Using the S word
The world reacted in shock when actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life in 2014. In reality, suicide kills one person every 40 seconds, yet it is rarely addressed in church. It’s time we broke the silence, says Will van der Hart.
I collected all the medications I was on, including others in the bathroom cabinet, and overdosed on a large quantity of medication and alcohol. I told nobody. I just wanted to be away from the world.’
In 2010, Christian health care worker Tim James nearly became the 5,609th person to commit suicide in the UK that year. Thankfully, he was resuscitated after his wife found him unconscious at their family home.
Statistical suicide trends place Tim in a high-risk category, not just because he has struggled with depressive illness, but simply because he is male. While the number of annual suicides among the UK’s female population halved to 1,391 between 1981 and 2012, the number of men committing suicide each year increased during that period. In 2012, almost 4,600 men took their own lives.
The Department of Health’s 2014 Statistical Update on Suicide stated: ‘The majority of suicides continue to occur in adult males, accounting for approximately three-quarters of all suicides (77%).’ Recent high-profile suicides among gifted and successful men such as Welsh footballer and coach Gary Speed in 2011, and actor Robin Williams in 2014, serve to highlight this tragic trend.
AN UNSPOKEN KILLER
Not cancer, not heart disease, not motor accidents: suicide is the greatest cause of death among men aged 20-49 in England and Wales. Yet how often do we hear about suicide in church? How often do we discuss suicide in our home groups? Church leaders: when did you last preach a sermon that addressed suicide?
Even when suicide is the cause of death, this is rarely acknowledged at the funeral.
Until 1882 it was illegal to bury a victim of suicide in the church graveyard, and Anglican Canon Law (B38) still formally stipulates that the approved burial service should not be used in the case of a person ‘…being of sound mind have laid violent hands upon himself…’ (although a motion to change this was recently submitted to the General Synod). Of course, today’s clergy would never withhold an appropriate funeral service, but these anomalies reveal a history of
conflicting attitudes towards suicide.
Six years ago I had the privilege of marrying a young couple who were very involved in the student ministry I was running. Henry’s father (surname withheld), a Christian, committed suicide just three months after his son’s wedding. Although Henry describes his experience of church in the aftermath as largely positive, he says: ‘It was clear that people do not know what to say or do in situations where suicide is involved. Suicide is not like other ways of dying.’
Photographer Arwyn Bailey, who was a member of my Harrow parish when his brother committed suicide, agrees. ‘In this situation, as with many circumstances of death, folk just do not know what to say,’ he shares. ‘In my experience, it is better to say something and risk the words.’
RISK THE WORDS
Arwyn’s challenge to ‘risk the words’ captures the essence of our struggle with suicide. It remains a silent killer, shrouded in shame, denial and superstition, as if simply whispering its name will increase its power.
Tim says: ‘I know that church pastoral staff members did go to hospitals and visit the sick, but not me in the mental health ward. When I returned to church, people gave me excuses like, “We didn’t want to overwhelm you”.
‘One person told me they were too busy with a ministry event. Another said, “I couldn’t visit you as it was too difficult for me personally.”’
The reality is that if we are unable to talk about emotional distress in the normal flow of life, what hope is there that we will be able to offer meaningful support to those who are suicide survivors, or those who are left behind in the aftermath?
My first ‘sermon for suicide’ was written for a young woman I had become friends with who lived in my parish in Harrow. Her father called our office on Christmas Eve, just moments before the start of our bright and cheery family carol service, to tell us the tragic news.
Dearly loved by many in our congregation, the loss of this precious young life was devastating. It pushed me to ‘risk the words’, so that somehow I could give a voice to our shared suffering. What surprised me as I prepared to speak at her memorial service was that, while I might formerly have been silent about suicide, the Bible most definitely wasn’t.
A WAY OUT FOR THE WEAK?
One of the shame-based myths about suicide is that only weak people consider it to be a way out. This belief often inhibits those in distress, (especially men) from acknowledging their suicidal feelings at an early stage.
It is also a lie. The Bible records suicidal ideation in the ultimate strong man: Moses. In Numbers 11:14, he laments the depth of his hopelessness in the face of the demands of the people of Israel. ‘…The burden is too heavy for me,’ he says. In verse 15, we read: ‘If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me…’
Paul also contemplates whether it is better to live or die. In Philippians 1:20-26 he is hard-pressed to decide between the two: ‘Having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you...yet what I shall choose I cannot tell.’
There are many strong and successful people, full of faith in Christ, who struggle with suicidal thoughts and ideas. It is time we stopped propagating the myth that suicide is the disease of the weak, and instead acknowledge that, as Jeff Lucas says: ‘There are no strong people.’
THE COMPARISON MYTH
Suicide also preys on the comparison myth that ‘in the light of your success, I am a failure’. The increase in male suicide in the UK correlates with harder cultural definitions of success and failure. It is also noteworthy that the highest-risk season, mid-life, is also the time at which cultural position can be most easily measured. Elijah’s prayer in 1 Kings 19:4 suggests that comparison is the fuel for his suicidal ideas: ‘I have had enough, Lord…Take my life; I am no better
than my ancestors.’
