4I 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.
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.