingness to discuss suicide openly and candidly, and in their help in creating a beautiful service of Witness to the Resurrection 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.  In some ways, we may have made it easy ~ we, too, spoke openly and candidly, and I knew exactly what I wanted in a funeral service.  It's important to remember, however, that the stigma of suicide is so profound that many families may be unable to speak about it, and may not want the services to reflect the reality.  They also may be far too stunned to contribute much to the planning effort.

As with almost any other form of pastoral care, 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 your chance to shine with resurrection hope and assurance.  I took due note of the comments on various websites pertaining to Matthew Warren's death to the effect that he "is in hell now."  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.  That does not necessarily mean that they are unwilling to talk with clergy.  It does mean that we as clergy need to be prepared 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.  I'm not sure that I ever encountered anyone at a Survivors of Suicide meeting, including myself for the first couple of years, who had found comfort or hope in faith.   (I did meet people who expressed astonishment at my eventual return to seminary, which seemed an utterly ludicrous enterprise to them.)

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 rational decision-making process was involved or 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.  Pastors can help with referrals; there is a tremendous amount of terrible experience and information to process.  My husband and I went to a Survivors of Suicide group a few times, and saw a grief therapist for awhile, who was helpful in the sense that it felt as if someone else was shouldering a portion of our crushing burden.  After some weeks of that, my husband was finished.  We are all different. I continued to spend hours and hours with my spiritual director for many, many months.  (Mostly to tell him that I wanted my son back, and that God was no more.  He himself must nearly have perished of boredom.) 

6) Survivors need one another.  Our pastors must have almost immediately contacted the one woman in our church who had experienced a similar loss several years earlier, because she appeared on our doorstep the second evening.  Anything we can do to help people make connections with others who have been there is an invaluable gift.  Other parents, Survivors of Suicide Groups, websites, books, whatever.  There are things that suicide survivors say only to one another, and we need to help them find those others

7) Psalm 88.  Know it.  Share it.  And be prepared with names and phone numbers as well.  We suicide survivors are indeed at heightened risk for suicide ourselves.  Psalm 88 gives voice to the anguish.  Suicide hotlines and 911 may give some protection to the devastated. 

8)  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.  I can still remember which seminary professors called or wrote. Do what you can to encourage friends of the person who has died to keep in touch.  If you can stand it, touch base at least annually. One of the most awful things about suicide is that there is always something new to learn ~ whether about our own loved ones or about suicide in general ~ and after a year or two, there are few people left with whom to share.

9) Topics for letters and emails and calls ?  Be available to the endless processing and, if you knew the person, share stories whenever you can.  Another of the most awful things about suicide is that 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.  .

10) Finally, do not take offense at basically insane behavior directed your way.  It's not personal.  To lose someone to suicide is to lose confidence that the universe coheres in any reasonable way, and we may express those losses in ways that mystify. The greatest gift to survivors of suicide remains one of presence.

And, finally: Everything above is a reflection of my own experience.  If another survivor tells you something different, please listen!  We are all learning.

Some resources:

