Restoring the fragile hope of the suicide-bereaved Christian

Reading Time: 36 minutes

https://doi.org/10.52456/WACJO323

Introduction

Background and rationale

The exponential increase in suicide worldwide, with one death every 45 seconds, and more than 800,000 people taking their own lives every year (World Health Organisation, 2021), has resulted in a concerted effort in suicide prevention by many governments (Manchester University, 2020). In the UK (2020) and Northern Ireland (statistics for 2019), 6,057 people took their own life (Office of National Statistics, 2020; Public Health Scotland, 2020). The ripple effect of these suicides is far-reaching. American psychologist, Julie Cerel, estimates that 135 people will be affected by one suicide (2018, cited in O’Connor, 2021:15), with children, parents, partners, friends, colleagues, schools and communities stunned by each death (Jordan & McIntosh, 2014).

Despite the focus on suicide prevention, until now, support for those who have lost a loved one to suicide has been primarily neglected. UK governments have launched action plans explicitly focused on supporting the bereaved by suicide in the hope of preventing further self-harm, distress and suicides (Manchester University, 2020; National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group Scotland, 2018).

Those bereaved by suicide are 65% more likely to attempt to take their own lives than those bereaved by other causes (Scottish Government, 2020) and are more likely to be engaged in high-risk behaviours such as drug and alcohol misuse, financial recklessness, sexual promiscuity and reckless driving (Manchester University, 2020). They are also more likely to use tranquillisers and anti-depressants, have more stomach ulcers and suffer from insomnia, heart disease and autophobia (fear of being alone) (Lukas & Seiden, 2007). These government initiatives are much needed as the impact of a suicide on a loved one can profoundly affect every aspect of their person– the physical, emotional, behavioural, cognitive, social and spiritual, (Kallmier, 2011:65) – as well as their sense of ‘security, self-worth and significance’ (Ashley, 2015:84).

Suicide is one of the last remaining ‘taboos’, plagued by stigma, myth and misunderstanding (O’Connor, 2021:11). It is not caused by a single factor, but is the ‘end product of a complex set of biological, psychological, social and cultural determinants that come together in the perfect storm’ (O’Connor, 2021:13). This ‘perfect storm’, culminating in the suicide of a loved one, leaves the bereaved with complex issues. The American Psychiatric Association ranks the level of stress from the suicide of a loved one as ‘catastrophic’, stating it is equivalent to a concentration camp experience (Hsu, 2017).

Acknowledging and addressing the impact of this type of bereavement on mental health seems very much to the fore of research. However, the role of spirituality for people bereaved by suicide does not seem well-researched or understood (Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021; Burke & Neimeyer, 2014).

 

 

Why the local church?

There are many support groups nowadays for those bereaved by suicide, offering help and a listening ear through group meetings. However, they do not necessarily address the spiritual needs that are central to the Christian faith. After a loved one’s suicide, the bereaved’s spiritual core can be profoundly affected, either positively, encouraging spiritual depth and growth, or negatively due to stigmatisation and other influencing factors (Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021), resulting in a faith crisis or loss of faith.

As a survivor of suicide, someone bereaved by suicide and deeply impacted by it, , I believe the local church could be helped to confidently and effectively support those in their congregation in this situation, encouraging positive spiritual formation. This could be achieved by highlighting the spiritual challenges and the traumatic effects suicide has on the bereaved (Zylla, 2012), as well as indicating what support is life-giving. The church is the ideal community to accompany Christians who may be struggling with debilitating grief and facing a faith crisis. It already offers a ‘broad-based approach to helping people’ and provides holistic support for individuals, which includes the ‘spiritual and personal growth of those in our church communities’ (Kallmier, 2011:13).

Literature review

Introduction

An examination of the literature on suicide demonstrates an emphasis on suicide prevention. Historically, within suicide research, little attention has been paid to suicide survivors, but recent analyses have identified a clear gap (Rivart, 2021; O’Connor, 2021; Jordan & McIntosh, 2014).

It also highlights a growing recognition that suicide bereavement differs in many ways from other tragic bereavements due to the complexity of the grief process and the social, practical, emotional, psychological and spiritual challenges the bereaved face (Ross, 2021; Griffin, 2019; Jordan & McIntosh, 2014). The complexities of suicide bereavement can lead to further suicides; supporting the suicide bereaved is now recognised as a means of suicide prevention, so-called ‘suicide postvention’ (Shneidman, 1975, cited in Ehrlich, 2027:2).

Research consistently validates the intensity of suicide bereavement (Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021; Pitman et al., 2018; Ali, 2015; Jordan & McIntosh, 2014), the loss of hope, anguish, despair, guilt and shame complicating the grief process. There is an acknowledgement that this type of incomprehensible violent death can lead to the bereaved questioning their beliefs about ‘self, people, the world, and God’ and can result in ‘disenfranchised grief’ when loss is not recognised or understood by society (Weaver & Stone, 2005:42).

Despite recent research by Manchester University (2020), in a study entitled ‘From Grief to Hope’, which addresses many of these areas of challenge, there is no mention of the spiritual aspects of suicide bereavement, which can torment many Christians and non-Christians alike (Hsu, 2017; Vandecreek & Mottram, 2009).

