On World Suicide Prevention Day pastor, news broke that the author and founder christian mental health organisation, Anthem of Hope Jarrid Wilson had taken his own life. His last tweet was a retweet highlighting his organisation’s 24/7 chat feature.
News of his death echoed around social media on the very day attempting to prevent suicide.
It is a stark reminder that the statistics around suicide represent real people, real families and real communities devastated when someone takes their own life.
Every death by suicide casts a shadow over the community, as Kay Redfield Jamison so eloquently writes in her study of suicide “Night Falls Fast”.
“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete ”
Living with the story of a loved one which has ended prematurely can feel as hopeless as suicide itself, but the story can continue through the lives of communities and loved ones.
1 Thessalonians exhorts its readers not to grieve without hope – but it doesn’t deny the reality of grieving – rather points us to the bigger story in which death is defeated.
And yet all too often in the wake of suicide, words of comfort and consolation can feel empty. Navigating life in the shadow of suicide is one where grief does not “get better”, but rather there will one day be a time where life grows bigger around the grief. There is no five point plan to grieve the loss of someone to suicide, it is a unfathomable journey which can be made bearable by a loving community.
Confronting the reality of grief is the most important way we can support those who have lost someone to suicide. Rather than wishing Kubler-Ross’ famous stages of grief away (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), it is accepting that healing isn’t linear and neither are the stages. Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose son died in a mountain climbing accident, wrote helpfully about acompanying someone’s journey through grief.
“If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”
As Jesus himself knew, sometimes the greatest comfort we can offer is to weep with the grieving. It was his first response to the death of Lazarus, indeed the shortest verse in the Bible is perhaps one of the most instructive: “Jesus wept”. It demonstrates that the response to grief, our own or someone else’s is not to fill silences with platitudes, but to weep (metaphorically or literally) alongside.
On a practical level, it is not the time to debate the ethics of suicide, or to question whether suicide in the unforgivable sin (it’s not), but a time to offer ourselves in service and to seek professional counsel, making sure it is available to as many people as possible.
As a church or youth group facing the suicide of someone close, the starting point in our response has to be one of lament. To pray with the scriptures and allow the Spirit to translate wordless groans as promised Romans 8:26. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
Encouraging honesty with one another and with God can be healing, recognising that raging before God is not sinful, but the relationship between Father and Child, knowing that we are safe and loved enough to be able to express our emotions. It might be useful to utilise the Psalms as a starting point to our prayers, others may use art, music or physical activity to express their grief to God.
Silence is suicide’s greatest weapon – and so speaking about what has happened and where hope can be found is our greatest weapon as we pick up our pens to write our next chapter which may be under the shadow of suicide, but can also blaze with the unfathomable hope of God who has walked through the deepest despair through Jesus and who promises never to leave or forsake His children.
Jarrid Wilson’s wife Juli wrote in her tribute to her late husband:
“Suicide and depression fed you the worst lies, but you knew the truth of Jesus…Suicide doesn’t get the last word. I won’t let it. You always said “Hope Gets the last word. Jesus gets the last word”.
Let us be the people who give Jesus and hope the last word, even when we have to speak of suicide.