Ordained Servant Online
Suicide: A Complicated Grief
Gordon H. Cook, Jr.
Jim had come to check on his father, Ken, at the apartment half a mile down the road from the big farmhouse where Jim and his family lived. His father had not been feeling well for some time, suffering from chronic lung disease. Each morning before heading off to work Jim would knock on the door to be sure his father was up. This morning Ken did not answer when Jim knocked, so Jim used his key to open the door. There he found his father, lying in a pool of blood, his hunting rifle underneath his body.
About every sixteen minutes in America a person takes his or her own life. More than 36,000 Americans commit suicide each year, and about 465,000 people receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries. Men are more likely to kill themselves, though women attempt suicide at similar rates. Men tend to use more lethal and violent means. Suicide has become the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. While those who are committed to a church or faith community have a lower incidence of suicide attempts and suicide, Christians are not immune from the strong temptation which comes with severe depression or the unexpected stress which life sometimes brings.
For the families and friends left behind, suicide has a stunning impact, unlike any other form of grief.
Suicide almost always precipitates complicated grief. This grief is intense, debilitating, and unlikely to resolve without pastoral or other professional support.
Jim helped plan the funeral for his father. Through the service and interment, Jim remained strong for his family. He reflected the solid Christian faith which his father had imparted to him. His father was well known and loved in the community, so the service was well attended and the family received a great deal of support. Jim appeared to grieve appropriately and within a few weeks returned to his work as a community leader. We saw each other regularly, and he gave every appearance of having resolved his grief quite successfully.
It was more than a year and a half later, on a day in late spring, that we were riding up through the back hills of the rural community in his pickup. Jim stopped by a stone wall and got out to admire it. He noted that his father had built that wall with stones cleared from the fields below. Suddenly he turned to look up the valley towards his farm house. Then he cried out with a haunting cry that still rings in my ears many years later. He then turned to me and for the first time ever, he hugged me, clinging as tightly as he could. I held him as he sobbed uncontrollably for what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes. When he calmed, we prayed. Jim still struggles with his grief from time to time. It’s the little things that remind him of his father and trigger intense grief. Jim is surrounded by his father’s quality woodwork throughout his house.
Grieving a suicide brings with it a unique set of feelings. There is statistical evidence that those who have lost loved ones to suicide have a very difficult time handing their grief. This is supported by the many stories and books on the subject, all of which offer common themes. Survivors speak of feelings of abandonment, rejection, and betrayal; intense anger; shame; fear; a need to assign blame; strong feelings of regret and guilt. Two thoughts tend to dominate the thinking of those left behind. “Why?” and “If only I had ...” But the only person who could answer either of these is no longer available to provide those answers.
The complications of grief are increased if the survivor discovered the body, or worse, witnessed the event.
The Stigma of Suicide
One common experience among families who experience the suicide of a loved one is the perceived need to make up a story which will explain the death in some other way. The first funeral I ever performed as a pastor was for a young man who had been in an “automobile accident.” I comforted the grieving widow, consoled family members and friends, and gently shared the gospel with the crowd which gathered at the graveside. It was years later that I learned that the authorities suspected that Bill had intentionally driven his pickup into the tree.
There is a social stigma which is associated with suicide in western societies. This stigma of suicide is found in Roman society, predating the rise of Christianity. The early church Fathers condemned suicide, though at the same time defended voluntary martyrdom. It was Augustine’s statement, “those guilty of their own death are not received after death into that better life” which became the law of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Yet even Augustine struggled with the suicide of a godly woman, Lucretia, because she was unable to endure the horror of the foul indignity perpetrated against her. Augustine approached the issue with due caution noting that he would not “claim to judge the secrets of the heart.”
The church of the Middle Ages engaged in a variety of superstitious abuses against the bodies of those who had committed suicide. Most theologians of that period denied any possibility of salvation for one who died in such sin. Martin Luther viewed suicide as demonic in character. His assertion that suicide was a murder committed by the devil continued to perpetuate the stigma, while actually relieving victims of at least some responsibility for their deaths. Calvin and most of the Protestant Reformers simply reaffirmed Augustine’s view that suicide was a violation of the Sixth Commandment and as such, serious sin, without supporting the superstitious excesses of the medieval church.
In the struggle among English Puritans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, the issue of suicide became a polemical weapon. As such the rhetoric regarding suicide was escalated. There was a tendency to demonize the act, as Luther did. When prominent representatives of the various religious movements succumbed to the pressure of intense persecution and torture, they were held up as examples of the demonic character of their religious cause. It is, in part, from this conflict that we have inherited the strongly conflicted feelings about suicide that are still shown in American society today. Suicide remains a taboo subject, rarely discussed, even more rarely acknowledged.