Jordan and McIntosh’s Grief after Suicide covers many aspects of suicide grief in great detail but only affords one page to ‘religion’. It recognises that ‘religious convictions about suicide may complicate the grieving process’ (Jordan & McIntosh, 2014:317), and gives general advice for therapists to include a ‘clergy member such as a pastor, rabbi, or imam’ in the therapeutic context. It does, however, acknowledge that ‘spiritually meaningful interventions can be powerful tools for healing’ (Jordan & McIntosh, 2014:317).

From a Christian theological perspective, it has been difficult to find research that explicitly addresses how suicide bereavement affects spiritual formation (Campbell, 2020). The spiritual aspect of grief often appears neglected in research, and spiritual support seems limited or non-existent. In their attempt to somehow find meaning in loss, faith arguably plays a significant role in recovery for Christians (Campbell, 2020; Vandecreek & Mottram, 2009). Zylla states in The Roots of Sorrow that ‘faith itself is tested at the root by the ongoing situation that seems to indicate God’s absence,’ which becomes ‘inextricably linked to a challenge of faith’ for the suicide bereaved (2012:4).

Cepuliene & Pucinskaite (2021) highlight the challenges faced in suicide bereavement that were detrimental to faith and what helped spiritual growth in these extreme circumstances influencing the trajectory of the bereavement process. These included the need to be helped by their religious community without being judged, and the recognition of spirituality and religion as an important resource in bereavement.

Christian theology and suicide

There have been many points throughout history where societies have gone to extremes ‘to castigate those who have taken their own lives, from dismembering bodies, dragging bodies through the streets, cutting out hearts, hanging in the centre of cities, persecuting families of the deceased and incarcerating the person whose suicide attempts were non-fatal, only to hang them later’ (Wilkens, 2003:387). Sadly, much of this resulted from the position of the Christian Church in the fifth century following Augustine of Hippo’s strong stance against suicide: ‘Certainly, anyone who kills himself is a murderer’ (Vandecreek & Mottram, 2009:747; Wilkens, 2003:387). His interpretation of the sixth commandment was that ‘thou shalt not kill’ also applied to oneself. Aquinas adopted this view (c.1265), supporting Augustine’s attribution ‘that God denied heaven’ to those who died by suicide (Vandecreek & Mottram, 2009:747). This view became deeply embedded throughout the centuries and remains even today in some traditions, where suicide is still regarded as a mortal sin with no hope of forgiveness (Hsu, 2017; Vandecreek & Mottram, 2011).

This Augustinian view has impacted survivors significantly and is compounded by the social shame following a suicide, marital problems, alcoholism and depression, which add to the bereaved individual’s overwhelming grief (Ross, 2021; Wilkens, 2003).

Every faith community is likely to differ in its theology and approach to suicide, which will impact the bereaved’s spiritual formation and grief journey to their benefit or detriment.

Suicide contagion

There is much debate about whether suicide is ‘contagious’ or not. Some state that there is no research evidence and that it is unlikely (Kleinman, 2014). However, there is agreement that ‘prolonged exposure can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion’ (Ferguson, 2018; Joiner, 1999).

If the suicide bereaved in our congregations who are vulnerable to suicide are to be helped, consideration of this question could be invaluable. Statistics verify that those bereaved by suicide are 65% more likely to take their own lives (Scottish Government, 2020).

Professor Niederkrotenthaler, head of suicide research at Vienna University, states there is a correlation between high-profile suicides reported in the media and increased population suicides. When the method is mentioned, suicides increase even more. His research suggests that suicide by hanging among men aged 45–64 years increased after the suicide of Robin Williams by the same method (Niederkrotenthaler, 2020).

Professor Rory O’Connor, an international expert in suicide prevention and a researcher who has devoted his life to suicide, often grapples with the question of whether he will die by suicide (O’Connor, 2021). He recognised it was inevitable that one day it would affect him, and that he would have suicidal thoughts. It is a question latent in many survivors bereaved by suicide. For others, it is something they tackle daily, even to the point of taking their own lives. It is an area worthy of careful consideration for pastoral carers when supporting the bereaved by suicide.

Pastoral care of the bereaved

Zylla’s The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering, offers advice and insight for churches and those involved in the pastoral care of the tragically bereaved and suffering. It considers how the church might help others ‘live hopefully in a broken world’ (Zyla, 2012:1). Zylla suggests the need for a spiritual vision ‘for the suffering and oppression of the most broken persons and communities in the world’ (2012:1). This spiritual vision requires churches to embrace a theology that boldly recognises the presence and often the absence of God in tragic circumstances, and is prepared to search deeply with the afflicted, to help them find peace even when they cannot find answers to their suffering. For those pastorally caring for the afflicted, it takes courage and a willingness to accept that sometimes there are no answers and that their words can be impotent in the face of ‘unspeakable anguish’ (Zylla, 2012:3).

