The recent suicide of a 9-year-old boy in Denver made national headlines. The grieving mother told reporters her son had taken his own life after classmates had bullied him for four days after he announced that he was gay. Reportedly, several kids told him to “kill himself.”
This story is tragic, sad and shocking. But in America today it is not new.
Any person, of any age, can be overcome with despair, even a “carefree” 9-year-old. A person contemplating suicide could be a child or a teenager, an elderly person, a mother or father, a pastor. Anyone can be in quiet desperation. Unfortunately, one place where suicide is often hidden under a veil of secrecy is the church.
“There’s so much silence around suicide in the church that it is quite literally killing us,” writes pastor and suicide survivor Rachael Keefe in The Lifesaving Church. As we sit in worship each week, there may someone among us who is contemplating suicide. That person has an uncontrollable urge to death. We do not know who could be dealing with such an unendurable, overpowering circumstance, and we may not know until it’s too late.
“Persons who take their own lives have fallen into a depth of suffering that they believe is permanent and unbearable. Suicide seems to them to be their only way out.”
When a person takes their own life, surviving family and friends plunge into a grief they cannot begin to understand. They almost never see it coming. Suicides frequently happen without warning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 54 percent of the people who take their own lives did not have a history of mental health problems. Instead, they were languishing over other issues such as illness, relationship problems, workplace difficulties, addictions, financial challenges or other crises. That kind of stress might describe any of us. The difference is that persons who take their own lives have fallen into an unbearable depth of suffering that they believe is permanent. Suicide seems to them to be their only way out.
Statistical information underscores the societal challenge of suicide in America:
- Suicide rates over the past two decades have increased in nearly every state.
- Half of U. S. states have seen suicide rates go up more than 30 percent over that time period.
- Between January and March 2018, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received 352,020 calls from suicidal persons.
- The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that 17.2 percent of high school students had seriously considered suicide during the 12 months before the survey, and 7.4 percent had attempted suicide one or more times during that year.
Considering the significant challenges suicide presents, how might Christians and faith communities respond?
First, churches must develop ways to breach the silence around suicide. Doing so could be a positive step toward preventing suicide. Providing suicide prevention materials that include contact information could literally make a life-or-death difference for a suicidal person.
Second, faith communities should consider adding this topic to their Christian education programming and small-group offerings. Most churches offer Bible studies, book studies, studies in church history or theology and a variety of small-group experiences. Rarely do these include topics such as “Suicide and Spirituality” or “Suicide and the Presence of God.” An occasional class or book study on the subject, or the formation of a support group, would point to help for a person contemplating suicide or for persons who know someone who may be at risk.
Third, faith communities must create an environment of safety that encourages the sharing of personal suffering. Have you heard in your minister’s pastoral prayer a petition for those who are so despairing that taking their lives seems the only way out of pain? Imagine how freeing it might be for these persons to hear such a prayer and to feel that sharing their pain could be brought to light.
Bringing pain to light can also be accomplished when teachers and leaders are trained to recognize warning signs in their class members and be willing to ask sensitive questions. Small group experiences can be places of honest, transparent conversation for persons contemplating suicide or places of healing for those who have lost someone to suicide. Communities of faith should always know about and connect with resources in their communities that offer a broad range of services, such as prevention resources, counseling, mentoring and support groups.
Finally, faith communities must acknowledge the importance of ministry to the families of suicidal persons. Of course, these families are devastated when a loved one commits suicide, but they are also under tremendous emotional and spiritual upheaval just knowing that their loved one was even contemplating suicide. The questions grieving families ask are virtually unanswerable: Why did she do this? Why did we not notice he was in trouble? What should we have done?
A minister has few, if any, answers, but a minister’s care means allowing the free flow of questioning for as long as it takes. It means helping family members to wait patiently while considering the questions, seeking acceptable answers that will bring them a sense of peace despite the mystery of unanswerable questions. Finding closure may not be possible, but it is possible to find peace in God “that surpasses all understanding,” and that can sustain them. Being prepared to help families navigate this treacherous path is a challenge for any minister, and specialized training in pastoral care is essential. A trained minister that accepts his or her limitations will be aware of community resources and will have the expertise to make appropriate, and even life-saving, referrals.
“Churches must develop ways to breach the silence around suicide.”
Over many years as a trauma counselor and minister, I have learned that people who are fighting the urge to take their own lives instinctively seek out a minister before they search for a mental health counselor. Inevitably, they will move our therapeutic conversation to God and spirituality. Many times, their primary need is not for mental health therapies, but for a way to heal their inner spirit through a deeper relationship with the Divine. They intuit that there is something more than their humanity that can help them navigate their crisis, and they lean into a spirituality they may never have searched for before.
This spiritual search offers faith communities the opportunity to provide competent and compassionate care to persons experiencing the desperation that leads to suicide. The decision that life is not worth living is their expression of an existential despair that calls for spiritual intervention, often over other potential remedies. The minister, and the faith community, can become an important presence in this kind of despair.
The church, synagogue or mosque can offer invaluable ministries of care that address critical needs for persons who contemplate suicide:
- knowing that their faith community is a place of safety;
- believing that revealing the depth of their pain within their faith community is acceptable;
- experiencing a caring and compassionate community for themselves and their families;
- having the ministry of a patient presence and willingness to listen from their minister(s) and faith community; and
- receiving competent referral to other sources of assistance.
Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a divine calling from God. Persons who contemplate suicide have reached an unbearable place in their lives, a place that causes an uncontrollable urge to death. The church cannot offer them some magic spiritual cure. The church can offer the kind of ministry of care and compassion that points to the resilience of the human spirit and to the abiding presence of God’s spirit in every unendurable, overpowering circumstance.