Our Catechism reflects the view of Calvin, but neither the excesses of superstition nor the polemic described above. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 69 reads, “What is forbidden in the sixth commandment?” The answer given is that “The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor, unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto.” According to Scripture and our confessional standard, suicide is a serious sin, a violation of commandment of God, and ought to be avoided. Notice that the catechism leaves room for a just taking away of our own life, perhaps with a thought to Samson, who intentionally brought the house down upon himself in order to gain victory over his enemies and to bring glory to God (Judges 16:28–30). Suicide is serious sin. Does this mean that a person who commits suicide cannot enter glory?
God’s Word suggests otherwise. Jesus assures his disciples, saying, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matt. 12:31). Most Reformed exegetes would understand “blasphemy against the Spirit” as willfully and deliberately ascribing to Satan what belongs to the Holy Spirit. We should not miss the grace spoken in this passage, promising that all other sins will be forgiven to those who trust in Christ alone for salvation.
This reminds us that the entrance to glory is through Christ alone, and not through our own works. It is the finished work of Christ on the cross that secures our redemption. His blood avails for each and every sin of those who trust in him. And his love, demonstrated in his sacrifice for us, is such that nothing, not even our sin, can separate us from that love.
One sin, one failure to resist temptation, one impulsive act, does not undo our union with Christ and the blessings which this brings. Our eternal security does not hang upon our perfect obedience at every point in life. To the contrary, our security is found in the sovereign mercy and grace of God, secured for us by Christ upon the cross and at the empty tomb. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
This grace should not lead any to sin. Presuming upon the grace of God is forbidden in his Word (Rom. 6:1–2). Nevertheless, it is Christ’s perfect obedience and righteousness which alone secures for us eternal life and all other blessings of salvation. Even a violation of the Sixth Commandment can and will be forgiven for those who by faith are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.
As to the stigma of suicide, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ ” (Gal. 3:13). This is our confidence when we stand before God, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18).
We would all do well to heed Augustine’s caution, and not presume to judge the heart of another. That judgment belongs to God alone (Heb. 4:12; 1 Sam. 16:7).
A Pastoral Approach to Those Tempted by Suicide
As pastors we meet the issue of suicide in two distinct ways. We counsel some who are depressed and who struggle with suicidal thoughts and impulses. Many of us have also faced the need to comfort families stunned by the loss of a loved one by his or her own hand.
Often suicidal people will confess their struggles to their pastor. This confession is both an expression of despair and a cry for help. Any statement that someone is contemplating suicide should be taken with the utmost seriousness.
There are risk factors which serve as warning signs to the listening ears of a faithful shepherd.
- A family history of suicide
- A history of mistreatment as a child
- Prior suicide attempts
- A history of depression or other mental disorders
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
- Isolation from other people
- Indication that the person has recently discontinued medications or treatment relating to mental health issues
- Experience of loss (broken relationships, unemployment, significant financial loss)
- Physical illness or disability
- Easy access to lethal methods
- Uneasiness in seeking help
- A sudden peace in a person who has been deeply depressed
Active listening gives way to frank conversation. The loving pastor will warn the suicidal person against rash and sinful actions. Like Paul to the Philippian jailor, we cry out: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). We call men and women to “choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deut. 30:19). I remember being asked by a family to talk with their father. After the death of his wife, he became depressed and often spoke of wishing to end his life. I shared the story of Ken and his son, Jim, and urged him to choose life for the sake of his family. Several months later I received a letter from his daughter thanking me, noting that his discussion with me had proven to be a turning point for him, as he affirmed life and gave up his thoughts of ending his life.
There is no aid in overcoming depression, however, like a focus on the grace of God and his abiding love for us in Christ. This is the ultimate motivation for living for the sake of others.
Pastoral support doesn’t end with one crisis, but provides ongoing care, often by guiding the suicidal person to the professional help which can effectively treat his or her depression and address the life stresses which have brought the person to this point. One helpful tool in this is the national suicidal crisis or emotional distress hotline, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). This hotline can connect those who are suicidal with host of resources associated with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Surgeon General’s office.
In many states, members of the clergy, along with child care workers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers, social workers, mental health professionals, and educators are considered mandatory reporters. This means, in part, that the pastor is required by law to report people who are a potential danger to themselves or others. In Maine, the pastor is encouraged to seek to persuade such people to get help, physically take them to a facility where help may be obtained, obtain a promise from them that they will not kill themselves, or if these fail, to report the matter by calling the state hotline: 1-888-568-1112. Each of you should know what reporting requirements your state places upon you as a religious professional and as a church. You should seek to comply with these requirements as fully as is possible.
A Pastoral Approach to the Survivors
Our focus in this article is on the second setting, the comfort of those who have lost loved ones to suicide. Here are some suggestions which you may find helpful.
