The Healing Community

A spiritual discipline of community after suicide

by Albert Hsu

The brochure showed up anonymously in my mail slot at work. “Survivors of Suicide is a support group open to anyone who has experienced the loss of a relative or friend through suicide,” it read. “Survivors need a safe place to explore their feelings of grief and anger, to raise questions and doubts. We will welcome you at any time.”

Six months had passed since my father’s death, and I thought I was holding together well enough. Did I need to attend a support group? I wasn’t sure. The flyer sat on my desk for weeks until I finally told myself I would check it out. Maybe it would help me in ways I could not yet anticipate.

The session became with a reading of the serenity prayer. Over cookies and juice, members of the group took turns telling stories of what had happened to their loved ones. A sister who had slit her wrists. A fiancé who had hanged himself. Boxes of tissues were passed around as tears flowed.

When it was my turn, I choked up as I told the group my story. I had not cried for my father for some months now, and I was surprised that tears came back so quickly. As heads nodded around the room, I exhaled a long-pent-up breath of relief. These were people who understood the grief of suicide. I didn’t have to worry about what they would think of me or the suicide; they were a community of fellow survivors, helping one another grieve on the journey.
Healing rarely comes in isolation. We may be tempted to retreat from the world and hide in our pain, but when we draw on the resources of those around us, we will find that we are not alone in our grief. We need to be open to the healing that comes from relationship. All human beings were created with two distinct relational needs: we were designed to be in relationship with God and in relationship with other people. Following a tragedy, our soul feels as if it is full of holes. There is a hollow emptiness in our chest, an inner ache of pain and loss. To find healing and restoration, we need to fill that empty hole with both love from God and love from others. We do so through the parallel spiritual disciplines of solitude and community. In solitude we draw near to God and receive his comfort, grace and reassurance. In community we build relationships with other people who can provide tangible support and kindness.

We need both kinds of love to bring us back to wholeness and health. If we look only to God as our source for restoration, we will withdraw from people and nurture a private, inward looking grief, which is not healthy. God created us to be in relationship with other people. Likewise, our relationships with people are most helpful when they point us to God. While there is great benefit in talking about our experiences and feelings we also need spiritual content, time shared in prayer for one another and in Scripture, and other spiritual resources. Otherwise we are merely relying on ourselves rather than turning to the power and comfort of God.

Just as the human body has the ability and capacity to heal its own wounds, so too the body of Christ can heal itself when one part is injured. A body part does not heal on its own power, in isolation from the rest of the body. It depends on nutrients being digested and carried through the bloodstream, antibiodies that ward off infection, and continued health of the overall body to protect the wounded area while it is healing. The body of Christ has the life of Christ dwelling within it. While we each draw life and hope from God as individuals, we also experience the healing and recovery that come from being a part of his body. God is the source of life, and that life-giving healing Spirit is experienced most fully when we are living in relationship with other parts of the body of Christ.

How Friends and Family Can Help

During my sophomore year of high school I was smitten with a girl in my class; some of our mutual friends told me I was rather obsessed with her. When she told me she was not interested in dating, I spun into a season of gloom and depression. I was constantly downcast and listless. Life felt meaningless.

As a member of my school’s debate team, I attended a two-week summer debate camp at a local college. My friend Dan, my roommate that week, tells me that I alternated between extremes of bouncing-off-the-walls hyperactivity and down-in-the-dumps despondency. I browsed the college library and looked at books about suicide. This and my extreme mood swings alarmed Dan, who challenged me and asked how I was doing. Months later I learned the camp counselors had put me on suicide watch.

While I never made an actual suicide attempt, this teenage flirtation with suicidal thinking lingers in my memory. When I read news reports of teen suicides, I wonder if that could have been me, had I been allowed to sink deeper into my melancholy. I am grateful for Dan and others whose friendship kept me alive.

Years later, Dan was one of the first people I called after I found out about my dad’s death, and I asked him for his prayers. A few months after my father’s funeral, Dan called me to say, “Al, I feel like I need to apologize to you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I don’t think I’ve been a very good friend to you,” he said. He had wanted to help but hadn’t known what to say or do, so he didn’t do anything. “I should have at least sent a card,” Dan said.

