Four questions about suicide

What do you say at the funeral of someone who has committed suicide?

Gladly, I’m no expert on this. But I did have a number of unrelated suicides over a two year period recently and thought I might share a few things I learnt.

Suicide is so hard for the family. Grieving the loss of a loved one is exhausting. Double that when it is a sudden death. Triple it when it is a suicide. Unlike most other funerals, people can come with a strange mix of shock, anger, shame, and guilt. One moment life seems normal, the next they are busy organizing a funeral, and speaking with doctors and the police and the minister... and figuring out sandwiches for the wake. 

Sometimes it isn’t clear if there has been a suicide - at other times there is no doubt. Where the family knows it is a suicide I’ve encouraged them to let me say this at the funeral and not to keep it hidden.

I’ve found these four questions arise: why did it happen? is this my fault? is it wrong to feel angry? and is forgiveness possible? I’ve tried to answer each of them with the family and, where appropriate, to speak at the funeral on them.

The first question is why? Why did this happen? Why like this? And perhaps even - why did God allow it to happen?

It is an agonizing and inevitable question. The answer is almost always - we don’t know.

Job is the most famous suffer-er in the bible. He loses his family, his riches, his health, basically everything he has. He cries out to God for answers in his grief. And although he was satisfied to trust in a very great God, he was never - never - told the reasons for his losses. It is only his religious friends that give stupid answers to explain Job’s suffering. It would be presumptuous and trite and a false comfort for us to rush in and give answers that God does not give us.

That’s not to say that everything is mysterious and that God is silent and distant. In Deuteronomy 29:29 it says ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever’. What this means is that while we can remain in the dark about many things we can also be certain about other things. We can be certain that God will bring all things together with justice and mercy and compassion.

The second question is - is this my fault?  Am I to blame for what has happened?

We can comfort people at this point and take away false guilt. We can’t know what was going through the mind of the person who has died. It is natural for us to blame ourselves and to think that if we had acted differently or said something, then this would not have happened.

It is good and right to tell people that they mustn’t think that their action (or inaction) was the cause of this death. As much as you may be tempted to feel guilty, you mustn’t hold yourself responsible for someone else’s action.

The third question is - Is it wrong to feel angry?

No. It is normal. It is understandable. You’ve got the right perspective on events and you can see this was no solution. It is not sinful to be angry at this. Your anger is also proof of your love.

The last question - Is forgiveness possible?

This is the elephant in the room. Some families are unsure if they would be able to have a Christian funeral or for it to take place in a church.

For some Christian believers, particularly those with a Roman Catholic upbringing, there is a conviction that suicide is an unforgivable sin.  The logic is that this must be a sin that does not allow the possibility of confession and therefore forgiveness. I want to say that conviction, however sincerely it may be felt, is just wrong. The bible is very clear that our forgiveness does not depend on us confessing every sin we ever commit and asking God to forgive us for it. That would be a full time job. There would be sins we’d do that we wouldn’t realise were sins. There’d be sins we knew were sins we’d forget to. The bible never encourages us to anxiously keep trying to confess enough so that God is forced to forgive us. Instead we are encouraged to trust ourselves to the one who is gracious and compassionate. Forgiveness does not depend on my worthiness. If it did, it wouldn’t be forgiveness. All we need to contribute is the sin. God is the one who graciously forgives. What counts is trusting him to do that, and not trying to achieve it by ourselves.

Forgiveness is only possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The one who came to save sinners. The one who dies in the place of sinners. God will do what is right.

So the church must not just be open for those who suicide but embrace their families with the message of grace. I clearly remember one strong silent man, fearful but expecting that his son could not be buried in a church. As we spoke more and he came to understand God’s grace, he broke down in tears. 

So the funeral of someone who dies by suicide needs to hear the same assurance as any other funeral - you can confidently leave your loved one in God’s hands. He is able to comfort. We need to turn to Jesus for real forgiveness and a living hope. Like any other funeral, it is a reminder of our mortality. And while it catches us by surprise, it doesn’t catch out God who numbers each of our days before they come into being (Psalm 139:16.)

