Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/30 2018

Praying with People Grieving Loss from Suicide

praying death by suicide4I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;

I am like those who have no help,

5like those forsaken among the dead,

like the slain that lie in the grave,

like those whom you remember no more,

for they are cut off from your hand (Ps 88:4-5).

These poignant verses express some of the pathos both of persons contemplating suicide and people who have lost a loved one to suicide. It is important to recognize that praying with people contemplating suicide is a distinct topic from praying with people grieving loss from suicide. In the former situation, it is essential that the individual involved find help from a qualified and experienced counseling professional, as well as receive spiritual guidance and support. Since most of us are unqualified to assess whether someone is suicidal, it is crucial to learn what questions to ask and what to do if you are at all concerned about someone’s safety and need to guide him or her to appropriate assistance. (For help in doing so, see the organizations listed below.)

Praying with Individuals Grieving Loss from Suicide

Individuals grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide often need help from a qualified and experienced counseling professional, too. And they also need spiritual guidance and support. But the call to pray with someone who has suffered such a loss can be terrifying. What does it mean that a beloved friend or family member has seemingly made a choice against life, has taken action in a way that violates the basic human instinct in favor of self-preservation? A parent has died, rather than persevere to care for a child; a child has ended a life that his or her parents and grandparents cherish far more than their own; a sibling has communicated to brothers and sisters that their shared life experience is not worth sustaining. Those who die by suicide do terrible violence to their bodies; they often die alone and in deep psychic pain. The horror of the event is indescribable. The anguish and guilt experienced by those left behind render them inconsolable. How in the world can you pray with someone who feels, every day, that she has been rejected and forsaken by a loved one and, quite possibly, by God as well, or that he has been flung into the endless depths of a dark well of despair?

It can help to learn something about suicide loss before trying to pray with someone who has experienced it firsthand. It can help to know that experts estimate that 90 percent of deaths by suicide are a consequence of undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illness. Excepting those making considered decisions in response to life-diminishing illnesses, people do not “choose” to die, nor do they choose to hurt or damage those they love. They have not “committed” a crime. People who die by suicide are trying to end intolerable pain.

It can help to know that their loved ones, in addition to being left with the word “Why?” echoing throughout the remainder of their lives, will usually be devastated and immobilized by guilt and shame. They often wonder either why they didn’t do more to help the person they have lost, or how it can be that they didn’t even know the depth of their loved one’s pain, and they are horrified to realize that their loved one, the beneficiary of love and support from others, has “thrown it all away.”

It can help to realize that survivors will bump into the stigma of suicide where they least expect it—a refusal to conduct a funeral, avoidance by acquaintances in the street, intimations that they are to blame. It can help to know they are often angered and hurt by the responses of others.

What NOT to Say About Loss from Suicide

Praying with someone about loss from suicide is not the time for casual platitudes about God’s plan or God’s supposed need for another angel in heaven. It is most especially not a time to try to tell a survivor—someone who has lived through a loved one’s death by suicide—those often misquoted words, “God never gives us more than we can handle” (erroneously based on 1 Corinthians 10:13, which specifically addresses temptation to sin, not endurance of grief). To say in these circumstances that God is implicated in some sort of test of one’s capacity for managing traumatic experiences may result in the suicide survivor’s further dismay and alienation from God. Neither is it the time to say, “I know how you feel,” since (unless you yourself are a survivor) you do not know, nor to say, “I can’t imagine.” The latter comment establishes a barrier between you and someone who already feels isolated from others, and it conveys a sense that what has happened is so awful that you cannot bear to enter into the experience even as a companion.

What to Say About Loss from Suicide

Prayer with a person experiencing loss from suicide is a time to listen, to sit still, and to be present. It is a time to make space for expressions of rage, of agony, of astonishment, and of rejection of faith. It is a time to make it possible for stories to be told about loved ones now gone. “Tell me what your mother is like.” “What is one of your favorite memories?” You might ask someone how he or she imagines the moments after the loved one’s death. You do not have to find those ideas compatible with your own or give a lecture about Christian doctrine—your call is to offer the survivor the gift of attentive listening. It can be difficult to remember that companionship and prayer in silence can be much more effective than words, no matter how eloquent, when the unthinkable has happened. A willingness to stay with someone through the wilderness is of far more significance than the most profound speech made in an attempt to lead someone prematurely into a space of healing.