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors
Survivors of Suicide


  1. Dearest Robin, thank you for sharing your story. Mine is much older, but resonates still. For I too am a survivor - though a long, long time ago. It is some 45 years since my beloved grandfather finally succumbed to his dread disease. Back in the 1960s no one, but no one, talked about suicide. To even use the word was taboo; it was not many years since it had been decriminalised (I cannot begin to imagine how that must have felt - your beloved's death was a crime!)
    But, as an 8 year old, I was excluded from all of that; we were not allowed at the funeral; and we were told simply that Granpa had a blood clot. He died on April first; in subsequent years from time to time it conincided with Easter, and at Easter we had family gatherings of course. On his 10th aniiversary, it happened to be Easter; the family had gathered for the the holiday at my aunt's home. Even now, I can see us sat around the table after a long and relaxed meal. Talk turned to Granpa. But as the conversation developed I felt a cold hard dread. This was not a blood clot they were talking about! I looked to my parents for some explanation. Then to my aunt, who looked horrified as she realised I was in the dark. My cousins knew; but my mother, in her shame, in her desire to protect... had kept it from me.
    The rage!!!
    I shouted at them all
    But especially at my parents - in my teenage mind that saw everything in black and white there was not justification for their lies. That year, at aged 17, I rejected church, and faith... and I railed at God.
    And I think it possibly took me another 20 or so years to forgive the lies; and let it lie.
    I know lots more about it now. He had bi-polar disorder (as does my mother which explains much) and my poor grandmother had sat with him in the depths of his despair for 72 hours straight (no assistance in those days) and when she had fallen asleep in the chair, exhausted, he had slipped away into the next room, to do the only thing he could think of which would releive his pain.
    Were they right to spare Granpa's wee girl- yes of course! I was 8, I was at that time too innocent. And, my mother's years of major instability were ahead. Had I known he & she shared that same illness, I would have had 10 years of watching and waiting.
    I am now in my 50s, and she is close to 80. She has had several episodes like his; but in our days, the care is available, and people know her story.
    Over my years in ministry, many times folks with this and similar illnesses have crossed my path. And families who are survivors have been sent in my direction.
    I'd never choose to go through that again. Yet, out of those dark times, a little light has shone.
    Bless you, in yuor dark days, and your shining days, but most of all, for sharing your story with us.
    Julie x

    1. Julie, thank you for sharing your story. I read once that a death by suicide reverberates for four generations, and you have surely attested to that. How to tell children is a major source of consternation. You and others might be interested in this post:

      I am so sorry for your loss of someone who might have offered much love and guidance in your life.

  2. As someone with some personal experience with depression, I am grateful for your post. The stigma affects not only survivors, but also those of us who are struggling with unipolar depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizo-affective disorder, and other illnesses. The stigma makes it very difficult for us to talk about our symptoms, to seek treatment, and to continue treatment. Some might think talk about damnation for those who have died is a way of convincing people to not take this action, but I'll tell you it is not: it only makes life seem more hopeless and our lives more worthless.

    In the small company where I work, three people have lost relatives to suicide. Six of my friends have died this way as well. I'm grateful for whatever wisdom I have around this issue, but I wish it had not come at such a price. I suspect you feel the same.

    1. I know that the stigma surrounding mental illness is debilitating in itself. I am so sorry for your losses, Cindi. And yes, the price is way too high.

  3. Robin, thank you for continuing to share some of what you have experienced through such deep pain.

  4. Robin, thank you for continuing to share some of what you have experienced through such deep pain.

  5. Here's another resource, which I learned about through AFSP this morning:

  6. Thank you, Robin, for such an excellent and beautiful essay. One of the first major traumas I ever responded to as a pastor was a suicide, and I am heartened to learn that apparently I did some things right. I know one of the first questions the mother of the young man asked me was, "Is he in hell?" to which I stammered, "No," which I think was from the guts of what I believe, and she's told me many times how much of a help it was to her. I was thinking perhaps that this year they wouldn't need a card from me, but now I am assured that they do, and thank you for helping to urge us all to do the right and pastoral thing and we tend to others who have faced such devastating losses.

  7. Heading off to memorize Ps 88 immediately, I want to thank you Robin for sharing your journey, your growth, your grief. I have only had parishoners, who were friends as well, die from suicide. I live in a town which had six years in a row of highschool students dying in this manner. It has been with mixed emotion that we celebrated getting through a year when we did not have such a death. There is a wonderful training event called ASSIST...which helps people be alert and learn of support groups and other helpful information surrounding suicide. I will share your insights with them. GOd's continued blessing on our mutual need for God's grace and comfort surrounding deaths from suicide.

    Peace to you

  8. Thank you, Robin, for sharing your wisdom. My sweet nephew died from suicide several years ago, and everything you have said resonates. One of the things that I work on is gently challenge on cultural references to suicide--like "she hung herself by her own rope" or when people point their fingers to their head as if they were going to shoot themselves. There doesn't seem to be consistent cultural awareness that these remarks or signs are incredibly painful for survivors of suicide.
    Peace and love to you.

