Facing Suicide in the Family and Church

By Crystal Horning

When I received the call that my sister had made a suicide attempt and was in the hospital, I was numb. I remember my thoughts: “Not again!” “Why?” “How can I help, being so far away?” “Do I really want to help?” “Do I care?” “How are my parents doing?”

The claws of suicide are not new to me. They run through my life like roots that won't let go. Family and friends have battled this enemy. Some people have lost the battle. Some have merely survived one battle only to be confronted with another. Others have moved beyond the battle, recognizing that the struggle with suicide has been a gift of life.

Even within the church, members may take their own lives, leaving those who remain to face the questions of why and how this can happen in a community of faith.

Suicide is not new to people of faith, as shown in scripture. In the Old Testament King Saul (1 Samuel 1-13, 2 Samuel 1:1-16) falls upon his sword rather than being taken captive by the Philistines. Samson, the blind giant (Judges 16:8-31), pulls down the columns of the Temple killing himself and others. Ahithophel, (2 Samuel 17:23) counselor to David and Absalom, hung himself after his advice was rejected. Zimri, (1 Kings 16:18-19) king of Israel for seven days, was afraid of falling into the enemy’s hands so he burned his palace down around him. Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54), son of Gideon, commanded his aid to kill him after a woman mortally wounded him.

The only direct account of suicide in the New Testament is the story of Judas (Matthew 27:3-5). When Judas saw what happened to Jesus as a result of his betrayal, he went and hanged himself.

The act of suicide is wrong, but the Christian who commits suicide is not condemned to hell, because we are saved by grace. Christians are sinners and commit acts of sin. They overeat, overwork, cheat, exceed the speed limit, wish harm to someone, gossip, etc., but if a Christian died today after just committing a sinful act, this individual would not be condemned to hell. The Christian life is a series of steps forward and slips back. The ideal is complete and perfect deliverance. The reality is “scales on the eyes and thorns in the flesh.” Only Christ's sufficient grace sees us through. The sufficient grace is evident in John 10:27-29 which states, “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.”

Humans struggle with living. Christians struggle with living. For people struggling with suicide, the “scales and thorns” so hide the grace of Christ that their reality becomes lost confidence and deep despair. When life is unbearable, and there seems to be no hope of deliverance, death, even self-inflicted, can be seen as liberation.

Suicide is becoming a growing issue and a foreseeable possibility for many individuals and families. Even within the church, members take their own lives, leaving those who remain to face the questions of why and how this can happen in a community of faith.

As a resource to families and churches, this article provides a basic overview of suicide, focusing on warning signs and practical ways to respond to someone who is considering suicide. More information on the topic can be found on ADNet's Suicide page.

Background

The U.S. Surgeon General's 1999 report on suicide states that “suicide is a serious public health problem.” Suicide has been the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S. Up to 90 percent of suicide attempts are linked to mental illness. Each year, a half million people require emergency room treatment as a result of suicide attempts. On the average, 85 Americans die from suicide each day. Firearms are the most common means of suicide among men and women.

The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention states that a person commits suicide about every 15 minutes in the U.S.; there are 4 male suicides for every one female; the suicide rate for children ages 10-14 has more than doubled over the last 15 years; up to 90% of all people who commit suicide suffer from a major mental illness; although most gun owners reportedly keep a firearm in their home for “protection” or “self defense,” 83% of gun related deaths in these homes are the result of a suicide, often by someone other than the gun owner.

These statistics paint a grim picture of how we have learned to cope with life's trials and struggles. Suicide is an option, and for some, it is the only option. Scripture shows us that persons such as Judas thought that suicide was the only way to atone for his shortcomings. Jonah wanted to die even when the Lord used him to do His work.

So what can we do? How can we respond?

Risk Factors

The Surgeon General's 1999 “Call to Action to Prevent Suicide” states that it is important to understand risk factors. Understanding helps dispel the myths that suicide is a random act which results from stress alone. Some persons are particularly vulnerable to suicide and suicidal self-injury because they have more than one mental disorder present, such as depression with alcohol abuse.

