Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Suicide and Spirituality Part I: The Roles of Faith and Faith Communities
The day after my brother died, my family reached out to my faith community to see if they would be willing to allow his memorial service to be held at my church just six days later. My brother and parents were not members of my faith community, but the church welcomed us with open arms anyway. On December 13th, 2004, the church was filled with hundreds of mourners, most of who had traveled to Colorado by plane, and the service beautifully honored my brother’s life without looking away from the horrible tragedy of his death.
In the days and weeks following my brother’s death, the faith leaders and pastoral-care counselors of my faith community reached out to my parents and me to offer support and assistance. The following year, they allowed me to host our first annual candlelight healing ceremony during the holiday season to support families who might be struggling with loss or life challenges – a tradition we continue to this day. Each year the event grows as more people find this a safe place to grieve during and otherwise celebratory time of year. After the pastoral leader shares some words on the important role of grief in our lives, we light candles in honor of our loved ones, listen to spiritual music, and share responsive readings on loss. Almost everyone stays long after the service is over, eating refreshments and talking with each other and the pastoral counselors present. It has become a very powerful tradition in our church.
Now our church has engaged in public advocacy for suicide prevention. Our youth group turns out by the dozens to walk in the largest suicide-prevention event in the country – all proudly wearing t-shirts that identify their connection to our church and the cause. This past year we started a “mental wellness advocates” group made up of consumers, attempt survivors, and those bereaved by suicide. We work toward helping to support those going through tough times, educating our church members about mental health and suicide, and advocating for positive change in our community.
I am lucky -- my faith community got it right. But many others aren’t so lucky, and often find their faith communities are less than supportive during their deepest time of need. As the front line responders for many memorial services, faith leaders need to know that their communication can facilitate healing or it can facilitate confusion and isolation. Faith leaders may inadvertently even cause additional pain and increased risk of further suicide among the bereaved or among other vulnerable individuals in the community.
Suicide is not just a mental health problem, it is a public health problem, and as such a coordinated prevention effort with other systems outside of mental health is required – including our faith communities. Faith communities are a critical piece of the prevention puzzle. Too often faith communities and mental health providers operate independently of one another as if they were relegated to their own silos of expertise. Individuals who seek out spiritual pursuits as a part of their coping and mental wellness would likely benefit from a collaborative approach between faith communities and mental health services.
Barb Roberts, a local pastoral care provider from a neighboring evangelical Christian church, shared with me her story of how she was impacted by a youth suicide early in her career. “Matt,” a 14-year-old church member, returned from a youth group retreat and took his life in his parents’ bedroom. Within hours scores of kids and traumatized staff and family started to converge on the church. Barb recalls how she and the other pastoral care staff just sat with those kids all night.
“Where was God?” they asked over and over again.
That experience motivated her to look deeper into the tenets of faith and how they viewed suicide. She discovered that the early church – 354-430 AD under Augustine – took a pretty harsh view of suicide, and for many years following that, the church had an approach against those who died by suicide and family left with not much comfort or hope. More recently, she discovered churches recognize people need to be helped not punished. Still, many have lingering questions, “How could this happen? Where is God in the midst of my pain? Is there any hope for the future?”
She said, “There used to be a mistaken belief that Christians just didn’t commit suicide. When a Senior Pastor took his life recently, our community was shaken. I have no doubt that he was a Godly man. What happened? Tragedy knows no bounds. Christians seem more ashamed, like suicide is a personal affront, and somehow a statement of a lack of faith. This statement has no authenticity. But it is hard. Christians can have chemical imbalances like anyone else and keeping the faith isn’t always easy when your life has been shattered and stripped bare.”
Many resources exist to help faith communities provide appropriate support for those bereaved by suicide. Stephen Ministries helps pastoral counselors and lay people by training them to support, reach out, and develop a whole model of care giving in many different denominations. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill also has created a Caring Community certification process to help leaders support those in mental health crises. SPRC has published two documents on faith communities – one on memorial services and one on faith perspectives. Finally, in our work as a Garrett Lee Smith Grantee, the Carson J Spencer Foundation developed a series of posters, videos and guidelines for faith communities – see http://peoplepreventsuicide.org/spiritual-leaders for more information. We also published a booklet called “The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention: A Guidebook for Faith Leaders” (available on Amazon).
In reflecting on the role of her church in bereavement support, one faith leader representing mainline Protestant church said to me, “The gift our church brings to the issue of suicide is the idea of community. We help people to develop deep meaningful relationships where we journey through life together, where we lean on each other. All of us face those dark moments, those dark times when we are questioning, doubting and fearing. We need one another to hold us up and remind us that the tomb is empty, that every storm we face, God will get us through. God will make us stronger on the other side and even use us then in the lives of other people.”
If you have been bereaved by suicide, what are the ways faith communities been helpful or harmful to you?