by Peter Ascough
It was September of 2017 and I’ll never forget the experience of learning that my sister-in-law had died by suicide. It was hard, not just because as a family we lost a wife, mom, sister and auntie, but because we didn’t know the struggle she’d had. As we learned about her struggle with depression, we all wondered, “How could we not have seen it?” “What could we have done?” and “Why did she never talk about it?”
Many people have been impacted by suicide and ask these same questions in the midst of grief, anger, sorrow and pain, Also, just because someone is part of a church, doesn’t mean they are protected from suicide. My sister-in-law taught Sunday School, sang on a music team and was very involved in the life of the church.
While we tend to think of suicide as a youth issue, in North America middle-age men are most likely to die by suicide—3.5 times more likely than women. Part of the reason is that men’s attempts are usually more lethal than women’s. While this issue effects people of all ages, cultures and religious backgrounds, we are going to take a brief look at how it impacts the church and what churches can do.
Why People Stay Silent
So how do we talk about it? There is fear and stigma surrounding suicide and so we default to silence. However, it is crucial we speak openly about it; those who have struggled with thoughts of suicide often do so alone and fear asking for help.
There is a sense of shame that often accompanies those who have thoughts of suicide. We have this idea we must present ourselves in church as having our lives together, and that we do not have serious struggles. We see others around us as healthy and whole, and wonder what is wrong with us. While we can talk about how things can be tough, we quickly add “but I’m ok” or we only talk about the struggles we’ve already overcome. We feel like a fake as we sing or serve, and so we disconnect, put on a good face and try to muscle through it alone.
Men are generally less likely to admit struggles or ask for help. The influence of a traditional male stereotype perpetuates the idea that men are tough and independent and should not have any mental or emotional struggles. In what ways does the church invite men into open and vulnerable conversations? This may be slowly changing in the church, which is good news, but it will take intentionality and strong role models of what living an authentic vulnerable life looks like. (Which is beyond the scope of this article and likely warrants an article of its own.)
Signs Someone May Be Contemplating Suicide.
Indicators that someone is thinking about suicide are not clear-cut. We all face stress in our lives. We have up and down days and some people are naturally more optimistic while others are more pessimistic. So how would we know?
Change: Have there been any recent major changes in their lives that are causing stress? Job loss, family trouble, relationship problems, physical diagnosis? Have stressors brought about a noticeable change in their attitude, behaviour and thoughts?
Speech: Do they speak of life as hopeless, about being alone or feeling guilty? Do they make comments about how they wish it could all end or how people would be better off if they weren’t around?
Affect: Have they been diagnosed with a mental illness? Has their body language, or disposition changed? Do they display feelings of anger, sadness and worthlessness that seem unusual for them?
Actions: Do their actions seem more reckless or are they withdrawing from everybody? Are they giving things away that hold significance to them? Are they engaged in self-harming behaviour? While self-harm may not mean they are definitely considering suicide there is the possibility they may be a suicide risk.
So How Do I Ask?
We might hesitate to talk to someone about suicide for a number of reasons.
We may think, “If I ask and they are not thinking about it, I am going to cause them to think about it.” But we know that asking people about suicide does not increase the risk.
“But what if they get really mad at me for asking?” Good question, but would we rather risk them being mad at us for asking or risk losing them to suicide?
We may think we could never help someone who is presenting the risk of suicide because we’re not a counsellor. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
The church does not need to be full of experts because we can offer people something amazing, which is presence. If we believe that we have the Holy Spirit in us, we can be present with people in the midst of their difficulties and in so doing, we minister the presence of God to them. We don’t have to have the right words or do any special action, but we can be available and willing to listen.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them…It is God’s love to us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear…Christians so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”
So how can we ask in a casual way? We could say something like: “You know sometimes when I have heard people talk (act, feel) like this, they are thinking about suicide. Have you had thoughts about suicide or hurting yourself?”
