Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Question of the Day

Joseph Yoo has thoughts about pastoral care when suicide strikes.

Pastors, have you ever provided pastoral care after a suicide or overseen a funeral for a suicide victim? How should such trauma be handled by a pastor?


Deb said...

I appreciate Stephen Taylor's thoughts that are linked from Joseph's blog.

I think all too often suicide is misunderstood and demonized. It is seen as selfish and self-centered. While that may be what is real and felt for the loved ones of the deceased, I don't think it's quite accurate for the one who was suicidal. To be suicidal one has to be VERY low emotionally. Often it is steep and scary spiral down into the darkest of depths. It can be very difficult to offer care to someone who is truly suicidal as there are not quick fixes (though offering grace, naming the depth of the depression/darkness, acknowledging that being suicidal is not one's *fault*, and that God DOES desire something better for us, and being a listening ear can be quite helpful.)

For the family, walk with them in their journey, though don't provide answers for those are few and far between. Acknowledge that hurt and anger and resentment are normal and healthy emotions in their grief, but also show them how much pain their loved one must have been in.

For those who fear judgment and hell for their loved one, remember that we do not know the eternal destiny of anyone--that God knows the heart and mind of a person, and God sees us for more than a moment of weakness/desperation/darkness

Mark Winter said...

I have not conducted a funeral for a suicide victim, but I have attended several. I have also given pastoral care to survivors.

I think the best thing we can do (besides what deb said in the aforementioned post) is to direct family members to a "Survivor of Suicide" group.

Michael said...

A friend recently buried her mother due to suicide. The worst part of this experience was that the mom was very emotionally unstable as well as a heavy drinker. She threatened often, and the family just asked her not to make a mess. So my friend had to recall every single conversation in which mom made such threats and was left wondering what she might have been able to do to stop her.

I could only listen to her because I am far from qualified to speak to such distress. Yet my friend acknowledged that the best part of my ministry to her was that I did not try to offer advice or excuses. She just needed someone to listen. She also seemed to believe it helped to have someone outside the family remind her that she was always powerless to do anything about it if/when mom made up her mind to do it.

I guess my best advise is in line with Deb's: walk with them and understand that they have emotions they may have difficulty expressing. When they find their voice and the words, and they apparently will, they need someone to listen probably more than anything. After such an irrational act, how can one be rational?

As for those who express anxiety about the Judgment, my old preaching professor said it best: God is always merciful, so let Him be God.

Will said...

In my first December as a minister (this would be the fourth month of my first pastorate), I got a call from one of my stewards saying he found one of the church members had hung himself in his house. This guy had been an active member for years, but his wife had died a year or so before and couldn't cope (there were other issues surrounding the wife, but I will not post them publicly, even though the issues were something of an 'open secret'). I had talked to him a number of times (though I really didn't know he was suicidal - he never mentioned it to me) and members of the church had been with him earlier that night. He was just going to do it.

His only child had married a catholic, and had started attending the husband's church, so I didn't know them and they didn't know me. I walked them through the funeral, but after visiting them a couple of times after the funeral, I got the feeling I was more of a reminder of the whole ordeal they wanted to forget, so I eventually moved on and hoped their church supported them (I am sure it did - I wasn't their pastor after all).

I agree with deb that it may not be feelings of selfishness that makes somebody in that situation do it, but I think people need to be aware of their own feelings and not try to say, 'Well, I shouldn't feel like they were being selfish.' I was quite angry at the individual for a few hours - angry at his selfishness to the family at Christmas; for me, since this was my first Christmas! It was part of the process I had to go through and denying it or telling myself I shouldn't would have made it worse.

John B said...

Sadly, I have. It was an elderly man whose wife had alzheimer's. He was an inactive member of my congregation, though his daughters were very active.

I mentioned that he took his own life during the funeral message. It was the elephant in the room. But it opened the door to talk about the particular pain and guilty feelings that the survivors feel. The family was in the living room when he went into the bedroom and shot himself.

I think the best part of the continuing care that I provided to the family was allowing them to grieve at their own pace. They expressed that they thought they should be dealing with it better and moving on with life. I assured them that however they were handling it was ok and not to get caught up with what others or even themselves thought they should be feeling.

Rev. J said...

Sorry for the long comment but brevity can’t touch this subject. I have not dealt with this head on but I know others who have. In 2005 a pastor committed suicide in one of my friends conferences. He came back and told me how wonderful the presiding minister’s homily was. I do not have permission to reprint it, although I wish I could, but here are some of highlights.

He focused on two sections. One on the person’s life and second how the person’s death affected the people there. I thought that was a brilliant move because it named the elephant in the room and gave was to deal with it. He told the congregation that they 1) to face it, 2) not to blame yourself. He goes on to say that the death happened IN our life but id did not happen TO your life.

The main brilliance of this homily is that he states that the survivors have to forgive what we can’t understand and realize that we may never figure it out. We have to learn to live in the uncomfortable reality of the unknown. This is wise wisdom for a family member of any person going through a tough death whether through disease, accident, or suicide.

This minister goes on to say about God’s role, “while there is some pain that eve God can’t explain, there is no pain that God can’t embrace.” He continues and says that the person who killed himself, “slipped beneath the awareness of his true-self, of his God-self, of his Christ-self, of his baptized-self and took matters into his own hands…or maybe he didn’t do it at all. That was not ____ at that moment. It was the insidious disease.”

Someday I will have to take this out of my file and use it for inspiration in a painful time in my ministry when I am faced with this reality. My advice to anyone going through this, focus always on the unfailing love of God and like Andrew said on Joseph’s post, Romans 8, nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Earl said...

My first experience with suicide was in my first church. We moved onto the church field on Wednesday. I preached my first sermon on the following Sunday. On Monday a long-time church member put a bullet through her head. That was my first funeral. My next funeral was for a baby born dead. My third funeral was another suicide this time of an adult male who used a shotgun to take his life on a dirt road behind our parsonage. One particularly tragic experience was two male high school students who committed suicide together. Over the years there have been other sad instances with which I have had first hand contact.
From the beginning I have sought to offer encouragement and hope to the bereaved. In the public experience of the funeral service, I have in the scripture readings and sermon reminded those present of those foundational truths of Scripture that I thought would most help them respond with faith to the shock and pain of loss. In private visits I have sought to listen and keep my opinions to myself. The incredible vulnerability many experience during grief is no time for "voodoo theology."

MountainLaurel said...

Though I am not a pastor, I'd like to share the incredibly moving story of how one pastor ministered to me after a suicide of my friend who was a member of our UMYF.

I was 15, as was my friend. I didn't really believe in mortality at that time, as few young ones do.

Our pastor was a new one. I had only met her a few times. We called an emergency meeting of the UMYF at the church. I had heard some say that the soul of a suicide is certainly in hell, which is exactly what I did NOT need to hear at the time. I asked the pastor where my friend was. She said, "I think he's having a nice long talk with God, and they're getting a lot of things worked out."

Those simple, basic words told me that she didn't know everything, that it was OK that I didn't know everything, but that God was still in control. And that's exactly what I needed to hear.