Lifeline Help Line 13 11 14

Feature photo: vintagedept

 

The Rev Michael Kellahan has experienced the highs and lows of church planting. He also understands ministering in a less well-resourced context, and is currently rector of St Barnabas, Roseville East in Sydney's north.

Comments (12)

Please sign in or register to add a comment.

  • Sandy Grant
    July 25, 12 - 8:57am
    Michael, thanks for writing on a difficult topic. Sometimes we go for ages without it coming up in our circles. Then suddenly it's there all dark and confusing. I appreciated your thoughts on the last question in particular.

    I once had the funeral of a person who suicided in a dramatic way. The sibling she'd led to Christ was the person who tried to rescue her from that, but could not. She struggled with deep depression, following harassment in the workplace, although most of us knew nothing about this.

    But it was clear that when in her right mind, she trusted Christ. It seems to me that God judges us according to when we are in our right mind, not in the throes of deep mental illness. I acknowledged the depression, buried her as a believer, at the same time as saying her choice at the end was not helpful to anyone.

    (I think there is an analogy with dementia. People sometimes worry that their Christian relative or friend, who strongly expressed trust in Christ before their mental deterioration, sometimes now says terrible and even blasphemous things about God in their demented state. I am sure God understands this is not their settled conviction.)

    Your article reminds me of an excellent edition of The Briefing way back in 1997, which included this article on Depression and Suicide.
  • Michael Kellahan
    July 25, 12 - 11:49am
    With dementia I've always found comfort that it is God's knowledge & remembrance of us, and not vica versa, that is our grounds for certain hope and confident assurance
  • Stephen Davis
    July 25, 12 - 12:32pm
    An excellent article Michael, very well written!
  • Richard Blight
    July 25, 12 - 3:31pm
    Thanks for these thoughts Michael.

    It is also worth considering - especially with a young person's suicide - that there may be others in the room who might be thinking about doing the same thing. I think it is worth addressing them directly - to say that this isn't the way out (for all the reasons you outline), and you would love to talk to them and make sure they are getting the help they need.
  • Michael Kellahan
    July 25, 12 - 3:37pm
    Richard - yes, agree completely
  • Stephen Davis
    July 25, 12 - 3:37pm
    Very good point Richard!
  • Philip Griffin
    July 25, 12 - 4:32pm
    When I was at Lithgow, there were 6 suicides in 3 months, and I took the funeral for 4 of them (in Lithgow most funerals went through churches as there was no crematorium nearby) which led to the formation of a community based suicide prevention organisation. I was appointed the chair. I mention this only to suggest that sometimes the community at large will notice our loving support for the families who have suffered the loss of a loved one through suicide. My involvement with this group really helped to demolish the idea that I would not bury a person who committed suicide.

    I join with those above in thanking you, Michael for writing so helpfully about this issue.
  • Michael Kellahan
    July 25, 12 - 5:06pm
    4 funerals like that in 3 months would be personally draining too - impossible to plan around things like this in advance but also worth debriefing etc after.
  • Michael Kellahan
    July 25, 12 - 5:09pm
    I just noticed the breaking news story links this article http://www.news.com.au/national/suicide-data-flaky-and-bordering-on-spin/story-fncynjr2-1226434279511 which says suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15-34 and that the stigma of suicide leads to under-reporting
  • Ernest Burgess
    July 25, 12 - 7:43pm
    Hi Michael, Early this year I attended a day seminar on Supporting the suicide bereaved run by a Greg Roberts from the Australian Centre for grief and bereavement, not long after I attended Dave Mansfield rang a blog on a friend who had suicided. I sent Dave a copy of the handout and my scribbled notations I would be pleased to send you a copy if you want them to keep as a reference.
  • Michael Kellahan
    July 25, 12 - 9:17pm
    Thanks Ernest - perhaps others could private message you also?
  • Steve Kryger
    July 27, 12 - 12:47pm
    Thanks Michael.

    I recently got 'The Hardest Sermons You'll Ever Have To Preach'.

    It's got a section on suicide, with examples of sermons preached in a variety of scenarios.