Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/30 2018

Praying with People Grieving Loss from Suicide

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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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6/29 2016

Pastoral Care and Counseling to Navigate Social Services

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tips for pastors to help congregants navigate social servicesAs clergy, we find that we are constantly asked to be experts at tasks and we’re unprepared—plumber, roofer, fundraiser, cleaner, social media expert, copier repair person, barista. Tasks we spend years preparing for in seminary revolve around divinity and theology. Tasks many of us hope we are prepared for revolve around care and counseling. Theology and counseling. We desperately want to make a difference as pastors. We are called by God to spend our lives and our careers telling people about the love of Jesus Christ. It just so happens that nearly all of the people we tell are hurting. And we desperately want to pour ourselves into fixing that hurt.

Pastoral Care

There is a difference between pastoral care and counseling. Pastoral care is walking with someone in their time of trial, hurt, or misfortune. Counseling is problem solving. Counselors have a care plan and a care team to make sure that they are meeting the goals of their plans with their clients. Counselors have brief relationships with clients. Counselors do not walk through life with their clients like pastors do.

Counseling

Counseling is a brief (a few months or years) relationship with someone focused on a malady in their family system or their emotional state. Counseling is seeing tangible results. And it is incredible to see results. These are results that often evade us in parish ministry.

As a pastor and a counselor, I have found both relationships extremely rewarding, though they have remained separate. I have never been a counselor to a parishioner. The roles are so different. Breaking bread with someone, baptizing their children, being present as they die; this is the role of pastor. This is the honor of walking with someone in the ups and downs of daily life and proclaiming “God loves you!” “Jesus is here!”

As a pastor walking with congregation members, we naturally come in contact with a variety of social service systems. Hospitals, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, suicide hotlines, nursing homes, schools, child services, and the justice system to name a few. Because of our exposure, people oftentimes look to clergy as experts in a subject that we are learning to navigate ourselves. Here are some tips for congregation members as they navigate unknown social service systems.

Six tips to help your congregation members navigate social service systems:

 

1. Stay calm.

Most people encounter social service systems, whether for children, adults or the elderly in times of stress. If the person in need of the service is under great stress, is too young, or is ill, it is important that someone who can be calm stay a part of the conversation. You must be able to listen, not just hear what the services are saying.

2. Get a buddy.

Even the most competent social service employee will miss something in a conversation regarding a system. Bring someone along with you to your appointments; have someone with you when you register online. Don’t do it alone. You will miss something.

3. Take notes.

When meeting with a healthcare, financial, social security, or child welfare system, take notes. Date your notes. Document what you are to do next and what the system is to do next. Follow up if things are not acted upon as you expect.

4. Come with questions written down.

Spend three minutes before your appointment, discharge, etc. and list questions that you have. Write them down. When the doctor, social worker, or case manager asks, “Do you have any questions?” say “YES.” Everyone should have questions when heading into an unknown system or situation. If nothing else, ask for information on who to contact when you have questions after leaving the appointment/hospital.

5. Advocate.

Be your own advocate and advocate for your friends and loved ones. The only way we can advocate for one another is if we let each other into our health, financial, and social needs. Trust your neighbor, mother, child, or friend when they tell you something is wrong. And do everything you can to work out the problem with them.

6. Connect with a social worker.

Find a local social worker who can be on call for your congregations needs. Most congregations have a social worker who attends, or someone will have a connection. The social worker will be able to help congregation members navigate the systems.

The role of pastor is so unique. No counselor, social worker, or social service is invited into the fullness of life in the way pastors are. In this unique role it is important to know our limitations and lean on experts who can help us and our congregants navigate some of life’s most frustrating and frightening moments. It is part of the honor and responsibility of walking with others and pointing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.

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4/27 2016

Pastoral Care and Counseling to Help Families Heal

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pastoral counseling helps families healWithin the ministry of pastoral care, healing from brokenness is a central goal, both for individuals and for the families of which they are a part. Although pastoral care can certainly be extended at times of great joy in a family’s life (such as at the time of a marriage or the birth of a new baby), families most often feel the need for pastoral care and counseling during experiences of brokenness in their lives together. Of course, brokenness within a family may take many forms: caring for an elderly parent; grief following the death of a loved one; divorce or familial estrangement; the loss of a job; abuse or violence.

In the midst of such experiences, individual pastoral caregivers and caring faith communities are called to facilitate healing in families’ lives. Healing, in this sense, focuses on the restoration of wholeness and fullness of life, and does not necessarily mean “cure.” In other words, it may not always be possible to fully restore a family’s health or wholeness, or to reverse the family’s current situation in any meaningful way. Instead, in this way of thinking, healing means helping people overcome an impairment by helping to lead them to a place beyond their previous condition. It may also mean assisting families to move to a higher level of spiritual insight and awareness of God’s love by integrating their experiences of brokenness with their faith.

To be clear: healing does not come directly from individual caregivers or faith communities, or from any particular approach they might take in their pastoral care ministry. It is God who heals, but there are many things caregivers and communities can do to facilitate healing in the lives of the families they serve. Here are just a few examples of what this healing work might look like:

  • Developing a pastoral care network in your congregation so that lay people can be trained to care for one another more effectively, even as care is also provided by those serving in official pastoral roles. Stephen Ministries is one of the most comprehensive and well-respected programs for training members of faith communities in pastoral care, but there may be other good programs available in your area. If you’re not sure where to start, consider contacting the local judicatory staff for your church’s denomination to see if they have specific recommendations.
  • Including attention to the reality of family brokenness in the worshipping life of the community, perhaps by naming some of these struggles in the prayers of the people, in pastoral prayers, or in sermons. For many families, having their challenges acknowledged (in a general way) in worship helps them to feel less alone, and to let go of the notion that church is for perfect people. One of the most powerful ways of helping families heal may simply be communicating, in worship and in other places in the congregation’s communal life, that you don’t need to “have it all together” before coming to church.
  • Hosting support groups in your church for various kinds of family issues (grief, divorce, parenting, etc.) You may have people on your congregation’s staff with the expertise to run these groups themselves, or you may simply wish to invite community organizations to consider holding their support group meetings in your space and making sure your members know such groups are available. Either way, this can be another important means of conveying that the church is a place for people to bring their whole selves, and that healing can be found in the midst of the faith community.

Just as family brokenness can take many forms, healing from brokenness can take many forms as well. The key is to figure out what kind of healing work makes most sense in your own ministry context. In the end, the goal is not to take one particular approach in our ministries of pastoral care and counseling, but simply to make sure we are communicating—as individual caregivers and as caring Christian communities—that the lives and struggles of families are important to us, and that God’s healing is available to all who seek it.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

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