I was getting ready early one morning, when I received a frantic call.
“Go straight to the middle school,” my coworker urged. “A seventh-grader, Chelsea, committed suicide last night. The school needs you.”
Mere minutes later, I found myself checking into our local public school office. I was a regular fixture, as I’d been having lunch with students weekly all year. As soon as she saw me, the school receptionist broke down crying. “We don’t know how to talk about this with our kids,” she sobbed. “Please, counsel them. Tell us what to say to them.”
As I walked into the middle school lunch room, where hundreds of kids had gathered, I was bombarded with crying students. Many were from my own large youth group, but just as many were complete strangers to me. Through their sobs, they expressed a variety of emotions: Anger. Guilt. Sadness. Confusion.
Our youth center opened after school and brought in counselors and local pastors to help grieving students process the death of their friend. Several hundred kids came through our doors, and our church became the epicenter of hope for many families who were deeply troubled by the suicide and seeking help processing it.
In the years since then, I’ve had three more student suicides affect my community and my youth. I’ve had three friends lose family members to suicide. A former teammate and friend of mine committed suicide, sending me into a dark series of mental “what ifs” in my own mind.
A few weeks ago, a former student and daughter of a coworker—and sister to two of my youth— committed suicide. I was there when the office staff pulled her younger brother out of my class, and knew instantly what had happened when I saw the eyes of my fellow coworker.
Truthfully, nothing else holds a candle to the emotional trauma that radiates out among friends and family when someone ends his own life.
Here are some of the important lessons I’ve learned from handling 8 suicides in the last few years:
People React Differently
In contrast to the grief that people display after a tragic death of a loved one, those processing someone’s suicide run a gamut of emotional responses.
In high school, my friend’s younger brother committed suicide. She found his body when she woke him up from school in the morning, and I expected her to be an emotional basket case when I saw her before his funeral. However, she was merely excited to tell me about a new black dress she had purchased for his service.
Everyone’s grief journey is different, and no one should be shamed into feeling a certain emotion. Allow people to express their feelings however they want, whether that’s journaling, yelling, crying, playing basketball, or sitting in silence. Offer the comfort of your presence and a non-judging ear to listen to whatever they want to say. Don’t share your own long-winded stories, talk about yourself, tell someone how they should feel, react to someone’s words with shock, or force someone to talk to you. Let your presence and caring heart speak to someone who’s hurting.
One marked difference in cases of suicide is the immediate anger and guilt that flare up in many people. If you’re reeling from loss right now, please know that your emotions are normal. You’re justified in being upset that the person you loved made a bad decision to end his or her life. In time, your feelings may change and you may be able to process and pray through this painful situation. For now, turn to God and pour your honest emotions out to Him.
Offer Hope, Not Hell
Suicide is a painful topic, and people have polarized views about the eternal destination of those who end their own lives. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod does not have an official stance on the eternal state of someone who has committed suicide, because that person’s spiritual state is known only by God.
Regarding suicide, Martin Luther wrote, “I don’t have the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.” However, Luther does continue by explaining that this statement should not be misused in a way that downplays the danger and seriousness of this sin in the minds of people (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 54, p. 29).
How do we answer whether a person who commits suicide goes to hell? Quite simply, we don’t know with certainty. An “unpardonable sin” is committed when a person consciously, maliciously, persistently, and stubbornly resists the efforts of the Holy Spirit, who seeks to work saving faith in a person’s heart by convincing him of the truth of the Gospel. In other words, that person dies without forgiveness, having continually rejected Jesus, the One who forgives our sins. If a person dies in this state, then he has committed the unpardonable sin. If, however, he had saving faith in Christ at the time of his death, then he is not guilty of unpardonable sin.
There are some considerations we should keep in mind when dealing with the subject of suicide. A mentally sound person who takes his own life enters into great spiritual peril, since his last act in life eliminates the opportunity for repentance. However, many Christians, due to severe depression or other forms of mental illness, take their own lives.
Perhaps a worthwhile illustration to consider is a drunk driver crashing into a tree and dying. Did that driver sin by drinking excessively, and then getting behind the wheel of a car? Yes. Does the fact that the driver hit the tree and immediately died before repenting of his sin mean that he is automatically banished to hell? Not necessarily. We are saved by grace alone, according to Ephesians 2:8–9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The biggest factor is whether or not that driver has faith in Christ Jesus as his Lord and Savior, not the nature of his sin or his ability to repent of it before his death.
In general, Christians should proceed with caution when making judgments about the existence of faith in the heart or the eternal destiny of others. Many times, our speculation quietly turns people away from the church when they need it more than ever. Ultimately, God alone knows the fate of those who commit suicide. As His church, it is our duty to share the love and hope found in Christ Jesus with everyone, including those who mourn deeply.
Your Presence Matters
When Chelsea died, our church opened our youth center to the community after school. A few hundred grieving students streamed in, and we had counselors and pastors on hand to help them. As I walked through the crowd, comforting students, I noticed a teenage boy sitting all by himself on the bench out front. I walked over and sat down next to him. I chatted a bit, and then asked him how he knew Chelsea.