There is also a growing recognition in the psychology of trauma that sacred texts can be an effective way of coping with the medium and long-term effects of trauma (Brown, 2022). Brown argues that this is not a new phenomenon and can be found in many of the Psalms if read through the lens of coping theory, a way of adapting to stressful situations. Kallmier (2011:30) states how the Bible provides us with an understanding of human existence and purpose that can support a person through ‘the most troubled and testing times in life’. Hughes has a high view of scripture and gives great significance to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture in the Waverley Model of Counselling, considering it central to helping people (Ashley, 2015). Brueggemann, however, disputes this and asserts that the dialogue in the Psalms is ‘essentially theological, not psychological’ (2007, cited in Brown, 2022:277).

Finding meaning in suicide bereavement

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who endured years in a Nazi concentration camp, said that a sense of meaning is necessary to endure suffering. He developed a psychotherapeutic model called logotherapy. Its central focus is man’s [sic] desire to find meaning (Hemphill, 2015).

Kessler (2019:1,2) argues that beyond the familiar five stages of grief, ‘denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance ’, as identified by Kübler-Ross in 1968, is another stage called ‘finding meaning’. Lichtenthal (2011) refers to this as meaning-making. Finding meaning in loss ‘empowers us to find a path forward’ (Kessler, 2019:2). As the suicide bereaved struggle so intensely to find any meaning from their loss, effective pastoral care (Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021) could help them and prevent them from getting stuck in one of the other five stages of grief.

The challenge for the suicide bereaved is to attempt to make sense of a self-inflicted, intentional and deliberate death that violates the bereaved individual’s ‘fundamental norms of self-preservation’ (Jordan, 2001:92; Sands, 2008). Current bereavement theory suggests that the most difficult aspects of bereavement and grief are intensified and particularly problematic when the mode of death is suicide. Someone killing themselves deeply inhibits a ‘person’s ability to make meaning, and the griever’s relational world with the self, others, and ongoing relationship with the deceased’ (Bell et al., 2012:50). Brown (2022) asserts that narrative is an important process in coping with trauma.

Spirituality in meaning-making

‘Spiritual meaning-making,’ viewing life through the lens of faith, can generally help Christians to make sense of the death of a loved one (Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021:4; Lichtenthal et al., 2011:5; Doehring, 2018:1). However, making sense of a suicide is particularly difficult due to trauma, the ‘not knowing why’ and the endless questions around a loved one’s death.

Research suggests that Positive Religious Coping (PRC), a faith framework for making sense of tragic bereavements, can help transpose tragedy psychologically into something more positive with time and distance (Levi-Belz, 2017; Lichtenthal et al., 2011). For some, however, the loss of a loved one to suicide ‘can trigger a spiritual crisis’ (Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021; Dransart, 2018), putting their spiritual resources under too much strain to cope with this approach.

However, an emphasis on religious coping and trauma and meaning-making neglects the role of spiritual practices in that process (Doehring, 2018). Combining research on Porges’ polyvagal theory (Doehring, 2018:241), Doehring demonstrates the central role that body-centred spiritual practices can have on those experiencing suicide bereavement or other traumatic bereavements. She suggests that spiritual practices like listening to music, meditating on scripture, proclaiming scripture aloud and liturgy can connect the bereaved with grief and compassion and the goodness of God, enabling them to reach wholeness.

Summary

Research into the spiritual aspects of suicide bereavement seems limited but is considered essential for the positive growth of a suicide-bereaved Christian. Faith issues, understanding the theological complexities and having defined long-term pastoral guidelines could help churches support the bereaved effectively. If dealt with patiently and sensitively, faith can help individuals find meaning in their tragic circumstances.

Effective postvention support for the bereaved can help to empower them and help them find meaning again in their lives (Jordan and McIntosh, 2014). However, research also suggests that the spiritual/faith dimension in the context of suicide bereavement can be a ‘valuable resource or an obstacle’ (Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021:22; Lichtenhal, 2011:5).

Methodology

This research used autoethnography as a research method, as well as narrative qualitative research (Swinton, 2006) in the form of semi-structured interviews to examine the lived experiences of three Christian participants who had lost a loved one to suicide. Autoethnography is a research method suited to sensitive issues that explores the lived experiences of the researcher. It is distinctive from other research methods in three ways: it is qualitative, self-focused and context-conscious (Fahie, 2014). It also ‘intends to connect self with others, self with social, and self with the context’ (Ngunjiri, Hernandez & Chang, 2010:2). The hope is that ‘the telling may be of benefit to others’ (Campbell, 2020:521).

My story 

In autobiographical research it is important to give context through narrative, without which there would be no motivation for this research.

On 31 December 2003, Hogmanay, a day of great celebration, fireworks and parties in Scotland, my husband – a generous, gregarious, kind considerate man – unable to face another year of uncertainty, took his own life while the family were shopping for gifts for his 48th birthday.

