When our 21-year-old son Reed died by suicide in June 1994, my most vivid memory is being wrapped in a cozy blanket of non-judgmental caring by friends, family, co-workers -- and our church. In the midst of trauma, we truly felt surrounded by God's love.
I wish it were that way for all survivors. The United Church of Canada views suicide as a tragedy, not a sin; not a failure of those who feel suicidal; not a cause for shame. Increasingly, ministers and friends of many faiths work to help people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide and compassionately support those wounded by suicide.
Yet the public still perceives that "the church" considers suicide a sin that taints the surviving family. The resulting silence means most people are unaware of the magnitude of the problem -- worldwide, more people die by suicide than homicide or war. I wish clergy and congregations would speak out more. Our churches need to stand up to the stigma that is still attached to suicide. We need to break the silence.
The day after Reed's suicide, Jeannie White, then staff associate at Highlands United in North Vancouver, encouraged us to be open about what had happened. She had experienced other suicides and could see the impact of stigma and silence rippling down generations. Our being open might help these folks in their healing.
So not only at Highlands, but also at Reed's memorial service in Calgary, where he had died, everyone knew that Reed's death was a suicide. Mindful that there might be others there who were struggling with similar thoughts, and that, statistically at least, survivors of suicide are themselves at heightened risk, our friend Rev. Gerry Watkins (then a student minister) spoke fondly of Reed. But she was careful not to glorify suicide.
She wove a suicide prevention message around Romans 8:35-39: "I am convinced that neither death nor life... nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Like Reed, she said, most of us struggle to feel we are truly worthy of God's love. While Reed was deeply concerned for others, he found it difficult to let others care for him. We hadn't seen the deep war raging in his soul, tearing him apart. The best way for us to celebrate Reed's life was to accept God's forgiveness for things we feel are a heavy burden in our own lives.
I learned later that suicide emerges out of a dynamic interaction of biological, social, psychological and spiritual factors. Suicidal people often report feeling helpless, hopeless and worthless, unable to feel the love, support and acceptance of friends and relatives; unable to share their pain with those who care and those who can help. Or, in biblical terms, suicidal people have great difficulty feeling God's love.
Gerry Watkins assured us that God employed all the powers of the universe to love Reed, and that while God was disappointed, he took his hurting child home and replaced his heavy burden of despair with the yoke of peace. Or, as my Muslim friends say, "God cried."
This gift of non-judgmental compassion and caring continued and continues. Both my husband and I are members of our church choir.
One Sunday several months after Reed died, the anthem touched some grief tucked deep within and my tears flowed. I was mortified. But then I felt hands gently rubbing my back, other hands reaching out to hold mine. Music helps the pain come out. Allowing people to be real and to share our pain is a priceless gift that we try to give one another at Highlands.
In the midst of trauma, our family has been spared the secondary trauma of stigma, allowed to grieve appropriately, permitted to find a "new normal" of hope and meaning in our lives. In the midst of this "valley of the shadow," we have truly felt surrounded by God's love.
Rev. Leslie Elizabeth King of St. John's United in Thompson, Man., has led a support group for suicide survivors. King says "the church is in the business of life in all its fullness." She believes many people, even outside the church, know that. People from the community who are in pain "will gather at the wall near our church when someone dies, especially if they died by suicide. They will ask for prayer."
King admits that the perception remains for some suicidal or bereaved people that "the church considers suicide to be a sin."
Perhaps people misunderstand the church's evolution to a more compassionate position because we don't speak out loudly enough.
Perhaps we are silent, King says, because of the devastation suicide wreaks on those who love the one who died. If sin is "a violation of relationship," then it may seem suicide is a sin, but only "if we believe that it was an action taken for the purpose of causing others interminable grief and pain. Usually it isn't."
Research shows that suicidal people truly can't see outside of themselves. They are just trying to end their emotional pain and see suicide as the only way out.
Whatever the reason, we believe that "God's compassion is greater than our hurt, fear and anger. God loves the one who died just as God loves the ones left grieving. There is no room for condemnation in this love," King says. More than anything, suicide is simply a tragedy, says King. So the church is the natural place in which "to embrace those who are suicidal, their families and companions," she says.
And there is much congregations can do. Rev. Jackie Harper, General Council staff for family ministries, says that when she was in pastoral ministry, she got to know the professional counsellors in the area so she could refer people to them. "I can provide support or a listening ear. But I don't have the skill set" for the complicated and sensitive work of counselling those with serious problems. "My job is to help them find the right people."
Harper was careful to get to know the private counsellors -- and whether they would offer services geared to income -- as well as those in the mental health system, which often faces long delays. And the congregational benevolent fund was sometimes used to subsidize those who needed the immediate attention of a professional.
After a suicide death, others get on with their lives while survivors are left to deal with the consequences. Survivors are naturally ultra- sensitive to what is said, so simple is best: a hug, "I'm sorry," sharing a fond memory of the person who died, listening quietly as the survivors start the necessary work of telling their story and struggling with the why's.
It can take many years after a suicide for survivors to walk through the valley of the shadow. The congregation needs to reach out to suicide survivors as they would anyone recovering from a traumatic loss. The congregation needs to be the safe place and safe people those who are struggling with suicide and its aftermath desperately need.
And, in the tradition of The United Church of Canada, we and our congregations need to speak out boldly.
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