Risk factors include:

  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Mental disorders -- particularly mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.
  • Co-occurring mental and alcohol and substance abuse disorders 
  • Family history of suicide 
  • Hopelessness 
  • Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies 
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment 
  • Relational, social, work, or financial loss 
  • Physical illness 
  • Easy access to lethal methods, especially guns 
  • Unwillingness to seek help because of stigma attached to mental and substance abuse disorders and/or suicidal thoughts 
  • Influence of significant people- family members, celebrities, peers who have died by suicide - both through direct personal contact or inappropriate media representations 
  • Cultural and religious beliefs - for instance, the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma 
  • Local epidemics of suicide that have a contagious influence 
  • Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people

Responding to suicide threats and attempts

Now that you are more informed, what can you do to respond? Here are some practical suggestions to show your support.

  • Demonstrate care for the suicidal person - most persons who are suicidal want to live, but may need to know that somebody else wants them to live. They often think nobody cares.
  • Ask direct questions. Find out if the person has a specific plan for suicide. Determine, if you can, what method of suicide is being considered. Express concrete examples where you believe the person is close to suicide.
  • Acknowledge person's feelings. Be unshockable. Listen reflectively. Be empathetic, not judgmental. Do not relieve the person of responsibility for his/her actions.
  • Pray for that person and with that person if possible. - People who are suicidal often feel isolated from people and from God.
  • Avoid judging or countering what the person says. Statements like “suicide is a sin,” “suicide is bad,” or “people who kill themselves go to hell” will cause the person to shut down. Stress that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, reminding the person that there is help.
  • Don't think that by mentioning suicide, you are putting the thought in that person's head. Persons are usually relieved when the subject of suicide is discussed directly.
  • Eliminate the means. Keeping a gun, drugs or other means of suicide close at hand only encourages more suicidal thoughts. Make sure these items are not easily accessible.
  • Don't promise confidentiality or secrecy. You may need to speak to the person's doctor, 911, pastor or family in order to protect the person from him/herself. Promise that you will try to get help.

A congregation can also respond to the issue of suicide within its walls or community:

  • Locate support groups in your community. Support groups such as one for survivors of suicide, or mental health centers offer one for those suffering from depression.
  • Make resources on suicide and depression available in your church library.
  • Invite a professional to your church to talk about suicide.
  • Invite an individual to share what it has been like to struggle with suicide (during Sunday school, small groups, and evening service). Invite persons to share who have lost loved ones to suicide.

There are no easy answers to understanding suicide. But if we are honest with ourselves, many of us struggle with the question of “Why am I here on this earth?” “What difference am I really making?” “People would be better off without me.” “Does Jesus really care about me?” Remember these internal thoughts when responding to people with suicidal thoughts and supporting their loved ones.

A final word

If a friend or family members completes a suicide, don't own the tragedy as your own personal failure. Remember that Jesus did not stop Judas from taking his life nor did Jesus blame himself for Judas' decision. Jesus made a clear effort to reach out to Judas but Judas still made the final decision.

If a person is determined to take his or her own life, you can't stop them. However, you can educate yourself about suicide as well as pray for and support those confronted with suicide and their family members.

 

Crystal Horning wrote this article when she was consultant on mental illness for Mennonite Mutual Aid (now Everence). Resources included in the original article have been updated and posted on our Suicide page.

 Learn more

    • Ideas for working together in the congregation to create an environment that supports success for children and youth with mental health challenges
    • Learn more about depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental health disorders.
    • Setting healthy boundaries enables us to persist in sharing Christ's love through difficult circumstances.
    • Resources on planning a congregational mental health education series.
    • Learn about understanding and supporting people who live with various mental illnesses
    • Resources for congregations on understanding and supporting trauma healing.
    • Learn about preventing suicide and responding with caring after a suicide has occurred.

 Opening doors

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