“How do I know Chelsea?”, he repeated to me, with a shocked look. He paused, and then choked out, “She’s my sister.”
I realized in an instant why he was sitting alone. His friends were overcome with fear of saying the wrong thing, or not knowing exactly what to say. They didn’t understand that their mere presence would have been enough in that moment.
One of the most common reactions to suicide is uncertainty in how to think, feel, or comfort each other. People are confused, and don’t know what to say. Here’s the simple truth: it doesn’t matter so much what you say. Let your presence speak volumes. Trust the Holy Spirit to give you the words to say, and just be there with those who hurt.
We often substitute a soft lie in lieu of speaking necessary hard truths. Quite simply, suicide is something we must be honest about. To conceal the truth of that person’s decision to kill themselves is to create a host of problems—and despite well-meaning intentions, the truth always comes out eventually.
It’s not necessary to share intimate details of the situation, like how exactly the person died or how their body was found. But don’t pretend like nothing happened or this is a routine death. Speak as truthfully as you can, because honesty aids the grief process.
Avoid saying phrases like, “He was sick and died,” because that can cause confusion. I’ve witnessed that same phrase being said to children, and their subsequent terrified reaction that their loved ones will become sick and die unexpectedly. Be gentle and sensitive in whatever truth you can share. Some families don’t want their loved one to leave a legacy of suicide, but the reality of suicide can be a major eye-opener to those who may be struggling themselves.
Don’t Glamorize or Victimize
Be mindful about unintentionally glamorizing or victimizing someone who committed suicide. Yes, there likely were factors that led to that person’s decision—but ultimately, it was that person’s decision to end his or her life. Who is to blame? The person who committed suicide made the decision. It did not have to happen, and it is no one else’s fault.
Assigning or carrying immense guilt or regret can be a real battle for many after suicide. If you’re counseling someone whose loved one killed themselves, go out of your way to assure them over and over again that it was that person’s decision, and it was a hurtful one. It is not their fault. Don’t allow others to view suicide as an acceptable method to dealing with issues, but instead help others understand how to cope with their grief.
Be aware, too, the danger of glamorizing through putting up plaques, planting trees, or other memorials. The American Association of Suicidology recommends against erecting permanent markers or memorials such as plaques, special pages in yearbooks, or trees, as these things often glorify the suicide victim and can contribute to others considering suicide. A more appropriate way to remember a loved one might be a scholarship fund or donation to an organization.
Let Wounds Heal Naturally
It can be a great help to be surrounded by a community, and you often see this naturally occur after a suicide. In grief, people instinctively gather in each others homes, youth rooms, churches, and classrooms and collectively process their emotions.
Be available to meet with others, and orally state up front that you won’t ever judge how they’re feeling. Encourage those grieving with Bible verses, check in on them often, and let them know you’re praying for them.
Understand this truth, as well: you don’t need to keep pulling open a wound that’s healing. It’s human nature to grieve, and then immediately start to move on and heal. Don’t make someone feel guilty for wanting to move on. This can be especially true of siblings and close family members. They’re aware that their lives will never again be the same, but they desperately need to focus on adjusting to their “new normal”.
Continue Your Support
As you continue to care for those grieving, try your best to show support long after the funeral. Simple texts or messages of support, Bible verses, or prayers together can be bigger blessings that you ever know.
Be sensitive with the easy platitudes we often spit out without thinking. Saying things like, “Everything happens for a reason!” or “God just wanted another angel in heaven!” can be hurtful, not to mention often theologically inaccurate. I remember once telling a friend after a period of grief that I secretly wanted to punch the next person who tossed some vacuous platitude in my face.
Speak thoughtfully, sharing love and hope whenever and however you can. Above all, don’t be afraid to be real. Sometimes admitting your brokenness can be healing salve to your wounds. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
Watch for Warning Signs
Common signs of suicide can include dramatic changes in personality and behavior, fascination with death, giving away possessions, saying goodbye to family or friends, written or verbal statements about death and/or suicide, or making a suicide attempt. If you notice signs in someone, listen to them and support them. Emphasize that they are not alone, and suicide is not a solution that will bring them the relief that they want. Never minimize their problems, or focus on yourself over them.
Most importantly, find a way to get professional help. Counselors and psychologists have special training to help people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. Stay with your friend or family member until they’re connected to a support system. If someone is in immediate danger, never hesitate to call 911 or take them to a local hospital. Other helpful resources are national suicide hotlines: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Though our grief may take various forms, we cling to one universal truth: God, our Heavenly Father, understands our every heartache. The One who knit us together in our mother’s womb knows our every thought, even “before a word is on my tongue” (Psalm 139:4).
We can cling to Him, crying out in our brokenness, anger, or doubt, trusting that He is with us even in the deepest depths of our sorrow. What a comfort it is to know that our Almighty God can handle anything we throw at Him. As He reminds us in Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”