Pastoral Care Guidance for Deacons, Stephen Ministers, and the Congregation of River Road Church, Baptist
After Suicide Care
When a suicide has occurred, the surviving family faces not only the trauma of sudden loss (deep grief), but the sense of helplessness, questions about whether they could have prevented it, and struggle with talking about it. So do some of the closest friends of the deceased person.
A suicide survivor is anyone who is grieving the loss of someone who took their own life. (In this country more people take their own life (suicide) than are killed (homicide).
What’s ahead for the survivor? A “gaping hole” that cannot be replaced by anyone else, and a lot of pain, anxiety, and heartache. Survivors need continued care. They will grieve for a long time, and many of their friends will say nothing to them for fear of saying the wrong thing. Help them share a word of care—even: “I don’t know what to say—but I continue to think about you, and pray for you.”
Help survivors understand that there are very few people who can understand how they feel. Help them know that grief will take a long time—and that they will become dejected several times during the first and second year after the death.
Bewilderment and guilt are natural reactions among family members and friends, who try somehow to understand why the person killed themselves—or if they themselves could have been more responsible and prevented the death. We cannot keep someone from committing suicide if they want to—but loved ones struggle to deal with the complicated mystery of such a disturbing way to die.
Nightmares, bouts with shame, and deep feelings of sadness occur repeatedly. If the deceased person had suffered for a long time, the survivor is usually also relieved that they are not hurting anymore—then feel guilty that they feel relieved….
Anniversaries and holidays can prove to be quite difficult for the survivors; those left behind not only remember a birthday or a special occasion, but the day of the death on a weekly, then monthly, then annual basis. A note or a call to them can mean a great deal, especially with a prayer and a wish for God’s presence for them.
Let a minister help survivors with how to talk with children and young people about suicide. Though some people would prefer to pretend that a death was not a suicide, it takes a great deal of energy to hide that reality—and it is a favor to family and friends if the truth is stated—without long explanations.
One of the best gifts surviving adults can offer young people and children in their communities (churches) is to model the normal expressions of grief as they experience them themselves: sadness, tears, numbness, depression, anger, bouts with guilt, helplessness, painful memories, privacy, and struggle with words. Children/youth not only learn from adult behaviors about what is normal in grief but are reassured that their own thoughts and feelings are natural and appropriate (and can be shared).
Family members and friends at some point will inquire or wonder about God and suicide. Much has been said that confuses people about suicide (an “unforgivable sin?”) that many people have only heard that common misperception. Make sure a pastor (or a mature layperson) is available to spend some time interpreting the love and grace of God in the face of suicide (how do any of us know what is between God and a dying person in the agony of a pain sufficient enough to elicit suicide?). Contrary to what some people may think, the Bible says very little about suicide—and mostly treats it as an occurrence in the struggle with human failure (1 Samuel 31:4; 1 Kings 19:4; Matthew 27:3-5).
There is an organization called Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE) available in some localities, offering support groups for survivors of suicide. Your town may have an American Suicide Foundation support group, or one established by the American Association of Suicidology. If a support group is not available for survivor recovery, ask clergy and congregations in your area to help provide one—and invite suicide survivors to join grief support groups like it.