One helpful change in our language is using the more empathetic language of “dying by suicide instead of “committing suicide” which sounds like a crime. We shouldn’t be afraid to use the word suicide. We need to be clear in what we’re asking and ask for a clear answer. If they say, “I’ll only tell you if you keep it a secret,” our response is “I love you too much to keep you hurting yourself a secret.”
Then we need to listen, really listen. We should not listen with the desire to fix. At times we do this by using “just” language. “If you would just read your Bible more…just pray more…just get up out of bed…just try a little harder.” This language oversimplifies the problem and the solution. In our hurry to minimize our discomfort we also minimize the struggle. This leaves a person feeling defeated that they cannot overcome these thoughts on their own, which could amplify their shame and hesitancy of talking to others.
Instead, we can listen deeply. They are offering us the gift of their true self, where all the hurt and pain is residing. To be heard, understood and loved may be what it takes for someone to begin to move away from suicidal thoughts. This will be a journey for them and ongoing support from family, friends and the faith community will be necessary. Some will also need help from a mental health professional.
Prayer, Bible study, being active, seeking help will all be helpful tools on the journey towards wholeness, but instead of using them as ways to get ourselves out of the situation, we can use them as a way to join in. “How can I join you in praying about this? Can we pray together now?” “I have some verses that I have used that help me when I’m discouraged, can I read some of them with you?” “Can I call you in the morning and we’ll go for a walk?” “Can I help you find a counsellor to talk to?”
By normalizing the conversation, we can support people contemplating suicide and their loved ones, or those dealing with the loss of a loved one.
What if They Say Yes?
So, what do we do if someone reveals that they have been thinking of suicide? Our first concern is their safety. We should ask, “Have you told anyone else?” “Do you have a plan?” “Would it be ok if we went and talked to someone together?” At this point we want to connect them with help. We may not be qualified to help, but we can connect them to someone who is qualified, even if it’s by calling 911. They may not appreciate our involvement at this point but again, better that they are mad than the alternative.
It is important that pastors and churches have access to emergency numbers like suicide or crisis hotlines. Churches should also become informed about other resources in their community like where to go for counselling and other mental health resources that are available for the individual and their families.
After a Suicide
No matter how much we prepare, no matter how much time we spend intervening and supporting another person, there are those who will still complete suicide. It is heartbreaking, devastating to the community and will be a difficult road to travel.
If we in the church experience a loss to suicide, we need to enter the grief with those who are grieving. The temptation can be to moralize, intellectualize, blame or theologize about the suicide. I wonder if that reveals how uncomfortable we are with the situation. It’s ok to be uncomfortable, to not understand, to not have it figured out and it is important to not debate about the person’s theology or faith. At this time, we want to meet people in their grief, to empathize with their loss, to allow them to share their confusion, frustration and anger.
It is important to balance honouring and remembering the person for who they were with a realistic picture of the brokenness the person was dealing with. When we are uncomfortable with the manner in which a person died, we may be tempted to emphasize an unrealistic picture of who they were. Instead, we should focus on the very real loss for those left behind and reiterate the desire that the person had asked for help. Send the message to others who may be struggling that they are important, loved and appreciated in the community and that people are not only noticed after they are gone.
The opportunity we have to debrief this tragic situation with the church, or in a youth group must be handled very carefully. It would be helpful to consult with professionals or invite them in to talk to our church as we process the loss as a community. We want to be sensitive to those who have experienced the loss and to the larger body who also have many questions, or youth who maybe idealizing all the attention a deceased peer may be getting. Our desire is to help people in their grief while providing opportunity to bring questions and struggles into the open with an attitude of love and grace.
Where to Now?
We have only scratched the surface, but my hope is that by having this conversation, people in the church will be encouraged to talk and remove the veil on this uncomfortable topic. I pray that churches would intentionally work to become safe places for people to talk about their brokenness rather than suffering in silence.
Peter Ascough serves as pastor at Kleefeld EMC in Manitoba. Peter has an MA in Counselling from Providence Theological Seminary.
Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST)
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