Returning home with his birthday gift, I found an open letter on the console table – a bill for my father’s funeral two weeks before, which my husband was paying for as my step mum could not. A fatal mistake had been made. It referred to the cost for the funeral of my husband rather than my father, no doubt confirming in my husband’s mind that he was meant to die. I searched everywhere for him and realised the key to the garage was on the inside of the locked door. Battering the reinforced garage door window with a boulder, the horror and trauma started. Each moment is as vivid now, eighteen years later, seemingly etched forever on my mind with a power to propel me back to the pain and anguish of that moment, which shattered my life and the lives of my three sons and family forever. There was only one name I screamed over and over. Jesus. Once inside, I irrationally checked for a pulse, and leaned my head on his chest, listening and hoping beyond hope for a heartbeat. I dialled 999 and was told to calm down or they would not help me.

The coroner’s report said his death would have been instant, and he would not have suffered. The suffering for us was only just beginning, and would take at least fifteen years for me to be able to revisit and process it deeply. My young teenage sons would struggle over the years with depression, anxiety and broken hearts at losing their father, carrying a deep sadness that he would never know their wives and children.

From the start, despite suicide being an ‘unmentionable’ subject at the time, I did not lie about the cause of my husband’s death. The ripples of his death were shocking and far-reaching.

My teaching colleagues, friends, family, my children’s friends and their parents and my husband’s colleagues in Edinburgh, London and Manchester were deeply shocked by his unexpected death. They flew to Edinburgh for his funeral, arriving in chauffeur-driven limousines contrasting starkly with the poverty and desolation surrounding the church where we worshipped. My husband had impacted many lives. A book of memories was compiled by his colleagues and I am struck by the love and care he showed his staff and how he touched their lives.

Autoethnographic research is challenging for the researcher and has deeply impacted me, ‘generating emotional pain’ (Ellis, 2000:738) as I reflected on my situation. However, it is considered invaluable in researching sensitive topics like suicide bereavement (Ali, 2015) and has resulted in a deeper understanding of myself and my experiences (Ellis, 2000:738). Previously denied feelings and unrecognised fears and insecurities have been acknowledged as I looked to answer questions, collect evidence and produce findings that were not determined in advance.

Ethical considerations

Ethical approval for the research was granted by Waverley Abbey Research Ethics Committee before approaching participants for interviews.

Participants

To protect identity and confidentiality, I have referred to the participants by the pseudonyms of Eve, Leah and Holly.

Eve, in her sixties, discovered that her grandmother, whom she adored as a little girl, had taken her own life. A family secret for 50 years, it came as a great shock to her. Still, it gave her a retrospective understanding of why her mother suffered such extreme anxiety and fear throughout her lifetime, crippling her ability to lead a normal life. This family secret evoked powerful emotions, including anger, and highlighted the shame of suicide. Eve’s initial reaction was to perpetuate this secret.

Leah lost her aunt, who was ‘like a mother’ to her. She was someone who was admired and significantly respected in her family and community. This bereavement caused a complete mental breakdown for Leah, who attempted to take her own life on several occasions.

Holly lost her son unexpectedly and, due to the intensity of her pain, she found communication with her husband difficult.

Practical theology and qualitative research

In recent research, autoethnography has proved to be a ‘significantly useful tool’ in exploring complex issues of lived experience, attracting attention within practical theology (Campbell, 2020:521). Practical theology as a discipline reflects on and gives a perspective to our practices and human experience (Swinton, 2006) while critical reflection and analysis seek to determine what is going on in the light of scripture and tradition. By examining the Church’s stance on suicide historically and pastoral practices in a contemporary context, I hoped to reveal prevailing attitudes to suicide through qualitative research methods using theological reflection (Swinton, 2006). It is an important place for reflection when accompanying the bereaved by suicide with the many questions related to their loved one’s suicide and to a good God who has allowed such a terrible event in their lives.

Practical theology recognises God’s redemptive purposes in human experiences, and considers how a situation as devastating as suicide can be redeemed and how the Church can help that process.

Findings

The data was analysed in a three-phase process: preliminary exploratory analysis, open coding and development of themes (Ngunjiri, Hernandez & Chang, 2010). My personal journals were reviewed from the time of my bereavement to now and extracts were taken that were relevant to the themes and subthemes identified. I also relied on memories of my lived experience.

Five significant themes developed from the data, namely: the uniqueness of each bereavement situation; the importance of presence; mental health issues; the stigma and isolation of suicide including the fear of judgement and negative emotions such as shame, guilt and anger (see Table 1).

 

 

 

Identification of themes                                        Number of mentions

 

What helped in their unique bereavement situation

 

Being listened to without judgement

HOLLY

3

LEAH

1

EVE

1

TOTAL

5

Practical support3  3
Being with others bereaved by suicide4329
Feeling understood3227
Importance of presenceFriends/family3115
Pastors/Christians64212
Therapist 1 1
God93214
Mental healthUnable to face the world53412
Suicidal 3 3
Loss of confidence/self-esteem 224
Huge impact44412
 

Stigmatisation

Avoided by people1  1
Hurt by comments, judged, criticised, blamed64212
Not listened to/misunderstood2215
Self-critical emotionsShame1146
Guilt2114
Anxiety32510
Blame

 

111

 

3

 

 Anger  33

Table 1: Summary findings of themes                

 

The uniqueness of every bereavement

The three participants interviewed had unique grieving processes and circumstances. Eve lost her grandmother but had to cope with her mother’s extreme behaviours, unaware of the cause. Holly lost her son, which impacted her mental health profoundly and the communication between her and her husband. Leah lost her aunt who was ‘like a mother’ to her and attempted suicide due to this loss.

