Jim seemingly had everything going for him. A high school senior, he had been accepted to the university of his choice. He had no financial worries, given the fact that his father was a highly paid CPA, ready to foot the bill. Then it happened. Jim didn’t come home one night. His parents immediately began calling all the law enforcement and security agencies in the city. The alert remained in effect for two weeks until discovery was made. Jim’s car was found in the shallow depths of a city park lake where he had driven it to his watery death.
Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for males in America and the 16th for females. According to the World Health Organization, each year 40,000 Americans take their own lives, which is twice as many as die from HIV/AIDS. This organization also notes that many of these victims never sought professional care and that the strongest risk factor is depression.
Pastoral Support for Families
Most parish pastors, myself included, have conducted funeral services for suicide victims. Some people in the Church think that talking about suicide only makes matters worse. These folks need to think again. As clergy we need to keep finding ways to talk about the tragedy of suicide and how we can best provide pastoral support for families.
But how can we minister to families who have lost their loved one by suicide? One parish pastor who had conducted numerous such funerals concluded that, despite the different names of the victims, every suicide has one thing in common. People kill themselves because they cannot believe their lives are precious enough to make them worth living.
Something has gotten in the way of their strong sense of self or their clear view of God and the perpetrators end up robbing God of God’s property. This robbery may be hatched in a den of unsuspecting thieves that have names like depression, hopelessness or self-loathing.
The incident mentioned at the beginning of these thoughts illustrates how circumstances can materialize out of thin air. Then come the resulting shock that affects the rest of the family for the remainder of their days on this earth.
Of course suicide cuts across class, culture, and age, so it is hardly limited to the young. Yet, a person between the ages of 15 and 24 dies of suicide every two hours in America. It’s difficult to pass that off as being less than epidemic.
While the parish pastor cannot be condemnatory or judgmental, he must be supportive in the midst of grief. In all this, candor may be the greatest gift that the survivors of suicide can share. Syrupy obituaries don’t help at the moment, and they do no favor to the mourners. The only thing they do is cloak the truth. The proclamation that “God wanted George so badly that God called him home,” doesn’t deal honestly with the problem.
If that type of statement cloaks the truth and does the survivors no good, what can be done to truly minister in the name of Christ to help those who grieve the loss of one who chose to die?
It all begins with honesty, be it ever so painful. One example of such brutal, but necessary, honesty is the pastor who said in his funeral homily, “John courageously fought the demons of depression for 15 years. Nothing can bring John back, but his family does not want his death to be in vain. We want everyone’s help in bringing awareness of this very real and tragic problem.”
In all of this, the Church remains the vehicle for the proclamation of redemption to the world. As servants of God’s people we need to proclaim forgiveness and redemption. We do this neither by condemning people nor soft-soaping events with syrupy phrases. We accomplish this by reminding our flock that our Lord Jesus Christ is no amateur act of suffering. Our job then becomes one of making enough room for the Suffering Savior in our lives and of helping others do the same, especially those who are stumbling in deep, dark sadness.
DR. DICKSON is a Lutheran pastor, college professor and author who lives in Hickory, North Carolina.