Written by Devon A. Blackwood
How to help those who have lost a loved one to suicide
Everyone can relate to difficult circumstances, especially during these economically tough days when people are losing jobs, homes and retirement savings. Divorce is on the rise, as are addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex. For millions, the emotional stress has become almost too much to bear. Yet among those suffering exists a group that actually believes the crisis is too overwhelming. Unable to cope and devoid of hope, they believe there is only one solution: suicide.
How should pastors respond to those who are suicidal or those who have lost a family member to suicide? Are you equipped with the therapeutic and supportive resources to aide parishioners who are grief-stricken? Part of your role as a pastor is to bridge the gap between emotional despair and spiritual freedom, yet that is rarely an easy task. When it comes to counseling suicidal individuals or grieving families, the work is taxing. Yet even if you lack certification or training in professional counseling, here are some key elements you can apply in helping people recover from the effects of suicide.
1. Use a team approach. You’re not a doctor, and you don’t play one on TV. Use a strength-based approach by tapping into the expertise of professional and trained individuals in the field of counseling or social work. Seek their guidance and incorporate their suggestions in the efforts to aide a grieving family. Ask them about external supports or resources that are best suited to meet the needs of the family. Some families may not be comfortable revealing their feelings to their church family, so respect their right to privacy in seeking outside support.
2. Show empathy. It’s critical that those grieving feel your sincere sensitivity, warmth and understanding. Regardless of the circumstances, refrain from making statements such as, “Didn’t he know it’s selfish to commit suicide?” or “How could she be so dumb?” There’s simply no room for this type of insensitivity. Those left behind are already confused, shocked and dazed. Help them understand that suicidal people generally want to end their suffering and pain, seek to alleviate their unendurable psychological pain, and relinquish their self-perceived reliance on others. Your compassion can help bring a sense of understanding and acceptance.
3. Be there to listen. Silence is golden, and there isn’t a better time to apply this principle than in the crucial days following such a tragic loss. Give the family space and time to work with a professional counselor and sort through the psychological and spiritual impact of their loss. In some cases, they may feel a sense of scrutiny and stigmatization. To the best of your ability, serve as a buffer from harmful remarks. Your presence as an effective listener will be pivotal throughout the entire ordeal.
4. Ask questions. Don’t assume; ask candid and open questions. It’s easy to beat around the bush in a situation like this, but don’t let that happen. Not only will you assist the family in dealing with core issues, the questions you ask will help you ascertain vital information and give you insight into how you might prevent suicide’s devastating impact in the future.
5. Become familiar with suicide risk. You can learn about suicidal signs by attending a seminar or a suicide prevention conference. Many symptoms are easily overlooked, so take the initiative to learn more by researching online or talking to a social worker. There are also suicide hot lines available in virtually every community. Provide contact information for these in the bulletin at your church.
Devon A. Blackwood counsels at Johns Hopkins and Hope Health Systems and is president and CEO of B.W. Affiliates. He is the author of Planted By Water and is writing his third book, My Season.