Holly, who was a new Christian at the time of her son’s suicide, did not feel the need to question God. As a person, she said she was ‘accepting’ of whatever came her way.

Negative emotions 

Grief, guilt, abandonment, anger, shame, rejection and the fear of judgement are the most common feelings experienced by suicide survivors, who differ from other bereaved individuals by the intensity of these feelings (Berardelli et al., 2020), which results in isolation and restraint about sharing with others how their loved one had died.

From a charismatic background, Eve discovered a family secret buried for fifty years and never spoken of because of shame and the fear of judgement from friends and family and, more specifically, from the church community her father pastored. She said, ‘the charismatic movement did not consider suicide as an option and was unempathetic and judgemental at the time’.

Leah, a non-Christian in her thirties at the time of her bereavement, felt suicide was outside her frame of reference. She did not know anyone who had experienced a suicide and was unsure whether she was allowed to talk about it or not. Her family were judgemental of her aunt’s death and avoided speaking about it. This caused a tremendous internal struggle for Leah, who later attempted suicide herself on several occasions.

Holly, also in her sixties at the time of her bereavement, from a Pentecostal church, stayed away from her church community as she felt she would be judged as a bad mother following the suicide of her son and that people would not understand. Holly’s son’s suicide affected her profoundly and traumatically. Initially, she could not leave the house and would close the curtains on the world. She survived through medication prescribed by the doctor in the first month following her bereavement. It allowed her ‘a peace in her head’ that kept her alive. Even today, eight years later, she still has times when she closes the curtains and stays in bed for a day or two, or however long it takes, before she can face the world again.

Guilt and shame are challenging emotions faced by the suicide bereaved that perpetuate and differentiate it from other tragic deaths. Jordan and McIntosh’s research showed that the public held the belief that the spouse bereaved by suicide had the opportunity to prevent their spouse’s suicide (Jordan & McIntosh, 2014). I continually wonder if I could have prevented my husband from taking his own life and feel a weight of responsibility that has not diminished with time.

In my journal, for the first time in fifteen years, I was able to acknowledge my feelings.

January 2018

I feel bewildered and totally confused. Shocked that my gentle husband would choose such an act of violence against himself. Shame for myself and my three sons that we have to endure the pain forever of such a horrible death of someone so loved and lovely, constantly sensing the judgment of others. Guilt that I did not prevent him from taking his own life.

Anxiety

Eve spoke of the life-changing effect suicide had on her mother who was 37 at the time of her mother’s suicide. Shame compelled her to keep it a secret resulting in extreme anxiety, where she could never be left alone.

Holly spoke of the physical ache, ‘an absolute ache in the pit of my stomach that just would not go’ and wondered ‘how can I live with this?’

Silence

Eve’s ‘family secret’ was kept for fifty years. Her sorrow, compounded with shame, led to Eve’s mother holding a secret that became unbearable and manifested in a complete breakdown in her mental health and ability to live a ‘normal’ life.

‘Unspeakable suffering leads to ‘mute suffering’ (Zylla, 2012:11). Suicide silences the bereaved. Zylla suggests this calls for a ‘theology of lament’ (2012:11), helping the bereaved to identify with the suffering in the Psalms and Lamentations and allowing them to acknowledge how painful their suffering is, which helps release the bereaved from that constricting silence caused by so many negative emotions.

Silent grief is not about inevitable sadness but about ‘unnecessarily painful, prolonged and unyielding grief that makes other joys in life impossible’ (Lukas, 2007:13).

Mental health

Another dominant theme was the effect the loved one’s suicide had on the participants’ mental health, resulting from the extreme emotions experienced. For the bereaved by suicide, the most basic of tasks can sometimes seem like an impossibility due to pathological grief, which is a grief that goes on without end (Weaver & Stone, 2005:10), leaving them unable to function at the most basic of levels. This was highlighted in the participants’ interviews. Eve’s mother ‘could not function even in the most basic of tasks’, Holly ‘buried herself away from the world’ under her duvet for days at a time and Leah became suicidal.

Eve’s mother’s mental health deteriorated so much that she could not function properly in the basics of life and lived with extreme anxiety until her death fifty years later. She moved in with Eve and her young family. Eve often wondered and prayed for her mother, never understanding the cause of her behaviour and extreme anxiety until the family secret was revealed fifty years later. Eve also suffered. She was 10 at the time of her grandmother’s suicide and had been close to her. She has no recollection of the time of her suicide, yet her younger brother remembers every detail. As a grandmother, Eve now recognises an inexplicable unconscious compulsion to make sure her own grandchildren would always remember her and is constantly concerned that they will forget her. Trauma prevented her from remembering details about her grandmother, whom she loved dearly. It made sense when she discovered how her grandmother had died and realised the effect on that 10-year-old child.