I have asked a number of suicide survivors what they have found most helpful in prayer. Many of them mention the Psalms, as well as fiction and poetry in which sorrow is articulated and assurances of God’s boundless love are found. For survivors who are tormented by questions of life after death, books containing reassuring depictions of heaven can be helpful. Psalm 88, the only one of the psalms of lament in which there is no articulation of a turning point toward gratitude and hope, can be deeply meaningful to people who wonder whether any passages in the Bible bear witness to their feelings. (It might be noted that, despite conveying despair, Psalm 88 is addressed to God and reflects a dark confidence that God will hear the psalmist’s angry and even sarcastic entreaties.)

Suicide survivors are living the consequences of a loved one’s having reached a point beyond what was tolerable, but the loved one’s arrival at that destination was not the work of God. The scriptural path for survivors of suicide leads, I think, toward Romans 8:38-39 and Revelation 21:4—passages well worth sharing with someone who has known this loss, though even these passages may be too much for a survivor to bear at first. When the immediate experience of catastrophe passes, those left behind encounter the crushing realization that their loved one died with a wearying and excruciating sense of emptiness and separation from God, from love—from however their loved one might have characterized the Holy in his or her life. Our hope can be that, someday, the survivor(s) of suicide with whom you are praying will gain confidence in the assurance that, appearances to the contrary, there can be no separation from the love of God—that there will, indeed, be a New Creation in which God will wipe away every tear, and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” We cannot force fractured spirits into such a conviction, but we can be present to them in the knowledge that our simple availability will be a prayer in itself.

A possible prayer using words might be as follows:

O God, from whom nothing can ever separate us, my dearest (name of suicide survivor) is in your hands. Surround him/her with the light of your love and with assurances of love and safety. Help him/her to find a way to live again and to know that, even in the most desperate of situations and most disastrous of events, you are there—unseen and unheard, perhaps, but nevertheless present and active in our broken and hurting lives. These requests I make in the name of the One who came that we might live anew. Amen.

Further Resources

Poetry Resources for Prayer

  • Mary Oliver, “Love Sorrow” (in Red Bird [Boston: Beacon, 2009]), and “Heavy” (in Thirst [Boston: Beacon, 2007])
  • Billy Collins, “The Wires of the Night” (in Questions about Angels [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999])
  • Emily Dickinson, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” (in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, ed. Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998, 1999)

Organizations with help for those who are suicidal and for those who have experienced suicide loss:

The Rev. Mary Robin Craig ’10 earned her master of divinity degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She now serves as a pastor, spiritual director, and suicide prevention/mental health advocate.

This article also appears in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary complimentary downloadable resource “Praying with Others through the Challenges of Life.” This multi-part resource is written by faculty, program directors, and alums of Pittsburgh Seminary. Topics range from dying without knowing God to injustice to pregnancy issues, anger and violence, and anxiety. Download the prayer resource now.

 

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7/31 2018

Trusting God in the Middle of Uncertainty

Hurricane Maria damage

Photo credit: Roosevelt Skerrit  https://www.flickr.com/photos/rooseveltskerrit/albums/72157686922251424, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62690583

 

I live in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane María struck our island as the strongest cyclone in modern history with winds up to 175 mph and rainfall measuring up to 37.9 inches. My mother is the executive director of El Guacio, Puerto Rico’s only Presbyterian camp. Here, we passed the storm.

 

Each of the events that occurred in the camp resulted in great stories of faith and resilience.

Power, water, and communications completely fell a few hours in. When we were able to come outside, we saw we were trapped beneath many feet of branches. With help of the community, it took two days to leave the house and around 10 days to visit our family.

The camp has its own water source, but the pipes were destroyed. The community united and we were able to bring water to the camp. People came to fill their water needs and with a generator do daily tasks like wash their clothes. Help continued, and with donations we have been able to provide laundry services, water, refrigerators, stoves, food, supplies, and clothes, among other things, to families in need.

Ice was one of the scarcest resources. and with the help of a Presbyterian church in New York the camp got an ice machine distributing up to 800 pounds of ice daily. The camp has become a hub for mission. People who come to help and rebuild stay at the camp to visit the communities.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance visited the camp this year and saw the needs and how we provided assistance. They granted funds to the camp to be able to rebuild its infrastructure and give to the community. We are currently working to make a garden to plant fruits and vegetables so that the community may have a steady food resource.

