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