Leah felt close to her aunt who was ‘like a mother’ to her and was devastated by her death. She struggled with daily life and work, eventually having to take a long sabbatical. How the workplace deals with the bereaved by suicide is a subject worthy of research. Even more extreme, she went to the Forth Road Bridge, a popular place where the suicidal jump to their death, to take her own life. She was prevented from jumping by the bridge patrol. She repeatedly returned to the bridge, confused and distressed, and needed medication for many years to stabilise her.

The importance of presence

Wells argues that our way of embodying our faith is to look for ways to be ‘with God’ and ‘with one another’. He maintains that the word ‘with’ is the most important word in theology (Wells, 2015:9).

According to studies, suicide survivors value the help given by their religious communities (Vandecreek & Mottram 2009; Dransart, 2018; Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021). The importance of the presence of pastors, Christians, friends and family to the suicide bereaved cannot be overemphasised. ‘Being with’ and practical help were instrumental in bringing hope and love to the participants. Holly and her husband were visited daily by Christian friends who listened without judgement and supported them with prayer and practical support in the initial months following the bereavement. They came every evening to ensure their safety and supervised their sleep medication.

‘I will never forget this as long as I live’, said Holly. ‘They were a lifesaver’ and ‘sent by God’. Being allowed to talk and explore her emotions and questions without judgement ‘saved her life’.

Pastors also played a significant role in allowing both Holly and Leah to explore their questions about suicide and the feelings they had. After her aunt’s suicide, Leah was anxious to find out whether God was ‘angry with someone for taking their own life’. She explored many theological questions over the months, slowly reaching conclusions about ‘who God was and how he viewed suicide’.

The presence of God

Tragedy can also be an invitation to live more deeply and experience God’s presence more profoundly. As well as the presence of pastors, Christian friends and family, God played a central part in each bereavement situation. God’s perceived presence experienced as ‘being with them’ and God’s thoughts about the actions of their loved ones were vital.

Leah, a non-Christian at the time of bereavement, felt a compulsion to find out what God thought about someone who took their own life. Unexpectedly, an Alpha course appeared on her Facebook page, so she attended and then went to a second course. She became a Christian and was baptised. She discovered that ‘God does not judge my aunt for taking her life the way people do’ and felt comforted by God.

Holly was a new Christian when her son died, and the support of Christians led her to want to go to church. She, too, did an Alpha course, and the pastor and his wife supported her ‘with great love and kindness’ that she will never forget. Her pastor, a friend of mine, connected us. She said contacting me ‘helped so much. Knowing someone else had gone through this terrible experience and was a big part of the healing process.’ Holly has a strong, deeply intimate relationship with God and says, she ‘learned so much about God through losing my boy’.

Eve, a mature Christian of many years, was shocked by the discovery that her grandmother had taken her own life, despite it being over fifty years ago. She felt the ‘presence of God and his compassion and love for my grandmother’ and has no doubt that God is ‘a God of mercy and love who knew every detail of my grandmother’s suffering, understands and has compassion for her’. She felt deeply angered at the church’s attitude and approach to suicide.

Stigmatisation

Though any sudden, unexpected, tragic death can be shocking, Pitman states that suicide has always been considered the most stigmatising, thought to arise from ‘social distaste and disapproval, blame and shame’ (Pitman et al., 2018:121).

Potter (2021:1) states that ‘The stigma of suicide can be lethal if not properly addressed.’ Increased social stigmatisation and isolation not found in the aftermath of accidental deaths or natural deaths is the reality for the bereaved and can manifest in encountering social avoidance, negative attitudes, gossip or even overt blame for the death (Wilkens, 2003).

All three participants avoided situations where they had to explain and give details, leading to further isolation. Many survivors lie about the cause of death of their loved one.

Ten years after her son’s suicide, Holly still buries herself away on days when she ‘can’t face the world’. She chooses to isolate herself because of the pain caused by a lack of understanding and people speaking carelessly.

Journal extracts

In autoethnographic research, in a sense, I am the fourth participant. Below are some extracts from my journals highlighting some of the tensions and questions resulting from my husband’s suicide that reinforce some of the research findings, including faith challenges, extreme pain and emotions, suicide contagion, meaning-making and the importance of the presence and will of God.

 

22 Jan 2004

It is now 22 days since we were torn apart. It feels like my heart and organs have all been ripped out. It feels like I have a head and body and no limbs. The pain is physical. It is so painful I feel I will stop breathing. My heart aches even more for the pain K must have experienced over the last few months. His secret agony. I was robbed of such a beautiful companion. Why Lord?

Isaiah 57: The righteous pass away, the godly often die before their time and no one seems to care or wonder. No one seems to know that God is protecting them from the evil to come. For the godly who die will rest in peace.

 

5 March 2004

Psalm 6:6 I am worn out from sobbing. My pillow is wet from weeping. My vision is blurred by grief.

How many more tears can fall, Lord? For eight weeks, I have wept myself to sleep and wake up weeping. I am standing on God’s word. This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it. I am looking for things to rejoice in, sunshine, birds, the sky. Creation is a comfort.

