From time to time during my work as a pastor, I have faced the sad task of officiating a funeral or memorial service for a person who died by suicide. Grief is complicated for those experiencing a suicide loss; loved ones face not only sadness, but also anger. Although the anger isn’t always rational, it is certainly understandable.
Many also face the stigma our cultures—and often our churches—assign to a death by suicide. For instance, I think it’s a terrible shame when families insist that the service not even mention the word “suicide.” Once, a mother whose son died by suicide reasoned that she feared his life would forever be reduced to that single act. She feared that all other aspects of his life, like the work he did and the friendships he enjoyed, would be forgotten. “If he had died of cancer, or in a car accident, that wouldn’t be all people talked about,” she argued.
Inspired by this mother’s fear of how her son’s memory might be reduced and skewed, I began to characterize suicide in my funerals and memorial services as not a desire for death, but a cry for life—more life, better life.
So often, our culture concludes that suicide is a rejection of life, a willful refusal to live any longer, but I believe suicide is a statement that life can and should be so much more than pain or despair. If a suicidal person only sees a future with days on end of pain, then that vision looks nothing like the sort of life we all long to enjoy.
I remember in my own times of depression and thoughts of suicide, I often thought, “If this is all there is, if loneliness and meaninglessness and failure are going to be the sum of my experience, then forget it. This is not life. I am breathing, going through the motions, but I am not truly living.” I desperately wanted to live, but I couldn’t find a way to do so. Yet without realizing it, saying that I no longer wanted to live actually became a way to live.
Having the courage to say how I was feeling and what I was experiencing—not pretending, but being honest even when what I was saying was difficult—was how I took my first steps away from a life that seemed no life at all towards a “real life” worth living. It’s a strange paradox: The more willing we are to be vulnerable and less-than-perfect, to ask for support when can no longer support ourselves, the stronger we become and the richer our lives become. Connections with others make the difference.
Opening The Conversation
When we bravely have open and honest conversations about mental illness and suicide, we potentially make life-saving connections—like what happened to me. Without those conversations, we only have loneliness, silence and unanswered questions.
When I speak to those who attend the services of a person who died by suicide, I often discover that it’s not their first experience of grieving such a death. They reference family members, friends, colleagues or neighbors who died by suicide, and how the present death brought back those earlier losses. They talk about how they continue to struggle with their memories and questions.
The shadow of suicide is long. Those who just experienced a suicide loss need comfort, and a religious service might provide it. However, that cannot happen if the manner of death is never mentioned. So, as we approach International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, we might consider overcoming our reluctance to speak of suicide, to break apart the taboo that encloses it. Until we start talking, healing cannot happen.
And as we speak more openly and honestly, we open the possibility that the cry for life suicide represents might be heard in time.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is Nov. 18
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will be hosting gatherings in local communities for those affected by suicide to come together and share stories of healing. For more information and to find a Survivor Day event near you, click here.
Kathy Hurt is a Protestant pastor who has experienced periods of severe depression, yet has gone on to recover and enjoy a full and productive life of career and family. She regularly references her mental health struggles in her work and blogs about spirituality and mental health. Kathy recently published a memoir account of her two-year hospitalization for depression, The Dark Has Its Own Light(published under the pen name Sue Dowell). Kathy is presently working on a book, tentatively titled Acquainted with the Night, describing her own struggles with suicide, reflecting on the common assumptions in our culture about suicide, and detailing her experiences as a pastor providing support for those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide.