Here in Maine, many of us are grieving the suicide death last month of a 13-year-old middle school student. It can be hard to know what to say and what not to say in the face of such family tragedy. Anie Graham was described by friends as bubbly, friendly, and talented in math. Her parents saw a different picture.
They say that after they moved to a new school district, their daughter’s behavior changed in ways that concerned them. She kept telling them she wanted to die, and she began to cut herself.
Her father, Matt Graham, has told local media that the family reached out to mental health services and the school, but failed to receive effective assistance. He and his wife Rose also acknowledge that they only saw the cruel bullying on Anie’s social media accounts after her death.
The story popped up on a prayer chain that I’m part of and the comments reminded me how few people understand the devastating guilt and grief that follow a suicide.
I lost a roommate to suicide in the 1990s. I have known more than 20 people who have attempted suicide, died by suicide, or struggled with their emotions after a loved one’s suicide death. So when I saw how my praying friends were thinking about this terrible situation, I had to tell you: there are better ways.
So when I saw how my praying friends were thinking about this terrible situation, I had to tell you: there are better ways.
What Not to Say: “Just call if you need me.”
Your friend is at the bottom of a hole that goes halfway to the center of the earth. Even if he could reach his phone, there’s no signal. Even if he could get a signal, he can’t talk, only howl. Most people don’t respond well to howls via cell phone, so he’s not going to call.
Try Instead: “Hi, are you there?”
Don’t wait to be invited to visit. You’re going to have to drive over to his place, climb down that hole and sit with him. It’s dark. It’s clammy. You might want to bring some hot tea or soup. Maybe some blankets or a space heater. Maybe the only way he’ll feel warmer is when someone holds him. Hold him.
What Not to Say: “No parent is perfect.”
Yeah. But most parents don’t have dead kids. This isn’t imperfect, this is the screw-up beyond all screw-ups. How could I have missed it? How could her father have missed it? What if we had just … or just … or just …
Imperfect is a pretty small failure compared to letting your child die. It’s a really small failure compared to letting your child kill herself. Dad knows he’s not perfect. Mom knows she’s not perfect. The Enemy is reminding them both over and over that their imperfections were fatal. It haunts his sleepless nights. It destroys her concentration at work.
Dad knows he’s not perfect. Mom knows she’s not perfect. The Enemy is reminding them both over and over that their imperfections were fatal. The idea haunts his sleepless nights. It destroys her concentration at work.
Try Instead: “I can’t imagine how terrible you must feel.”
Unless your child died by suicide, believe me, you can’t imagine the churning maelstrom of guilty self-criticism whirling inside this parent. Suggest, “I have known you for long enough to know how much you loved her and how hard you tried to be the best parents you could.
Suggest, “I have known you for long enough to know how much you loved her and how hard you tried to be the best parents you could. I’m also think maybe, right now, you can’t believe that. And it’s okay if you can’t. This is the worst thing that can happen to a family.” And then just listen to whatever they say.
And then just listen to whatever they say.
What Not to Say: “God will redeem this.”
Sure, it’s true. God makes all things work together for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28). That doesn’t mean that the process of working things together will be less than devastating. This is no time to even think toward the parents that “God’s greatest triumphs come from our greatest tragedies.” Or that “God never gives us more than we can bear.”
When a family loses a child to suicide, the parents also are usually lost — not because they’re physically gone but because their identities have been shattered.
It’s a myth that families are more likely to split up after the death of a child. What is well demonstrated is that even many years later, the parents are no longer the same people emotionally. Symptoms of depression and poor health often plague parents years after a child’s death from any cause. Mom and Dad’s own grief will make it more difficult for them to be the parents they want to be to their other children.
Try Instead: “I will take care of you. Now.”
Pray for God’s comfort, then be God’s hands and feet: Do what you can to bring comfort.
Does he need a quiet night free from the other children? Does she need a meal or two … some chocolate … or a buddy for the gym? Do they need to talk with someone who can help them figure out ways to deal with their own grief without dragging their partner further down?
While it’s not true that God never gives one person more than he or she can bear, it is true that God never gives the Body of Christ more than we can handle together (Gal. 6:2). Be together with the parents and children who are in pain.
One of the most difficult aspects of grief or any major emotional stress in a family is that the different family members grieve in different ways and at their own paces. One person is living as if the child’s death never occurred (denial OR self-comforting with tasks) while another is raging at God and everyone around (anger AND sorrow) and another won’t emerge from their room (sorrow AND hopelessness) and another is rallying suicide prevention campaigns (bargaining).
Each person’s reaction looks entirely inappropriate to everyone else from the emotional places where they themselves are sitting. And each person will, over time, cycle into any of the other responses – almost certainly out of sync with everyone else.
What Not to Say: “She’s in a better place now.”
This is also very likely to be true, but rarely likely to be helpful in the short run.
A friend whose son died by suicide says, two years later, that her main comfort is knowing that he is no longer unhappy and addicted, but living in God’s presence.
She also says that she has been “hollowed out” by her son’s death. She no longer has a sense of herself as a powerful person who has influence over what matters most to her in this world.
She still maintains control over how she appears in public: she chooses to smile and laugh, even in church, because “the surest way to find yourself alone is to be crying all the time.”
But she lives in utter dependence on God’s care and provision. She works as in a low-paid, low-skilled job instead of continuing to run her own business. She has learned, in the most painful way possible, that she has very limited power to affect even what she cares about most.
Try Instead: “It was so hard to see her hurting, and it’s even harder to have her gone.”
