A pastoral response to suicide

A pastoral response to suicide

Suicide transcends age, ethnicity, and social and economic markers, and is a topic the media regularly raises. However, traditionally the church has said little about it, except to mumble that suicide is killing oneself and therefore breaks the sixth commandment: you shall not murder. CRAIG VERNALL reflects on the questions suicide raises for us all, especially for those grieving a lost loved one.

At a young age, my father attended the funeral of a friend who killed himself. The funeral was perfunctory and the deceased was buried in the paupers’ grave because he had committed ‘an unpardonable sin’. The church’s response made this loss even more tragic.

Suicide is sudden and therefore shocking. As pastoral leaders, God calls us to represent him during these difficult times. We too can be deeply affected as we reach out to help others needing love, understanding and guidance. So please ensure you have someone to unpack these pastoral hurdles with or they could unpack you.

For the remainder of this article i want to tell a story that happened within my own church. A story that ended in the tragedy of suicide.

Sam’s story

Sam was a skilled videographer. Raised in a Christian home, he had faith in Jesus. He came to us after a spell of depression, looking for some part-time work to help get himself back into the workplace. Sam was quiet, polite and kind. He was good at his work and our staff embraced him. Over time he shouldered more responsibility, taking on leadership within our creative team. His confidence grew to the point that when the perfect full-time role for Sam came up in Melbourne, he took it.

Melbourne was an exciting city for Sam to work in. He was good at his job and made friends. But he struggled with bipolar syndrome. Bipolar is a hideous roller coaster of emotional highs and deep lows that take the mind to extremely dark places. The depression continued to gnaw away at him.

A month out from Christmas, Sam told his boss he needed to go home to see his family. Upon returning to Tauranga, Sam spent two weeks visiting friends and catching up with family. Then early one evening he drove himself to the beach and took his own life.

Needless to say, all those who knew him were devastated. A talented man in his early 30s, appreciated by many, and with support of a loving Christian family. No words could comfort.

Sadness, guilt, anger… and hope

I was asked to take Sam’s funeral. What is appropriate to say at times such as this? The hope of the gospel and prayers of comfort, of course. But that didn’t address the underlying questions that surrounded this funeral and others like it. So, I decided to tackle the unasked questions, for these were the ones I was wrestling with also. The transcript of the funeral went something like this:

I want to talk about three emotions that will be affecting us today. Firstly, there is sadness. Sadness is that gut-wrenching shock that leads to tears and numbness. The news of Sam’s death took us all by surprise. And so it should have, because he was so young.

Grief and sadness will have their way with you. You will be in shock and denial. You’ll be angry and disappointed. You’ll spend many hours thinking about Sam and remembering the times you shared with him. You’ll have days when he’s distant in your memory and then there will be times when tears flood again as if he died just yesterday.

Sadness isn’t sickness. It is our way of remembering, and grieving, and saying goodbye. It will steal your energy, rob your enthusiasm and limit your ability to see beyond the next day or two. This is all normal. This is the same grief that Jesus encountered when he cried upon meeting the family of Lazarus.

The second set of emotions we experience are based around a sense of guilt that each of us will feel to some degree. The guilty self-talk says, “I could have done more! Why didn’t I spend more time with Sam? Why didn’t I ask him the deeper questions of how he was really feeling? Why didn’t I see the signs? Could I have said something or done something that would have changed his direction? Could I have been a better friend or a better family member?”

These are feelings of self-imposed responsibility that lead to guilt. But your guilt is not going to change the situation. It will be a self-imposed prison that only you have the key to unlock. Don’t put yourself there. Sam wouldn’t hold you responsible and neither does anyone in this room today. None of us have the right to assume that we held the magic words or hug that would have changed Sam’s decision to take his own life.

Lazarus’ sister Mary thrust this sense of responsibility upon Jesus when he arrived at Bethany. She said, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Jesus didn’t enter into this pointless conversation of ‘what ifs and maybes’.

That brings us to the third set of emotions. These are the ones that we don’t talk about because we’re not sure if we’re allowed these feelings. It’s easy for us to feel a sense of anger towards Sam. “Why did it have to go this way? Why couldn’t you have reached out to us some more? Sam, surely there was someone you could have spoken with or leaned upon? Didn’t you realise that we love and care for you, and would have tried our best to help? We’re all hurting; why did you do this to us?”

Let me put this in its right perspective. Sam didn’t do this to us. Bipolar disorder did this to us. Sam didn’t take his own life. Bipolar disorder took it from him. As a society, we’re comfortable hearing that people die from cancer or other diseases. Mental illness, or more specifically bipolar disorder, is a dis-ease. The prognosis includes the possibility of taking one’s own life, just as when someone is diagnosed with cancer there is a possibility that the cancer will take their life. Bipolar disorder took Sam’s life.

The psalmist catches thoughts for us when he says: “I cry aloud to God…that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted” (Psalm 77:1-2).

Sam’s state of mind was without hope. He didn’t want this feeling and he couldn’t make friends with it.

We may feel angry at Sam, but don’t. Instead be angry at the disorder that affected Sam—a disorder that affects thousands of our fellow countrymen and women, our friends, families and workmates. We know Sam well enough to know that he wouldn’t set out to hurt any of us. It’s bipolar disorder that has hurt us and robbed us all of this young man’s life.

Most of us know the story of Lazarus. Jesus knew he would bring Lazarus back to life, so his tearful response to his friend’s death is surprising. Why did he weep with the family? Was it his compassion for Lazarus? Was it his sense of identity with the family’s grief?

Scripture tells us in John 11:23 that Jesus wept. The translation of these original words is relatively lightweight. It is better stated that Jesus groaned deeply. He groaned because death was never part of God’s original plan for humankind or this world, and because he saw the pain that’s inflicted upon the human heart. Jesus mourned deeply because our human hearts were never designed to live in a world where death resides. We’re just not sturdy enough in heart and mind to reconcile death without considerable loss to ourselves. We were created for eternal things, eternal life—not a life of decay and death.

Of course, the story of Lazarus becomes a story of hope. It ends with Jesus commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Miraculously, Lazarus walks out, wrapped in his grave clothes. This story is a powerful picture of the resurrection from the dead. It gives us confidence today in Sam’s destination: raised from the grave to be in the company of Jesus, the Saviour.

Yes, we will feel sad. That’s a healthy emotion that will take its own course in your life. But we don’t need to feel responsible for what we feel we could, or should, have done. Neither should we be angry at Sam, because Sam’s life was taken from him, not given away.

This article is my own way of redeeming something of Sam’s short life—an opportunity to turn the tragedy of his death into something that can help others. Sadly, suicide is a curse upon our nations. Our hope is in Christ who gives us an eternal picture of life and a hope with which we can navigate through disappointment. I hope this recollection has helped you.

Story: Craig Vernall

Craig is the National Leader of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand and the Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church.


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