- Be the safe person with whom the survivor may talk.
- Be present with the person who is suffering. That is, be like Job’s friends when they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, without speaking a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great (Job 2:13). Had they left it there, they might have avoided being condemned (Job 42:7).
- Listen with empathy and compassion, comforting others with the comfort you yourself have received from God (to paraphrase 2 Cor. 1:4).
- Encourage the church to be a safe and compassionate community, weeping with those who weep (Rom 12:15).
- Let the grieving person lead in the dance surrounding the issue of the suicide itself. They will need to talk through their experiences and feelings, but only when they are ready and feel that it is safe to do so.
Many survivors will need the help of a trained counselor or suicide survivors support group. Both are available in urban areas, but not so readily in rural areas. You may discover that in your community there is the nucleus of such a support group. Consider getting the training needed to facilitate such a group. This training is often available through your local hospice agency.
William Worden outlines the approach that a professional grief counselor would take in caring for a grieving survivor.
- A professional counselor would reality test the guilt and blame which are common among survivors. If there were inappropriate or sinful actions or neglect, then confession and forgiveness are available for those in Christ.
- Most professionals agree that families and friends should be encouraged to face the truth with honesty. This means avoiding the myth-making which is so common as a response to suicide. It also means avoiding the euphemisms and stating what happened in concrete and accurate terms.
- The counselor will explore the impact the suicide will have upon the survivor and how the person will cope with these expected outcomes.
- The counselor will work through the anger issues which are common, allowing the anger to be expressed while reinforcing personal controls which the survivor has over these feelings.
- The counselor will also talk through the issues of abandonment and rejection, which are also common feelings.
Heather Hays encourages survivors to write a letter to their deceased love one. These prove to be very powerful for survivors and can be helpful in beginning the healing process.
Providing pastoral support or counseling may help the survivor to cope with the pain of grief, the “sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27). Complicated grief does not resolve quickly. It will likely take years of support. But then, this is the role of the faithful shepherd of God’s flock to provide compassionate support for as long as it is needed.
Carla Fine writes of the days following her husband’s suicide.
In my mourning, I ... wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted my family and friends to comfort me, not to question me about why Harry had killed himself. I wanted to grieve my husband’s absence, not analyze his reasons for dying. I wanted to celebrate his kindness and friendship throughout our twenty-one years of marriage, not to rage at him for abandoning me in the prime of our lives.
The suicide of a loved one irrevocably transforms us. Our world explodes, and we are never the same.
Suicide inevitably changes those who survive. Only by God’s grace can it produce spiritual growth, “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7).
 The statistics here are drawn from the website of the Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide.
 Kanita Dervic, et al., “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” The American Journal of Psychiatry 161, no. 12 (Dec. 2004): 2393–98.
 See my article, “A Pastoral Response to Complicated Grief,” Ordained Servant 20 (2011): 60–65.
 William J. Worden, Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy (New York: Springer, 1991), 33.
 Worden, 93-95.
 The information in this section comes from Georges Minois, History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
 Augustine, City of God, Book 1, Chapter 26 (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1986), 38.
 Augustine, 29.
 Minois, 34–37.
 Minois, 72.
 Minois, 73–74.
 William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 529; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 318–19; D. A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1984), 291; C.E.B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 141–42, though Cranfield allows that the text may also point to apostasy, a turning away from Christ and his teachings. William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 145, offers a slight alteration, “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit denotes the conscious and deliberate rejection of the saving power and grace of God released through Jesus’ word and act.” I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 517, though Marshall also allows that “the NT reflects a less strict earlier usage; here the word refers to ‘the conscious and wicked rejection of the saving power and grace of God towards man.’ ”
 Adapted from the material provided by the Centers for Disease Control website, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/riskprotectivefactors.html.
 I am indebted for many of these suggestions and insights to Albert Y. Hsu, Grieving a Suicide, A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers & Hope (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2002). Hsu's book is perhaps the closest to a distinctively Christian response to suicide.
 This material is drawn from Warden, 96–97.
 Heather Hays, Surviving Suicide: Help to Heal Your Heart (Dallas: Brown Books, 2005), xv.
 Carla Fine, No Time to Say Goodbye, Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One (New York: Broadway Books, 1997), 20. Fine’s book is not written from a distinctively Christian perspective, but is strongly endorsed by professionals working in this area, and is comprehensive while remaining readable, targeted to the grieving survivor.
Gordon H. Cook is the pastor of Merrymeeting Bay Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Brunswick, Maine. He coordinates a Pastoral Care (Chaplain) program for Mid Coast Hospital and its affiliated extended care facility and has an extensive ministry as a hospice chaplain with CHANS Home Health in Brunswick. Ordained Servant Online, March 2013.