A couple of weeks ago in one of my Muncie Boyhood posts, I shared a story about my brother’s suicide. http://caaampersthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/04/muncie-boyhood-switches-and-crying.html
He was twenty-six and I was seven. Very briefly, I shared a few snippets of the carnage to my family in the wake of that event. As a result, one of my readers, and a friend, asked me to share my thoughts on what would be good to say to folks who had recently lost a loved one to suicide.
Wow. I found that request to be a touch beyond the scope of what I think I am qualified to speak to. After all, I’m not a clinical psychologist. I’m not even a formally trained pastoral counselor. I did enjoy a few Christian Counseling courses in Bible College about thirty years ago, but that was just enough information to get me in trouble.
I thought: What could I say to answer the question? And: What would I say to someone in that situation?
Frankly, this one is tough.
To me, most of the things that people say to those who have recently lost a loved one sounds forced, trite, and contrived. I’m sure that often these comments are said with good intentions, and with the hopes that some encouragement would flow through, but still the words seem empty and can then fall on deaf ears because they don’t really fill the need of the hour.
However, despite my trepidation and the possibility of sounding contrived, I’m going to attempt to fulfill my friend’s request. Hopefully, something in here will be worthwhile, and there won’t be too many things where those with more knowledge and experience will think I’m off base. Just take it all with a grain of salt. Much of what I have to say is based on personal experience in my family, and on life’s gleanings through the years.
Here are my thoughts:
If someone has just lost someone close to them due to suicide…
1. There is NOTHING you can say that will make them feel better.
2. Better than words is the simple touch on the arm, or even better still, a warm hug. Give them your strength through your physical connection, whether a simple shoulder squeeze or a long embrace.
3. Don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” Instead, find reasons to see them and help, whether they voice the need or not. Your actual actions will speak much louder than your words.
4. If you are close to them, get them moving. Give them time to grieve, but then get them out of the house, and back into the activities that they enjoyed before.
5. Realize that beyond the ordinary grief of the loss, they are likely feeling some measure of guilt. They may be thinking it was their fault, or that they should have known. That pain can overwhelm them, so they need friends to lean on.
6. Over time, point them toward those who are still with them that need their time, energy, and support. Help them shift focus from the one they have lost to the ones they still have.
7. Verbally express your love and support for them. Let them know that they are important to you.
8. Again, if you are close to them, encourage them to have someone that they can express themselves to in an intimate way. They need to talk about what they are feeling. They will need an outside perspective.
9. Be the person who thinks of them AFTER the funeral has run its course. A week after all is done, most people have returned to their regular lives, but the mourning goes on and on for the suicide survivor. Call them to touch base. Drop by with a pie. Take them out to lunch. Go to a movie with them.
10. Pray with them. Encourage them to pour out their pain and anger to the One who loves them the most. Help them connect with the God of all Grace who longs to put His arms around them to give them peace and comfort.
Often when someone dies, those who seek to comfort the loved ones will say something to the effect of “He’s in a better place now” or “He’s not suffering anymore.” Personally, I understand that these words are meant to comfort, but unless you have special insight into the human soul and can read the mind of God, you have no idea of whether that is true or not. They come off to me as trite words; pat answers from folks who really have no idea of what to say. With that said, I do believe that the committed Christian can enter the next life with the confidence that comes from a walk with Christ. However, if you are the survivor of one who has committed suicide, you may be less than confident of your loved one’s spiritual outcome. Thus, the words are not at all comforting. They are at best frustrating, and may in fact be troubling to the survivor. They are best avoided.
Despite the commonly held religious perspective that “suicide is the unforgiveable sin” because the person committing it cannot repent, I believe that Grace can prevail. A person who commits suicide is deeply troubled. He or she is racked with internal conflict and pain. Better than any of us, God can see that. I believe that His Grace is sufficient even for the Christian who falls prey to depression to the point of taking his own life. Eventually, if the survivor’s doubts in this area are expressed, comfort can be given based on God’s love for their loved one, and His Grace for all who love Him but fall short. Conveying this is a conversation, not a quick one-liner.
Losing a loved one is like yanking a huge rock out of your yard. It leaves a nasty hole in your heart with ragged edges. In time, you can fill in a hole in the yard, level it off with dirt, and the edges will become dulled. You can maybe tell that something was there and the yard will perhaps dip a bit in that area, but time has smoothed out the loss. It is similar with the loss of a loved one, even a suicide loss. Time dulls the edge of the pain, and eventually the hole in the heart begins to heal, fill and level off. If we are good friends, we can speed that process along by providing our own love and support. My mom took ten years to crawl out of bed after my brother’s suicide, so a great deal of patience and love may be required.
I hope you never have need for the thoughts above, but if you do need them, I hope you find them helpful. As always, I welcome your comments.