 

Making sense of a senseless suicide is extremely challenging. Five months after my husband’s suicide, I had many ‘why questions’ that tormented me, and I realised only God could change the direction of my thinking.

5 May 2004

Why did you allow it, Lord? Why do my sons have to suffer so much? Why did I go out that morning? Why K? Am I being punished? Lord, show me my sin. You intervene and stop so many suicides. Why suicide? Was there not another way? Lord, please save me from self-pity and unhealthy thinking. Please turn my sorrow into compassion for the lost, the sick and the broken-hearted.

 

31 Oct 2004

All my earthly dreams and ambitions have died with ‘K’. My only purpose and desire now is to live for God.

 

4 December 2005

It’s almost two years now and it’s only by God’s grace and mercy that my sons and I have come this far. The pain is still overwhelming. It consumes and chokes me and weighs heavily on my heart.

The wonderful thing is that you (K) loved so much and were loved so much that we don’t feel angry with you. I just feel the pain of the agony you went through.

 

24 August 2010

Lord, I dreamt last night that K rejected me. I guess he did by ‘choosing’ to take his own life. I can’t believe after seven years, the depth of my grief, that I can still be wracked with grief and pain even now. He was stolen from me. How I miss him. Thank you that the dream made me realise how I truly feel and that I do feel rejection but didn’t want to admit it.

Thank you, Lord, for bringing me this far. Please don’t let his death be pointless. Use my experiences to help others.

 

1 January 2011

A new year. 7 years on. Thank you that Hogmanay is over. I can breathe again. A great sigh of relief. It breaks my heart, again and again, to think of the pain my sons have and what K endured secretly. What a waste of a beautiful life with devastating consequences.

 

18 February 2012

Lord, I come to you. I don’t know why this pain and sorrow remain and keep rising to the surface again and again. Please give me beauty for ashes. I give you my sorrow, my tears, the flashbacks, the pain of feeling K’s pain. He will now know why he was suffering so much. ‘The righteous die young to save them from further sorrow’. There is consolation somewhere in that.

 

31 December 2013

Lord, I only want your vision for my life.

It does me no good to focus on those traumatic moments again. Trauma has such power, but the Lord has strengthened me, comforted me, and kept me moving forward. He is teaching me about trauma and how I don’t have to keep slipping back into it.

 

8 November 2016

Why am I still mourning my husband? It is so painful to keep weeping like this. Do I have some sort of prolonged grief? No one would understand after such a long time. I don’t, either.

 

31 December 2016 – 13th anniversary of K’s death

I can’t go there today. It’s still too painful. There must be something wrong with me. Too much pain in looking back. I just want to move on. Lord, please show me how to do that.

 

During this research, while immersed in my studies, I wrote in my journal:

 

17 March 2022

I woke suddenly at 4am with the powerful compelling thought in my mind that I should take my own life.

 

This was disconcerting and frightening, as in the years since my husband’s death, I have never had suicidal thoughts. I did have an indifference to living, which is quite different.

As well as participant care and support, self-care in this research project was critical. It is known that personal emotions, judgements and experiences can affect the researcher through autoethnographic research and can trigger the researcher’s trauma (Raab, 2013). Initially, I was naive about how intensely the research would affect me. I soon realised the importance of organising my study in a way that allowed time for other distractions and regular meetings with my prayer support team and fortnightly with a friend who is an experienced counsellor of twenty years and a counselling supervisor. I also met monthly with my spiritual director.

Discussion and analysis

Returning to my original research question on how the local church can effectively support and help the spiritual formation of those bereaved by suicide in their congregation, the consensual view that suicide bereavement results in complex grief and psychological, emotional, social and spiritual challenges seemed reinforced through the three interviews. The results indicated the devastating and life-changing effects following the loss of a loved one to suicide. The resulting intense negative emotions, life-long reflections of guilt and shame, and negative behaviours were also highlighted.

Pastoral

Pastorally supporting those bereaved by suicide is complex and requires insight into the psychological pain they experience. The experience of all three participants was such that they felt helped and comforted by the presence of Christian friends who were prepared to listen and not offer any solutions or platitudes, praying with them and caring for them holistically without trying to fix anything. The data showed that clergy played a major role in supporting the suicide bereaved. Feeling understood and not judged, blamed or criticised was highly important.

Spiritual

The spiritual aspect of bereavement was crucial in each case and discovering God’s perspective on their loved one’s way of dying was critical to their ‘recovery’. Having a safe space to explore their grief and the implications for their faith without judgement resulted in spiritual growth rather than decline.

Each participant discovered for themself that God is a God of compassion who does not judge those who take their own lives in this way. Leah sought God as a non-Christian and discovered ‘a God of kindness and compassion’ who cared about her aunt and her state of mind and ‘was not angry and judgemental’. Holly took great comfort in the presence of ‘the God of all comfort’ who loved her son even more than she did. Eve also found comfort and reassurance, knowing ‘God did not judge my her grandmother as the church did’.

The question ‘why?’

