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Help for those Grieving a Suicide

How do you come to terms with the suicide of someone you know and love?
By David Powlison


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Someone you know has committed suicide. And now you are facing a very hard, dark reality. You feel rocked, hurt, betrayed, and confused. You are experiencing a whole range of emotions and reactions, and each one is painful.

Your initial reaction was probably shock and disbelief. Now you are trying to make sense of what happened. How do you come to terms with the suicide of someone you know? Can you make any sense out of such a senseless act? And how does knowing God make a difference as you grieve?

What you are facing

You are experiencing a variety of emotions and feelings. First, you are feeling the natural response of deep grief. Someone you know and love has died. So you feel the emptiness and sorrow of loss. That alone is extremely hard. But suicide adds many other painful reactions to the heartache that death brings. You are probably experiencing one or more of these emotions:

  • Guilt and responsibility: It's normal to wonder, "Could I have done something?" and "If only I'd done this." Or, "Why didn't I notice that?"
  • Anger and betrayal: Suicide is a loveless act. By definition, it cuts other people off. So it's likely that you are experiencing feelings of anger and betrayal.
  • Fear of doing the same thing: Someone else's suicide can make you fearful that you might do the same thing. You might be afraid that you also are at risk for suicidal behavior.

You are facing unanswerable questions. Everyone who is touched by suicide wrestles with "Why? Why did this happen? Why did it have to come to this? Why couldn't it have been stopped?" But no matter what reasons there were for the suicide, in the end, it can never be completely explained. You are left with questions that can't be answered because the person who committed suicide is gone. (For more help in understanding the reasons for suicidal thoughts and actions see the article, "Help for the Suicidal."

Facing suicide by faith

How can you deal with these painful reactions? There is no quick and easy solution to what you are facing. And God, in the Bible, doesn't offer you platitudes and pat answers. He gives you something much better—in response to your sorrow, your emotions, and your unanswered questions, he gives you Himself.

You will never have an answer that ties up all the loose ends. You will never feel good about it or "get over it" in the sense that it won't hurt anymore. You will live with an ongoing sense that "I don't understand, and it hurts every time I remember." The suicide of someone you love brings great, ongoing weakness into your life.

C. S. Lewis captured this condition of our "comprehensive weakness" when he wrote in his book, The Four Loves, that our need for God is revealed in our "growing awareness that our whole being by its very nature is one vast need, incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose." Experiencing the suicide of someone you love will put you in a place where all you can do is cry out to God, the only one who can untie the things that are all knotted together and the only one who can tie up things that are dangling loose.

You have to say, along with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69, ESV). Where else will you go? Who is bigger than the things in your heart that are tied in knots or dangling loose? After all the struggling to make sense, after all the sickening grief at the finality of the act, after all the anger at the betrayal, at a fundamental level you must be able to say, "I do not understand this and I must leave it with you, my God and my King."

Faith grows in weakness

God is not naive to the realities that drive someone to suicide. Nor is he naive to your struggle with grief and pain. It is in the middle of these hard realities that your faith and trust in God grows. God explains it this way, "Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

Jeremiah is talking about living in a desert where life is hard and brutal. The desert in the Bible is the place of death— there is no water, no food, and it's full of poisonous snakes. It is the place where your faith is tested. Do you feel that your grief and confusion has brought you into a spiritual desert? As you deepen your trust in God, your desert will become the place where you find God's living water of hope, mercy, and blessing.

God's living water is His presence. He says, "I am with you." He is the only one who can reassure your heart. Even though you are feeling alone and abandoned, He is with you. His presence means that even in the darkest of circumstances (including the suicide of someone you love), you can be unafraid.

Let me say it again. He is with you. He is with you. He is with you. He is with you. Because God is with you, you will be fruitful, even in the aftermath of heartache and perplexity. There is no magic pill that will make the memory of your loved one's suicide lose its pain. You must constantly remind yourself that the eternal God is with you, and He is bigger than death. He promises that one day death will be ended and all sorrow, sighing, and tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4).

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

The actions of those around us influence us for good and for bad. You might say that we counsel each other with our actions. When someone you love commits suicide, you are receiving some very bad counsel. The counsel that comes from a suicide is that the way to deal with disappointment and hardship is to isolate yourself. Suicide is an act done in isolation that leads to complete isolation. You need to resist this counsel by clinging to God, connecting with other people, and living in a way that is fruitful.

Cling to Jesus. The first thing you must do is take refuge in the God who promises steadfast love. Taking refuge in Him means facing the dark reality of suicide, but not staying stuck in all of your negative reactions—the "Why" questions, the sense of abandonment, or even thinking that suicide is a viable way to deal with your pain. The way out of these bad reactions is to find someone who is bigger than what has happened. And that someone can only be your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Suicide brings suffering and difficulty into the lives of everyone who is touched by it. But God has come, in the person of Jesus, and entered into the difficulties, the sufferings, the sins, and the disappointments of this life. Jesus bore your weakness. He was tempted as you are, and He triumphed. Now He comes near to you with promises of mercy and goodness. He who did not spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also give us all things along with Him (Romans 8:31, 32)?

Read through Romans 8. Notice that Paul doesn't say that we won't have hardships. Instead he acknowledges that there will be tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, and danger. But he does promise that none of these things "will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). Cling to this promise. Cling to Jesus. Invite Him into your struggles, your sorrows, and your questions. Fill your mind with His words.