Families live under duress when a family member is struggling with extreme emotions.
We know from the Bible that this is how the Body is built: when one part hurts, all hurt with it (1 Cor. 12: 26). But we don’t live closely enough with each other to experience it the way the members of a household do. Let the parents know that you felt their pain in seeing their child’s pain, and you feel their greater pain in the loss.
Let the parents know that you felt their pain in seeing their child’s pain, and you feel their greater pain in the loss.
What Not to Say: “What a selfish thing to have done!”
You’re trying to sympathize with the grieving survivor, but you’re doing it by accusing the person they love. You’re telling them that the person they loved was not loving toward them.
It is hard to lose someone you love; it is harder to lose someone with whom the relationship is fraught and unresolved. You are telling your friend that, whether or not they knew it, this relationship was shaped by an unrepented sin of selfishness. And if the survivor comes to believe what you’re saying, it will be more difficult – not less difficult – for them to walk through this valley. They will grow a hard kernel of anger and resentment in their heart. They will lose compassion and care for their lost loved one. They’ll also lose compassion for anyone in years to come who is contemplating suicide or grieving a suicide loss.
Try Instead: “I can’t imagine how awful she must have felt.”
Suicide doesn’t come from selfishness. It comes from not being able to see beyond the pit you’re in. There’s an important difference.
Selfishness is choosing to do what is best for yourself in disregard of others. But suicide is not best for yourself. Suicide is only the least terrible option of all the terrible options a person can see at the moment. It’s all a person can figure out when she can’t see through the blinding fog of hopelessness that surrounds her.
What Not to Say: “How could you not have noticed?”
There are lots of variations on this one. “Wasn’t she showing signs?” “Parents need to supervise their child’s social media use.” All of these accusations distance you from the parents’ horror and grief. And, to be entirely and unfortunately realistic, anyone who really wants to die – adult or child – masks their intentions. Who knew that Robin Williams, offering a sockful of valuable watches to a friend, was “giving away valued possessions” – not just playing out a comic schtick?
Try Instead: “I can’t believe none of us noticed.”
Small change in words, big change in meaning. “You”: Accusation. “Us”: Shared responsibility.
What Not to Say: “At least God has blessed you with other children.”
Your own children aren’t interchangeable; why would it be a comfort to suggest that theirs are?
To the grieving parent, this sounds a lot like, “It’s too bad your puppy got hit by a car, but we can go to the shelter and get another.” You don’t really intend to suggest that any one of the children of their heart is as replaceable as a rescue dog.
Try Instead: “Can you and I go to the park with the kids?”
No child substitutes for another. Still, it really is true that having other children is likely to prove a comfort over the long term.
How does this work? I expect the jury is still out. The value may simply come as a parent rediscovers meaning and purpose in supporting the rest of the family. When you come alongside a grieving family and offer an activity you can all share, you help them begin to build a positive foundation for their new reality.
But be aware: they may say no to the activity or break down during the outing. You need to be okay with that.
All Parents Do the Best They Can. Always.
You don’t get a skyrocketing suicide rate among children because some subgroup of American parents has suddenly become incompetent. You get a skyrocketing suicide rate in the US among almost all age groups because we, as a culture, have forgotten how to live in the ways that keep each other alive: offering hope, meaning, and purpose for each other’s lives. We have forgotten how to provide each other a sure sense of belonging to something bigger than our own individual selves, something that matters and endures.
The Christian church is part of something much bigger than ourselves, something that matters more than anything and endures for all time. Remind grieving parents that they still belong to God’s Body, and assure them by your presence that God’s Body is still attending to them.
What the Bible Says
The Bible doesn’t suggest best strategies for responding to suicide. There are a half-dozen suicides in the text, of which three are familiar to most:
- Judas’ death by suicide was a traitor’s attempt to escape his own shame. We aren’t sure where he was buried, although we assume he is dead in an unmarked pauper’s grave in what had been the potter’s field.
- King Saul chose suicide over expected torture at the hand of military foes. His body, desecrated by his enemies, was burned and the cremains buried (a very atypical funeral for a Hebrew); the people fasted seven days.
- Samson was something like a suicide bomber: he collapsed a building on himself in order to kill some 3,000 Philistines gathered to watch his feats of strength. His family gave him a typical burial.
In none of these stories does God give us clear guidance for our response to suicide deaths. So let us review, instead, how God directs us to interact with those who are in grief.
Mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). Not “mourn with those who mourn a death you find acceptable.” Or “mourn with those who grieve a loss you feel comfortable with.” Or “mourn with those who are sad about a death that couldn’t possibly have been prevented in any way.” Just mourn with those who mourn.
Jesus wept (John 11:35). Jesus knew that Mary and Martha were hurting after Lazarus’ death. He also knew that he was about to bring Lazarus back to them. So why did he cry? Because they were crying. Follow his example.
The death of a child is any parent’s greatest fear: how much greater the guilt and terror when that death has been self-inflicted.
As members of God’s living Body here on earth, we do not need to be afraid when we face a parent’s overwhelming emotional response to an experience that is overwhelming their family. We are empowered by God to weep with them, to mourn with them, and to comfort them.
In an appropriate time, we can help them find a way out of the deep pit where they have landed. In the first six months or two years, during a time when their world has been shattered, we can be the flesh-and-blood representatives of the Rock to which we all cling. He has, after all, commissioned us to be his hands and feet and loving heart in this world. Go and do. Go and love. Go and be who Christ made you to be.
Have you found good (or not so good) ways to support people grieving a suicide loss?