Suicide is bewildering enough for the immediate survivors; those surrounding the survivors are often even more at a loss for what to say or do. My wife told me later that she had no idea what to do to get me through it. We had been married for only a few months, and the newlywed instruction manual didn’t say anything about what to do in case of parental suicide. The best thing she did for me was simply to be there beside me. I just needed her companionship.
What can friends of survivors of suicide do for them? Pray. Listen. Send cards. Provide company. Help with practical details, funeral arrangements, food, phone calls, and so on. If you don’t know what to do, far better simply to say, “I don’t really know what to do or say,” than not to do or say anything at all. That simple admission itself communicates care and concern. In some small way, the fact that others are at a loss about what to do provides a point of identification with suicide survivors who may feel completely at a loss.

Presence, Not Platitudes

Survivors of suicide don’t need pat answers to incomprehensible questions. We need the loving presence of others to help us keep our lives going. We need companions on the journey, not answers. We don’t need the pain to be minimized; we want others to be willing to be with us in our pain and grief.

Consolation can seem woefully empty at times. Well-intentioned people may attempt to comfort, but their words often seem meaningless. Their actions may end up being more hurtful than helpful, like the words of Job’s friends when they told him that his calamities were the result of his sin. “You are miserable comforters, all of you!” Job lashed out. “Will your long-winded speeches never end? (Job 16:2–3, NIV).

When people die, the bereaved are often assailed by such pious clichés as “God took him home” or “God decided it was his time to go.” Even in cases of natural death, these kinds of statements are rarely helpful, since the survivors then feel as if God is responsible for the death. In the case of suicide, they are even more disturbing since they are tantamount to saying that God killed our loved one or induced her to kill herself. The truth is our loved one chose the suicide. To say any more goes beyond what can be humanly known.

As time passes, some things get easier while others stay the same. Sometimes someone will ask me if I’m okay and I’ll sigh and say, “I don’t know. I suppose.” Other time people will ask about how my mother or brother is doing, and I’ll wonder, How am I supposed to know? I don’t even know how I feel, let alone anyone else. While we need comfort from friends and relatives, we need to be patient with them, and they need to be patient with us. Grief is not easy for any of us, and it may take some time for us to come to be point where we are able to open up to others.

Preventing Other Suicides

Scripture gives us one key example of suicide prevention. The book of Acts records that the apostle Paul was imprisoned in Philippi during his second missionary journey. An earthquake freed him and other prisoners. The jailer in charge would have been held responsible for their escape.
Acts 16:27–28 says, “The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’” Paul subsequently led the jailer to Christ, and his whole household became Christians.

Paul’s model of suicide prevention is one we can follow today. He intervened in the jailer’s crisis. He stopped him from harming himself. He gave him a reason to live. We can do the same.

If we see others who are despairing of life, we, like Paul, can call out to them, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” We need to show them that we are in fact here for them. We are here, your loved ones, friends, and family members, and we don’t want you to harm yourself.

At its best, the church creates safe spaces for strugglers and grievers alike. When crisis looms or tragedy strikes, the church can draw near.

Things Not to Say

“She’s in a better place now.” (How do you know for sure? This feels like an empty platitude.
“I know how you feel.” (No, you don’t. You know how you feel, not how I feel.)
“All things work together for good” or “Everything happens for a reason.” (Anything about God’s will or secret plans feels like a pat answer and attempted quick fix.)
“God never gives you more than you can handle.” (Not biblical.)
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (Catchy Kelly Clarkson song notwithstanding, this comes from Nietzsche, not Scripture. And it hurts to be reminded that my loved one wasn’t strong enough to live.)
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” (Actual helping in concrete ways, like cleaning the house or providing meals, is more appreciated than mere words or promises.)
Any joking about people killing themselves, like “Oh, if I fail this test, I’m going to kill myself.” (Please don’t joke like that. Suicide is not something to make light of.)

Things to Say

Nothing. (But be present.)
“I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t know what to say or do.”
“Do you want to go out for coffee?”
“Tell me what you want to remember about him/her.”
“Tell me your story.”

By Albert Y. Hsu in Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope

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