  9. Thank you, Robin, for summoning the strength and energy to write this post. It is both powerful and powerfully helpful. Last year, I counseled a man whose son died from suicide 23 years ago. The man had carried around a pamphlet all the years since that talked about how we will recognize our loved ones in heaven. He said to me that since his son was in hell, how could he (the man) go to heaven- since if he could recognize who WAS there, he would also know who was NOT. Trying to bring him, slowly, to the idea that his son was ever in God's light and would surely be there too was like trying to rearrange Stonehenge with a wheelbarrow. No one had ever suggested to him anything other than that his son was in hell. Why was he so convinced? Because the pastor had announced the "fact" at his son's funeral. Sigh.

    Among the suicides close to me, my father's best friend of 30 plus years died of suicide two years ago. One of the saddest things to me is that I'm the only one who brings him up to my dad. I can see the relief in the chance to talk and the grief that is still there in blaming himself and missing his friend.

    Thank you again, Robin.

  10. When my cousin died by suicide, my aunt asked her priest, "Is Beth in hell?" and reply came instantly, "Oh, Betty, Jesus was waiting for Beth with his arms open wide." That's been a helpful image for me.

  11. Thank you all so much for sharing your stories.

    I am still stunned by how prev.alent this experience is

  12. Thank you, Robin, for everything written here and for reaching out to me. I am nine months into the grief over my son's suicide. Others are ready for my grief to end. One year is the supposed magic marker. That ain't happenin'. Thank you for talking about your struggles with faith. A special challenge for clergy who have to deliver when nothing makes sense...

    1. "Preaching ahead of myself" - that's what I call it. Still. I don't expect to catch up to what I preach, not in this life.

      How would the grief ever end? If there is an answer to that question, I don't yet know what it is.

  13. For me, the total shock of losing my dad, who lived far away, was very difficult, but I can not imagine others saying that a loved one would be in "hell" from suicide. Such a sad and tragic loss for all. Makes those who remain feel guilty. Have learned many strategies since then, but it won't bring our loved ones back, but might help to save others. Knowing that God loves us all, no matter what, helps and our hope to see our loved ones in the future. One of the best quotes that I have heard is "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation." And to ask those tormented to hang on for at least 3 days and nights and see how they feel about things after a few days. There is always hope to help those afflicted, but we have to get people to share their feelings and tell someone.

  14. My brother died of depression 3 years ago leaving a wife, 4 children, surgical practice, and our entire family to mourn. The heartbreak of his death precipitated my elderly, fragile daddy's rapid decline and he died three months later on Christmas Eve. For me, the most consoling image is the Prodigal Son statue in the garden at the Washington National Cathedral: that my brother was enthusiastically embraced and welcomed into love and peace eternal.

    1. Mary, I am so sorry. I persist in the magical thinking that if people had lives filled with a partner, children, meaningful work -- surely, they would not die. And every day I am re-reminded of the power of depression to take lives.

      I am so glad that you posted about that statue. It occurred to me after writing this post, in which I was concerned with recognizing and honoring the despair and depth of grief that follows a suicide, that another post could be filled with images and words that might be consoling, at least sometimes. For me, it was this image of God creating Adam,a sculpture at Chartres Cathedral, which came my way via a bookmark from a former spiritual director with a note to the effect that "perhaps you can image your son in the hands of a loving Creator."

      Perhaps someday we could fill a RevGals day with images and other resources we have compiled to help those who grieve, whatever the losses.

    2. I would treasure the opportunity to help with that project. I work in pastoral care--I find that the use of art: music, sculpture, poetry, paintings, etc. touch others' souls in ways that words cannot. By staying silent and letting them process and observe, I think it creates more space for grace to enter.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Robin, thanks for so willing and honestly sharing your story. You give us wisdom as pastors how to continue to help folks as they face similar situations. I would be very interested in seeing the results of such a revgals project and would help if I had anything to offer!

  17. Robin, in my sermon-writing procrastination, I'm coming back to RevGals for the first time in a bit. I had just joined the blog circle shortly before the death of your beloved son....and your sharing then and now has had a profound effect on me. I only now speak of someone who "died by suicide," and I educated others around me as to why I do this. I remember your story of the image that came to you--the image you then had your friend read on your behalf as you walked--willed--your son into the light. I say this to simply let you know that it matters that you shared and continue to share this story. It is so raw, so real, so profound....and these are the stories that shape us to be better pastors and people. Thank you.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.