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Be There for Survivors

For I am conscious of my thoughts about you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you hope at the end. Jeremiah 29:11

Suicide is a subject shrouded in mystery and myth. For centuries, the word has been whispered behind cupped hands, punctuated with knowing glances and interjections like "crazy." Society looks to a mixture of myth and religious teachings to come to terms with the topic that is easier left unspoken. Yet, statistics regarding suicide completions and the families left in the wake of this growing tragedy speak the need for enlightenment on the subject. Perhaps the time has come to confront a subject too long considered taboo.

For years, suicide survivors - those left behind following a suicide death - have suffered in silence, feeling they must endure the pain and shame alone. Earliest Judo-Christian tradition views suicide with scorn. Jews living at the time of Christ saw suicide as a heinous sin. Josephus writes that the body of a suicide victim could not be buried until after sunset and then without normal funeral rites.

With society's ever-changing attitude regarding suicide, including the present trend toward euthanasia as a means of coping with terminal illness and aging, it is easy to see why Christians have a broad range of opinions. Although several suicides are mentioned in the Bible, there is no concrete Biblical statement about suicide. Scripture tells us that the only unpardonable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31). The myth that the soul of a suicide victim spends eternity in hell is perhaps the most detrimental to the already struggling survivors.

Statistics show an ever-increasing number of survivors. An estimated 750,000 suicide attempts annually affect the lives of millions of family members. The number of survivors grows 186,000 each year. For every suicide, at least six other people's lives are affected. Suicide survivors don't deserve ostracism as a consequence of their loved one's actions. They need understanding, openness, and support to talk through the pain and trauma of suicide. The normal grieving and healing processes are accentuated and lengthened. Recovery is made even more difficult by the glances, whispers, and outright avoidance of the subject by well-meaning friends and relatives.

Many people do not know how to respond to suicide, and in their ignorance, often do more harm than good. Some feel compelled to pass judgment on the circumstances of the death and speculate about whether the victim is in heaven or hell. This is never appropriate. God is the only Righteous Judge and the status of the soul of the deceased is in His hands. Church leaders especially need to leave judgment to God. As Christians, how can we reeducate ourselves and reach out to those coping with a suicide death?

Acknowledge fears

Fear is one of life's primary emotions. Following suicide, a variety of fears come into play - fear of the unknown, fears regarding the loss of material possessions, a potential move, fears about lifestyle changes, strained relationships, and financial concerns. Along with these fears come the more intangible fears of feeling violated and vulnerable. Providing survivors the opportunity to express fears helps defuse anxiety and aids the recovery process.

Be available

Sharing your concern for a suicide survivor will help him know he is not alone in his pain. In Hope for the Troubled Heart, Billy Graham writes, "Being available is difficult, because it takes time, but being sensitive…could reap large rewards in someone's life. It doesn't really matter what we say to comfort people during a time of suffering, it's our concern and availability that count." Realize the most difficult period for the family is probably still weeks away. During the initial period of shock, the survivors are not feeling many of the emotions they will feel later. You may meet the greatest need six to eight weeks following the death.

Be a good listener

Because suicide is an awkward, uncomfortable subject, people are tempted to avoid the truth. Hiding from the truth only makes recovery more difficult. Allow suicide survivors to talk about what they are feeling. It is not unusual for survivors to vent feelings of anger toward the suicide victim, medical professionals, or God. In listening, you should be prepared to hear and accept a wide range of emotions. You may be uncomfortable with the intensity of expression of these emotions. However, it is important for survivors to express themselves without being silenced. Don't try to calm survivors down or cut short their expression of emotion. Working through anger and grief is a uniquely individual process and often does not follow a prescribed pattern. Listen without judging or challenging. Don't feel you have to inform or justify. Simply be there to listen and comfort with your presence.

Offer practical support

What can you do for the person right now? Can you provide childcare, meals, or transportation? Often survivors are immobilized by their grief. Even routine chores can seem overwhelming. Your willingness to provide acts of service will be invaluable.

Suggest counseling

At some point, a survivor may struggle with depression to the point of needing profession help. Do not hesitate to suggest counseling or support group attendance. Offer to provide transportation or baby-sit for the person so she can keep the appointment.

Encourage

Barnabas was known as the "son of encouragement." Suicide survivors need a Barnabas to come along side them and walk with them through the difficult days ahead. Encourage survivors to treasure the good qualities and pleasant memories about their loved one rather than remembering only the manner of his death. Remind survivors of the victim's love for them despite his final action. Pleasant memories of a lost loved one are pearls amid the rubble of suicide devastation.

Taking the initiative in reaching out to grieving survivors will make a tremendous difference in their lives. What seems to you to be only a small act of kindness will mirror Christ's love and compassion and go a long way toward aiding the recovery process.

 In the wake of self-murder, other people are left to cope with the ripples caused. Aftershock: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide by David Cox & Candy Neely Arrington will provide knowledge and resources for those left in the wake of suicide. This is a recovery book that will provide encouragement and support for survivors. Examining the complex emotions involved in grieving a suicide death, readers will come to realize they are not alone in their grief and will not be alone in their healing.

 

 

Also In this Section:

Suicide Warning Signs
A Survivor's Story
Healing after Suicide
Be There for Survivors

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Related Links

Help is just a
phone call away: 1.800.SUICIDE (784-2433) - the National Hopeline Network. www.hopeline.com

 

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