One of the most significant challenges and struggles for those bereaved by suicide is the question, ‘why?’. The participants interviewed were shocked by the lack of signs before their loved one’s death and saw no signs of any mental health issues or inner struggle in their loved ones before they took their own lives. Holly had a happy family meal with laughter and fun the night before her son’s suicide, with no indication of his private suffering. Leah’s aunt, a successful local journalist who was well-liked and respected in her community, had been grieving the loss of her husband a few months earlier but showed no signs of the depths of her grief. Eve remembers her grandmother’s home as happy, a place where she loved to spend time as a child. The hidden pain a loved one is experiencing adds to the shock and trauma of their suicide and the ongoing agony that they suffered so much without it being known.

Is suicide bereavement different?

Understanding this question is critical if we are to support the bereaved effectively. Jordan suggests that suicide survivors are differentiated by self-perceived intentionality and self-perceived responsibility (Jordan, 2020).

The intensity of emotions is another differentiating factor. The bereaved often experience anxiety, depression and ‘complicated grief’ (CG), struggle with guilt, self-blame, hopelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and are at greater risk of suicide (Jordan & McIntosh, 2014; Tal et al., 2012).

The ‘not knowing why’ adds to the deep emotional pain and is one of the elements that arguably separates it from other tragic bereavements, and the question compounds guilt. It causes continual reflection about what else you could have done and whether you missed crucial signs or whether it was your fault.

Helping churches understand the many issues the bereaved deal with, the ongoing internal struggles and the journey of exploring difficult theological questions can often determine whether someone flourishes in their spiritual formation or flounders.

Beyond surviving: Post-traumatic growth

Post-traumatic growth is defined as ‘positive psychological change experienced as the direct result of the struggle with highly challenging circumstances’ (Hone, 2017:205). One of the profound psychological results of traumatic events like suicide can be post-traumatic growth which includes a deeper appreciation of life and spiritual change resulting from a highly challenging, high-stress situation (Levi-Belz, 2017).

Spiritual growth and transformation are possible even in devastating circumstances (Payne & Field, 2004). The biblical idea of ‘persistence of hope in the face of unspeakable suffering’ and the movement from ‘mutism to lament’, from ‘loneliness to community’ and from ‘indifference to compassion’ (Zylla, 2012:11,14), could be lifegiving to those bereaved by suicide.

Conclusion

Despite millions bereaved by suicide each year, there remains a lack of research evidence regarding the most effective way to support those facing such bereavement. There is no vaccine against suicide and it can affect your life at any moment. It is indiscriminate of social class, race and background and can strike in the most unexpected of families. No one is immune (O’Connor, 2021:37).

Benore and Park (2004) observed that most bereavement research ignores the role of religious belief, including the roles attributed to God (Vandecreek & Mottram, 2011). For the participants involved, exploring difficult theological questions without judgement and seeking God’s presence were critical. For the local church to support the suicide bereaved, reflecting on the theology of suicide is vital to combatting stigma and providing care (Potter, 2021).

Coming to terms with a traumatic event like the suicide of a loved one is highly challenging physically, emotionally and intellectually, demanding a new narrative to make sense of life. Religion appears to facilitate positive outcomes as it relates to ‘meaning-making’ (Brown, 2022).

O’Connor (2021:44) states that ‘suicides are an awful indictment on society’. We live in a world where we are deemed failures if we do not conform to the standard set by society. As a result, many individuals do not think they are valued or valuable. It appears to be ‘a societal disorder in a toxic world’ that makes it difficult for sensitive, caring people to remain here (O’Connor,2021).

Ministers and pastoral caregivers have ‘the sacred task of entering into the suffering of others’. This is demanding, especially in tragic bereavement situations like suicide, but possible with an understanding of the challenges faced by the suicide bereaved and a ‘more fully developed framework of pastoral theology and the theology of suffering’ (Zylla, 2012:167).

As we navigate life post-pandemic and face the challenges of the high cost of living, there is a potential for an increase in suicides; the local church has an opportunity to provide pastoral and spiritual support to those in their congregation bereaved by suicide.

Through deep reflection on the issues surrounding suicide, and education and training (Zylla, 2012; Cepuliene & Pucinskaite, 2021), the local church could positively impact the spiritual formation of those suicide bereaved in their congregation. Through presence and sensitivity, active listening and practical support, the church could restore the fragile hope of those afflicted by suicide, encouraging spiritual growth and offering postvention support to those who might otherwise lose faith or, more significantly, take their own life.

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About the author

Angela Thomson MA Spiritual Formation, EMCC Practitioner, BA Stirling University, PGCE (Secondary) Moray House

Angela lives near Edinburgh and has worked as a community pastor in an urban priority area for the last fifteen years. She supports and supervises others in leadership roles, is involved in spiritual direction, coaching and mentoring and supports those bereaved by suicide through different charities. She has just completed her MA in Spiritual Formation at Waverley Abbey College. This article is drawn from her final research project dissertation.

She can be contacted at athomson2012@hotmail.co.uk

Copyright

Copyright 2023 Angela Thomson

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