Note: This is Part 1 in a Three-Part Reflection on Suicide from the Pastoral side of things. Here I’ll set the stage for my reflection and share some advice and words I received from other clergy. In Part 2 I’ll share some of the words and illustrations that helped me be pastor throughout this difficult situation. In Part 3 I’ll share just a little bit about my own emotional journey.
I don’t want to talk about the families involved or the deaths as I want to respect the privacy of the families and don’t want to say anything that would get in the way of the healing which will need to occur in their lives. So, I’m only going to write those things I think would be helpful to clergy as they counsel in the midst of a traumatic death and things I would say to either of these families or any other.
This is about my reaction to the events. This is part of my process of trying to think through the pastoral issues and to let some of my friends and colleagues see how their words and support have been helpful. I have spent a great deal of time with this post trying to say what I want to say, without saying too much.
If you read this and say, “I know who he’s talking about” you probably do. I ask that you offer whoever it is the respect and space they need as they continue recover. And, if any of the words shared here can shape the words you share with them, then this has been a helpful exercise as our extended Christian community shows its love to those involved in the crises that I entered into or other instances of suicide that we encounter as we serve our God.
In November, someone connected to my church family committed suicide. Also, in November, a member of my extended family committed suicide. My congregation and my sisters and brothers in the clergy in Alaska are aware of this and they all have been very supportive.
In both instances, these are people I know and families I love. It was, as should be expected, exceptionally traumatic for all persons who were touched by the deaths. And, while I had performed funerals for suicide victims before, this was the first time I had really known the person before the death and the first time I was going to be called on to provide spiritual care after the fact. I was really going to have to be “pastor” here.
As pastor, it’s a whole lot more difficult when you can’t just ride into the horrible situation, like the spiritual cavalry, to save the day. If you’re just called on to “help out” a local family that you don’t really know it’s easier. You meet with the family. You plan a nice funeral saying all the things you really should say about Christ and death and resurrection and hope and faith and comfort… And then you go home, perhaps following up with the family once or twice, depending on what it seems the long-term relationship should be. No long-term investment really asked for.
This was different. In both cases.
These were folks I love. I loved them before this tragic day. I am going to love them long after it. I found my heart broken along with theirs. And, I want nothing more than peace and wholeness and grace and the comfort of God for them.
Particularly with the local persons, I was going to have to put a whole lot more of myself into this. I was going to have to rely more on God’s presence and power and grace to make it through. It was going to be painful. But it was also going to be intimate. As pastor, there is a holiness associated with entering the dark places of life and death with families, journeying with them in the valleys, trying, as best one can, to offer Christ, to share a word of love and grace, to bear some of the immediate burden with them, giving them a God to hold onto when the world is spinning out of control. Sometimes we do this in a floundering manner, but other times the Holy Spirit enters in in a powerful way and comfort takes the place of the pain, if for just a moment.
This gave me a lot of time to think about suicide, from a pastoral perspective. It is, perhaps, not something that I’d done a whole lot of. In fact, I really hadn’t done much thinking about or teaching about or praying about death over my ten years here in Girdwood because so few people had died. I’d only done two funerals for anyone connected to the church at all. For years I’d said that every funeral, every death, gave me a chance to talk about the resurrection of Christ; that every death was a mini-Easter for those who put their hope in Christ. It’s easier to say when not in the midst of the pain and trauma and hearing the voices and seeing the faces of those who love and hurt.
This was different. I knew it. And, now after more reflection leading into December, I’m still aware that this is the case.
Early in the process of my entering into the situation as pastor, I sent a Facebook message to some clergy, asking for advice on how to be a pastor throughout this. I knew the hurting family shouldn’t be in this alone. I figured I should not be in this alone either. I got replies from several including:
Romans 8:38-39 “… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, more future things…shall separate us from the love of God….” Be present and embrace them in love. Peter’s words resonate, “God replaces the pain with love.” (From a Pastor/Counselor)
The people who are left behind pay a tremendous cost. We as humans build these family units and take care of each other, that is the primary job of family is to take care of each other. So when someone we love takes their life, the family feels like they have failed. And that they could have done something to prevent this from happening. There is no logic to this but, THERE IS NOTHING THEY COULD HAVE DONE TO STOP IT. And that is where your job comes in I believe. (From a Pastor)
Your presence, your willingness to walk with the family through all the complicated stages of suicide-induced grief and anger, are the greatest gift you can give. And speak often of God’s grace… something we don’t deserve, but get anyway… reminders that God weeps with us, that God has felt the pain of the man who took his life, that God feels our pain, that God replaces the pain with love… (From a Pastor)
Jim, if you chose to emphasize the grace and mercy of God, rather than where this man’s son “went” that is a very wise thing. (From a Pastor)
and, after a blog post on this site where I said, “I’m Not OK” I had this message from a colleague who had experienced loss:
[We] were not OK for a long time. But in that time of being not OK, we did find some comforts. We found that the antidote for death is life. Whatever you do that is life-affirming or life-enriching will help you to eventually be OK again. The most difficult part of dealing with death for us was the deadening feeling we had. By embracing life we were able to process death without parts of us dying as well. (From a Friend)
I appreciate the support I received. Some of these words have helped shape some of the long-term care needed by the family and the community. And, if there’s a family struggling with the effects of suicide in their lives, I hope these words can still provide comfort to them.
In Part 2 I’ll share some of my own personal reflections and understandings throughout this time.