When Suicide Strikes in the Body of Christ
Neither life nor death, not even suicide, can separate us from the love of God.
As the suicide of Rick Warren's son Matthew brings renewed attention to mental health, depression, and suicide, we see that his case is not uncommon. Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States takes his or her own life. That's 35,000 suicides every year in this country-and likely more, since many suicides are disguised as accidents. Sadly, suicide occurs among Christians at essentially the same rate as non-Christians.
Suicide kills a disproportionate number of young people and the elderly, and it has become increasingly prevalent among returning veterans. More active duty soldiers now die from suicide than from combat. A 2012 Dept. of Veterans Affairs study found that 22 veterans on average kill themselves each day, totaling more than 8,000 a year.
Each suicide leaves behind on average six to ten survivors - husbands, wives, parents, children, siblings, other close friends or family members. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people, including many of our church members, will grieve the loss of a loved one to suicide.
I am one of those people. Some years ago, my father had a stroke that left him partially debilitated. Though he began rehabilitation, one of the side effects of the stroke was clinical depression. He lost all hope and eventually sank into despair. He couldn't see any reason to go on. Three months after the stroke, at age 58, he killed himself.
Though all deaths are tragic, suicide affects us differently than when someone dies in car accident or from a terminal illness. Counselors call death by suicide a "complicated grief" or "complicated bereavement," like death by murder or terrorist attack. Not only do family members grieve the loss of the loved one, they must also face the trauma of the suicide.
In grieving a suicide, loved ones feel so many emotions that they don't know what to feel. Besides the normal sorrow and grief, survivors also experience trauma, denial, abandonment, anger, guilt, and shame. Survivors need to know that these reactions are normal. They're ways that God helps us process the shock and grief. Friends, pastors, and counselors can help survivors by validating the emotions and giving grievers permission to mourn, feel, lament, and heal.
The Lingering Questions
More than other deaths, suicides raise the question of Why? Why did he do it? Why didn't we see this coming? In other situations, we can often clearly identify the cause, a drunk driver or a disease, for example. But with a suicide, the victim is responsible for the death, not some outside force. That person is gone now. He can't tell us why he did it or the reasons he had for leaving us.
Asking why is not so much a search for answers as it is a search for comfort. We assume that having these answers will ease our grief and pain. But the questions are often unanswerable, and we must come to grips with the possibility-the likelihood-that we will never know why it happened. Even without knowing why someone chose to take his own life, survivors can experience God's comfort and healing.
We also ask, Could I have done anything to prevent it? After a suicide, survivors replay the scenarios in our heads over and over again, wondering if it wouldn't have happened if we had done something differently. If only we had come home in time. If only we had talked to him that evening. In doing so, we blame ourselves. This is called survivor's guilt, and it's tremendously common. Eventually survivors come to accept that their loved one chose to die, and they couldn't do anything about it. We are not at fault.
While grieving, another question comes up, particularly among people of faith: Why didn't God prevent this? There aren't any easy answers to this. In short, God honors our human choices, even if they're bad ones. If we choose to smoke, we might get lung cancer. And if someone we love chooses to kill himself, God honors that choice as well.
But this doesn't mean that God doesn't care about us or our loved one. The Bible tells us that God grieves with us in our loss. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and he stands with us and weeps over our loved one's death. Throughout Scripture, God comforts the grieving and brokenhearted, and he understands the suffering of grief and loss. He experienced ultimate pain, suffering, and grief on the cross. Where is God when it hurts? He stands with us, grieving beside us.
Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin?
Christians often take opposing views on suicide. Some consider suicide the unforgivable sin, believing that people who kill themselves go straight to hell. Others claim suicide isn't a sin at all, minimizing the act. The truth probably lies in between.
Taking one's own life may well be a sin, but it does not automatically separate someone from eternal life with God just because one can't ask for forgiveness afterward. After all, many of us die without having asked for forgiveness for each and every sin we've committed. Suicide falls into the moral and literary category of tragedy, a person undone by a fatal flaw.
Those ministering to the grieving should not offer certainty that a loved one who died by suicide is in heaven, but they shouldn't definitively state that he's bound for eternal condemnation, either. The simple truth is that only God knows his fate. To say otherwise is beyond our knowledge.
Still, Scripture hints that there may be hope. Romans 8:38-39 promises that neither life nor death - not even death by suicide - can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, Samson died at his own hand, and yet he is included in the list of the faithful in Hebrews 11. We have some biblical grounds for hope (not certainty, but hope) that salvation is available to those who die by suicide.
God is just. If someone dies of cancer, God doesn't hold the cancer against him. In the case of suicide, depression or other mental disturbances may have clouded a person's judgment and caused him to do something he never would have done otherwise. Most people who kill themselves do not intend to sin against God; rather, they look in the mirror and hate what they see, or they are trying to end unimaginable pain. Many good Christians with a life of faithful discipleship may end it all in an act of desperation. God can be trusted to do what is right. He is good and perfect and compassionate. While we ultimately don't know a loved one's fate, we know that our loving God will judge appropriately.
Pastors preaching at funerals for suicides often do not know what to say. One way of framing the death is to describe the loved one as having fought a civil war with himself and lost, and to see him like a soldier who has fallen in battle. Mental health professionals and suicide survivor groups now advise against using the phrase "committed suicide" in describing suicide deaths. It is better to use more neutral language like "she died by suicide" or "he took his own life" or "they lost a loved one to suicide." Novelist Willa Cather, in her book My Ántonia, offered this prayer at the funeral of a suicide: "Oh, great and just God, no man among us knows what the sleeper knows, nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and Thee."
Many people who experience a loved one's suicide go on to have self-destructive thoughts envisioning their own suicide. Churches must recognize that suicide survivors themselves face higher risks of suicide. Christians need to come around survivors in their grief to prevent further tragedies.
The Bible has a very powerful example of suicide prevention. Acts 16 tells about when Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. When an earthquake opened the doors of the prison, the Philippian jailer drew his sword and was about to kill himself. He thought that the prisoners had all escaped, and he decided to kill himself rather than face execution. But Paul cried out, "Don't harm yourself. We are all here." He intervened in the jailer's life and stopped him from killing himself. He gave him a reason to live and led the jailer and his whole family to Christ.
We can do the same. If you see people who are in despair, tell them, "Don't harm yourself. We are here for you." The warning signs of suicide include prolonged depression and hopelessness, isolation or withdrawal, loss of interest in usual activities, giving away possessions, suicidal thoughts or fantasies, and suicide attempts. If you see these warning signs in a loved one, get help. Talk to them about it. Ask if they're doing okay, and specifically ask if they've thought about killing themselves.
Don't worry that asking someone about suicide might give them ideas; many depressed people are already thinking about suicide and desperately want someone to talk to about it. A suicide attempt is a cry for help. If needed, ask a pastor or counselor for help, or call a suicide hotline or even the police. The No. 1 cause of suicide is untreated depression. If you see signs, get help.
Ultimately, even in the midst of grief and loss, Christians can take heart that death is not the end. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has defeated death. Death is an enemy, but it is a defeated enemy. It does not have the final word. Through Jesus, we have hope of eternal life. Jesus promises us that someday there will be no more mourning and no more pain. He will wipe away every tear. Death will be swallowed up in victory, and we will never grieve again.
suicidepreventionlifeline.org (800) 273-TALK (8255) 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433)
Suicide prevention and awareness sites:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
SAVE: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
Grief support for suicide survivors:
Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors
Survivors of Suicide
Al Hsu is the author of Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One's Search for Comfort, Answers and Hope (InterVarsity Press, 2002). He and his family live in the Chicago suburbs
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