The gospel has the power to release us from the comparison myth. As DT Niles famously said: ‘Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.’ At the same time, we have to work to ensure that the Church embodies this liberation and does not create a social comparison myth of its own. Surely this requires greater vulnerability among priests and leaders about their own struggles and weaknesses?
I KNOW OF NO GRIEF MORE POWERFUL THAN THAT ELICITED BY SUICIDE
Henry says: ‘As Christians, we love to pretend and give the illusion that everything is ok and that having true faith will mean that nothing can impact us. But let’s be real; life can be messy at times and a church that embraces changing lives and circumstances is a place people will want to go to.’
Until 1961, suicide was a criminal act in the UK. Some even considered suicide an unforgivable sin. This is one of the most painful assumptions for those who are left behind. It is also one that continues to spiritually stigmatise the issue and its causal factors. Put simply, there is no theological credit to this idea.
To suggest that a Christian who commits suicide is destined for hell is to deny the sufficiency of Christ (Colossians 2:13-14). There is no sin that cannot be absolved by his blood (and that is before we even consider whether a suicidal person has the capacity to make an objective decision). More than that, the rationale that people who die by suicide are condemned because they are unable to repent and confess applies to all other unconfessed sins in a Christian’s life.
It would mean that anyone whose last living act is not confession is destined for hell: the elder who was using his mobile phone before causing a fatal crash; the businesswoman who lied about the figures before having a heart attack in the lift; or the child who was so angry about his suffering that he swore at God before a surgery that went wrong.
And we are mistaken if we make the assumption that it was Judas’ suicide (Matthew 27:5) that sealed his eternal fate. It wasn’t his means of death that was the locus of the judgement made against him (Matthew 26:24), but rather his betrayal.
STANDING WITH SURVIVORS
Christians get stirred up by all sorts of justice issues – from homelessness and trafficking to debt and adoption – yet it seems that we have little to say about an issue that kills a person every 40 seconds. Suicide is not the choice of the weak or selfish, it is an act of desperation in people who are unwell and need our assertive love and intervention.
In Acts 16:27, the Philippian jailer ‘drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped’. Paul did not say: ‘It’s your choice, you selfish man!’ Instead, he said: ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here’ (v28).
If we are to start impacting suicide rates, and if we are to help those like Arwyn and Henry who are left behind in the aftermath, we need to start saying: ‘We are all here!’ Being present with those experiencing suicidal feelings means creating an emotionally honest culture and putting mental health on the agenda. ‘We need people of the Church to be trained to be mental health first aiders,’ Tim says.
WHILE I MIGHT FORMERLY HAVE BEEN SILENT ABOUT SUICIDE, THE BIBLE MOST DEFINITELY IS NOT
Becoming more open about emotional health does not mean that you become equipped to automatically spot suicidal intentions. However, the benefits are undeniable. Just by encouraging open conversation about emotional health we create a culture of permission that can lead to early disclosure of emotional distress or suicidal feelings, as well as improving the general health of the broader congregation. This is why in the NHS’ Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing, ‘connecting’ tops the list.
GRIEVING THROUGH LIFE
Through my pastoral ministry, I know of no grief more powerful than that elicited by suicide. Arwyn recounts: ‘I recall sitting at my elderly mother’s feet in her care home, telling her that her eldest child had taken his own life. I have never heard such an anguished cry come out of anyone’s mouth.’ Recovery from the grief of losing a loved one through suicide takes years, and even then there remains a sensitivity that never seems to leave.
Many people, including Arwyn, suffer from suicidal feelings of their own in response to the loss they are processing. One of the greatest loves we can show to another human being is to give them the permission to grieve.
On the first anniversary of Andrew Warren’s suicide (son of US pastors Rick and Kay Warren), Kay posted on her Facebook page: ‘Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok.’
Kay referenced what she saw as the subtle encouragement to ‘move on’ or ‘get back to normal’ from other Christians and responded: ‘I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again.’
The post received 50,000 likes and 11,000 comments, mainly from people who wanted to remember someone they had lost. Healthy churches mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15), however long it takes.
THIS PRECIOUS FRAGILE LIFE
Our near obsession with ‘victory’ in church carries with it the grave danger that painful emotions feel prohibited.
Emotions are neither good nor bad; they simply are. Feeling depressed or even suicidal is not an act of wilful disobedience against God or the teachings of the Church. Rachael Costa from suicide prevention charity ThinkTwice says: ‘Suicide is never “meant to be”; it’s not right in that sense...But it’s something to be grieved and challenged and understood, rather than condemned.’
The bodies of those who have died through suicide might now rest within our churchyard walls, but has our compassion extended any further? Suicide may be an enemy to keep at the gates, but our silence won’t drive it away.
It is about time we started using the ‘S’ word in church. If we do, life and even death could be transformed. ‘He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us (2 Corinthians 1:4, MSG).
Helpful ways to console someone bereaved by suicide:
1. Be present but don’t force the conversation
2. Listen when they want to speak
3. Allow them to express their emotions
4. Be practically helpful with cleaning, making meals, etc
5. Welcome conversations about the person who has died
6. Don’t try to ‘move them on’
7. Avoid platitudes and spiritualising
8. Be honest when you don’t know what to say
9. Defend their space against unwelcome intrusion
10. Support them towards further help if they need it