Read the Gospel of Luke, a biography of Jesus' life. Luke isn't about famous, smart, successful people, it's about little people. Right now you are a "little" person—you are going through something far bigger than your ability to control or fix. Read Luke, and see Jesus in action. Notice how He treats people with wisdom, love and tenderness. Take to heart that this is also the way He treats you. Read through the Psalms and use them to pour out your heart to Jesus. Ask Him to be with you through this time. He promises to answer when you call and to never leave you or forsake you (Psalm 86:7; Hebrews 13:5).

Connect with people. Another thing you must do is connect honestly with others. Don't try to handle this apart from your community. Gather with those who have been affected by the suicide also. Talk with each other about your loved one. Don't avoid talking about the suicide. Being together at the funeral and afterwards will bind you to one another in shared sorrow. This coming together to grieve and remember is the opposite of the message of isolation and aloneness that suicide speaks.

The tragedy of suicide doesn't have to tear relationships apart. Family can pull together more tightly, and friendships can become deeper as you cling to each other in the face of how hard life is.

Don't try to go down the dark path of life's tough realities without clinging to others. These relationships will always remind you of the empty chair—the person who's not here. But genuine human community is one of God's greatest weapons against the isolation, despair, and implicit hostility that are a part of a suicidal act. Pray with and for each other as you grieve.

Live fruitfully. It's important at this time that you don't neglect the basics of life. Your food might not have much taste, but you need to eat. You may not feel like getting out of bed in the morning, but you need to get up and get dressed. You might have no interest in your work, but you need to keep going. Give yourself a week or so, but then get back to normal living. Doing these things makes the statement that life continues despite what has happened.

As you live in community with God and with others, and reestablish normal living patterns, you will notice, over time, that you have the ability to love other people more consistently and deeply. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian church, said that God "comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Nothing will bring your friend, relative, or coworker back. But you can become a wiser friend, more willing to take a risk and step in when you see something that's hard. God will use what you are going through now to give you wisdom and tenderness as you reach out to others who are suffering. God's comfort will flow through you so that you can comfort others in their trouble.

Your loved one chose, in his or her last act on earth, to live destructively. In response, it is important to ask God to help you live fruitfully. Living fruitfully means taking refuge in God, loving others, and running the race the whole way through. It means living each day knowing that your life belongs to Jesus and because of that continuing to take small steps forward even when life is overwhelming. As you do this you are facing the darkness that suicide brings and responding by living in the light and hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

FREQUENTLY-ASKED QUESTIONS

My friend committed suicide a month ago. If God is in charge of the world, why didn't He stop my friend?

Edith Schaeffer used a tapestry metaphor to talk about the difficult things in life. She pointed out that the front of the tapestry was a beautiful pattern, but the back was a mass of knots and tangled threads. Your friend's suicide is one of the tangled and knotted areas at the back of the tapestry. No matter how long you look at it, you won't be able to make sense out of it. This is one of life's broken, dark experiences in which you must find that the promises and presence of your God and Savior are real. In the midst of this darkness, God calls you to live a life where faith and love triumph.

One day, you will see the front side of the tapestry, instead of just the tangled back. One part of the beauty of the tapestry will be the way you learn to know God and love others by going through difficult experiences. Is that the whole answer to why God let it happen? No. There are things about His will and His purposes that are beyond us. The Bible says that, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 29:29).

The reasons for your friend's suicide are among "the secret things" that belong to the Lord. But "the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever." God isn't just talking about laws, but His promises, His revelation of himself in Jesus and the Word. What has been revealed is given so you can live. What hasn't been revealed to you is meant to be a secret thing. Instead of trusting in your knowledge, you have to trust in God's love and goodness. This is a lesson you will have to learn and relearn all through your life, not only know as you struggle with your friend's suicide, but through all the ups and downs that life brings. It is your relationship with God—not having all your questions answered—that will bring you peace.

My sister committed suicide. Can she still go to heaven?

This is a natural question for a Christian to ask. Suicide is wrong. It's self-murder, and that is a sin. But it is important to remember that it's not an unpardonable sin. We don't read hearts, so we don't know what went on between your sister and God in her final moments. You can't climb back into your sister's last moments and know what she was thinking about, but you do know for sure that God is just, merciful, and forgiving.

If your sister had faith in Christ, even though her last act on earth was wrong, that doesn't mean she can't be forgiven. God knows hearts—we don't; and He, who is both just and merciful, makes the final decision about heaven and hell.

You need to be willing to live with less than 100 percent closure about the answer to this question. You can only do this as you are certain of God's love. Read through Romans 8 and especially concentrate on verses 31 – 39. They are full of the promise of God's mercy, His presence in Jesus Christ, and the love of God that is unquenchable and indestructible. Fill your mind and heart with the promise of God's love and you will be able to trust Him with your sister's life.

Find more mental and emotional articles

© Copyright 2010 by the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For more help on this topic, read David Powlison's minibook, Grieving a Suicide: Help for the Aftershock, from New Growth Press.

More information about the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, visit www.ccef.org.

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D., is a faculty member and counselor at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) with over thirty years of experience. He has written several books, including The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context; Seeing with New Eyes; and Speaking Truth in Love; and numerous minibooks, including Breaking the Addictive Cycle; Facing Death with Hope; Grieving a Suicide; Healing after Abortion; I’m Exhausted: What to Do When You’re Always Tired; I Just Want to Die: Replacing Suicidal Thoughts with Hope; Life Beyond Your Parents’ Mistakes; Recovering from Child Abuse; Renewing Marital Intimacy; Sexual Addiction: Freedom from Compulsive Behavior; and Sexual Assault: Healing Steps for Victims.



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