Still Living: Grieving after a Suicide

Disclaimer: If you are thinking about hurting yourself or believe someone you know may be, call the free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) now.

When I was a teenager, one of my youth group peers committed suicide. He was about 18 years old. Later, I served in a church where two youths killed themselves. In that same church, one of the most respected and sought-after lay counselors took his life. Another lay counselor I worked with had lost her husband to suicide. At the seminary I attended, the chaplain was a man who as a boy had witnessed his father's suicide. It's a wound he has to deal with every day.

No tragedy looms darker or bewilders a family more than suicide. Every case I've encountered came with absolute shock and dismay. There was no prior expectation and much soul-searching in retrospect. Suicide is earthshattering, simply earthshattering. I'm deeply moved just thinking of these individuals, of their spouses and children and parents.

It is horrifying and heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, suicide plagues Christian families as regularly as it does non-Christian ones; believers and unbelievers both take their own lives. Even so, some have said that a person who has committed suicide could not have been a Christian, and thus, many survivors have doubted the eternal destiny of their loved ones. However, biblical support for this view is very weak. The Bible promises that nothing can separate true Christians from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:38–39).

To deal with suicide theologically, we must first be honest with ourselves about what suicide is and how it happens. Chuck Swindoll addresses these questions:

What is suicide? It is the voluntary act of intentionally taking one's own life. Suicide is not limited to the experiences of those without God. Scripture records accounts of believers, as well as unbelievers, who have taken their lives. Every one of these incidents involved terribly distressing circumstances.

How does suicide happen? The Father of Lies, Satan—whom Jesus said "was a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44)—plants desperate, destructive thoughts into the mind. In a weakened state, even believers can become so distressed, so emotionally distraught, that they act on the Devil's evil incentive . . . and murder themselves.

What is one certainty we can say about suicide? When an individual makes the decision to commit suicide, that person has violated, in a criminal fashion, a right that is not his or hers. It is God's right alone to take life, just as it is His prerogative to give life.

Karl Barth described the nature of suicide similarly:

We must start with the unequivocal fact that when self-destruction is the exercise of a supposed and usurped sovereignty of man over himself, it is a frivolous, arbitrary and criminal violation of the commandment and, therefore, self-murder. To deprive a man of his life is a matter for the One who gave it and not for the man himself.1

Suicide is a sin, one that causes unspeakable grief to loved ones left behind. But we must also be honest about what suicide is not.

Suicide is not more powerful than the saving grace of Jesus. Suicide cannot snatch anyone from the Father's hand (John 10:27–30). Salvation has nothing to do with what we do—we cannot earn it through righteous acts, and we cannot lose it through sinful acts. It comes through faith. (Ephesians 2:8–9). Therefore, even if the final act of a believer is the sin of suicide, the redeeming, regenerating work of God in that person's life cannot be undone. God will not reject anyone who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ. That would be completely inconsistent with the nature of salvation.

Those who contemplate suicide often suffer in secret desperation. Their judgment is so clouded that truth and even right and wrong are overwhelmed by pain. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

A man who is on the brink of suicide no longer has ears for commands or prohibitions; . . . A man who is desperate cannot be saved by a law that appeals to his own strength; . . . One who despairs of life can be helped only by the saving deed of another, the offer of a new life which is to be lived not by his own strength but by the grace of God.2

Therefore, knowing what suicide is and what it is not, you can call on the Lord and rely on Him to guide you through the grief of losing someone through suicide.

As you grieve, I hope you will take considerable time to express your feelings about your loss in your own way. Remember: grieving is unpredictable; there is no set schedule. People don't simply "get over" the loss or "move on." By God's grace, the loss may eventually be assimilated into day-to-day life and a context of loving and caring for one another. But, even after many years, a memory may trigger feelings as if the death has just happened.

Every suicide leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of loved ones and in the family as a whole. It is a struggle that many, many know intimately. You may be feeling completely alone. But in fact, tens of thousands commit suicide in the U.S. every year and their loved ones go on to suffer, many in silence.

Often, survivors feel guilt and shame, believing they are failures because they couldn't prevent the suicide. The pain from guessing what might have been is so great, it can grow into profound depression, anger, and resentment. Support groups are critical for individuals and families, especially married couples and surviving children. Trauma ripples through families, and because people are unequipped to handle such loss, suicide can precipitate divorce and other issues. Therefore, there must be openness and support from knowledgeable caregivers.

One of the best ways to help process grief and guard your family is by attending a support group. I recommend GriefShare, a Christian group that offers the support of other survivors, guidance in the grief process, and help learning to rely on God. To find out more, go to www.griefshare.org or call 1-800-395-5755.

Organizations for suicide survivors may be able to direct you to other support groups in your area. Certainly, they can send helpful materials and information. One such organization is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org).

In addition to attending a support group, I strongly recommend members of the immediate family see a biblical counselor. For a counselor referral, I recommend:

  • American Association of Christian Counselors: http://www.aacc.net/resources/find-a-counselor
  • Focus on the Family: http://www.focusonthefamily.com
  • New Life Ministries: 1-800-639-5433

Finally, reach out to a loving church community near you that truly understands the grace of God.

Whatever you do, do not travel this path of healing alone. It is truly the hardest road imaginable. There is no consolation, no silver lining, to find in the circumstance—so many things have been left unsaid, so many questions left unanswered. Spiritually, comfort may initially be impossible. The comfort of Bible promises may one day be profoundly meaningful to you, but for some time, they may be bitter to hear. Ultimately it is through those promises and the powerful reassurance of the gospel that we strengthen one another. We determine not to give in to despair, and we likewise encourage our loved ones to recommit to the gift of life God has given each of us.

When I think how we naturally experience and conceptualize life in terms of our earthly existence, Moses comes to mind. Because of his disobedience, God prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land. But after all he had already done in obedience, it doesn't seem fair to us. However, we remember that later Moses appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration (Luke 9:29–33).

Undoubtedly, Moses forgot the earthly Promised Land as he enjoyed eternity in the very presence of God. The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus in His glory was witnessed by Peter, John, and James. This is no mere fiction for empty comfort! Moses lives in the presence of the Lord. So it will one day be for everyone who trusts in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:1–9). There in His presence we will find everlasting comfort and healing:

"Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." And He who sits on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." (Revelation 21:3–5)

In this earthly life, our questions may never be answered, but we can ask the Lord to help us through our grief. Although He may not provide the answers we long for, He will strengthen us to bear our terrible load with grace. He is a Shepherd who understands even the sadness of suicide and lives to bear it alongside all who grieve.

  1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation, vol. 3, part 4 (New York: T&T Clark, 1961), 404, accessed on Google Books http://books.google.com/books?id=GT695Y2JwqcC&printsec=frontcover (accessed May 22, 2013).
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 168, accessed on Google Books http://books.google.com/books?id=djM15pn4yOsC&printsec=frontcover (accessed May 22, 2013).

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About the author

brianL

Brian Leicht

Brian Leicht received a master of theology degree in Pastoral Ministries from Dallas Theological Seminary. As director of the Biblical Counseling team at Insight for Living Ministries, he provides biblical guidance to listeners through written and verbal correspondence. He has also pastored in single adult, marriage reconciliation, and missions ministries for 20 years. Brian also holds a master’s degree in Trumpet Performance, and he, his wife Bonnie, and their three sons enjoy participating in worship ministry and local theater.

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