My church experience led me to know the importance of the service work that was needed and to trust God in the middle of uncertainty. Looking back, I wish I had knowledge of how to prepare and have the supplies needed. It is alarming that due to climate change a hurricane like this may strike again in the next years. Each of the events that occurred in the camp resulted in great stories of faith and resilience. Through it all we have seen how God cares for God’s people and that we are all intertwined in the mission to serve.

Natanael (Nato) Rivera Vargas participated in the Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute, a program for rising high school seniors to earn college credit while exploring what God is calling them to do and who God is calling them to be.

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6/4 2018

Is It Christian Enough? Watching “A Wrinkle in Time” with My Daughter

A Wrinkle in Time movie posterMy eight-year-old daughter and I left the theater and walked into the bright afternoon sun holding hands. We’d just seen A Wrinkle in Time. That’s a pretty good way for a dad to finish a movie about a daughter who travels billions of light years to rescue her less-than-perfect father from the clutches of evil.

As she clenched my hand, she asked, “Dad, would you say that was a movie about self-discovery?”

“That was part of it. What do you think Meg discovered?”

“That who she is is who she was meant to be.”

Pretty good, I thought. “And who she is is worthy—and capable—of love, right?”

She just squeezed my hand and smiled.

But I bet there were some moviegoers not smiling, disappointed that the explicit Christian message of Madeleine L’Engle’s book morphed into the gospel of Oprah: You are good enough, so believe in yourself.

Though there was more to the movie than that, I can still imagine their whining that Jesus wasn’t mentioned, as he is in the book. Buddha, Rumi, Einstein, Mandela, yes—but Jesus? No.

But that didn’t bother me. For me the question is whether the message of the movie is one I want to shape the mind and the heart of my daughter. To which I answer: Yes.

 

Worthy of Love

As in the book, Meg must discover that she is worthy of love, despite the faults and fears she thinks disqualify her. I cheered when African-American Meg rejected the fantasy of herself conforming to the image society tells her is beautiful, an image that includes having straight hair like my white daughter’s. And I cheered that my daughter finally got to see a courageous heroine who doesn’t look like her.

I know from experience that any of us can mistakenly believe ourselves unworthy of love. We imagine we are not smart enough, athletic enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, rich enough—whatever enough—to fully belong, to be embraced by the human family and by the Love that moves the planets and the stars, a Love at the heart of the book and the movie.

But Meg discovered that she is worthy of love just as she is. And I’m learning that I am. And my daughter got to see what the journey to discover this can look like, and that it’s a journey worth taking.

 

Warrior of Light

But Meg didn’t just learn that she’s worthy of love. She also found that she’s capable of love, and that such a love as hers can drive back the forces of evil. As one who can love, Meg becomes what Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which call a “warrior of light.” She’s joined a great army. She’s now a participant in a light that is greater than her, a light that is laboring to banish evil from the cosmos.

It’s a calling I face every day: Don’t just bask in the light of love, like a cat curled up on a warm windowsill, but love—love fervently, actively, persistently. And it’s a call I hope my daughter is hearing. Encompassed by love, she too can love in simple, poignant, powerful ways.

Who knows what hope an eight-year-old’s love might unlock in this world?

 

The Name of the Light

My daughter woke up early the other morning and caught me in prayer. I was reading the assigned text for the day from the third chapter of John, the familiar passage about a God who loved a cosmos enough to send a Son.

The passage ends with a contrast between the way of light and the way of darkness. Those who follow the light experience the joy of knowing their “deeds are done in God.”

I gestured for her to join me in the La-Z-Boy. She walked over in her orange Halloween pajama bottoms, a too-large flannel shirt, and a menagerie of stuffed animals in her arms. When she climbed into my lap, I said, “Listen to this. I think it might remind you of the movie we saw.” And I read aloud the verses from John’s Gospel.

When I finished, she looked up at me and smiled knowingly, just as she did in the parking lot after the movie. She is loved. She is capable of love. She can be a warrior of light. And she knows it.

And she knows the Light’s name. She doesn’t need Hollywood to tell her that.

 

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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