A Sermon on Suicide Loss and Prevention for Faith Hope & Life Sunday
What will we say – to ourselves and to others – in times of disaster, of catastrophic loss? This morning, our readings invite us to consider what we say. Do we speak for ill or for good, James asks? We can use our tongues to destroy, he reminds us, but the reverse, of course, is that we can use them for great good. Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks? If we say that he is the Messiah, what does that mean for our daily lives? When we tell the WORST stories of our lives, what do we say as a people of hope?
Here’s my worst story. It’s been ten years since my husband and I, in separate locales that day, received the phone calls that informed us that our lives had been altered forever: That our son Josh had died of suicide the night before. Our tall, blonde and blue-eyed, brilliant, creative, athletic, and witty son, our beloved son Josh, was gone. I was standing in a small room, cell phone to my ear, and I could literally feel the floor beneath my feet tilting in some new direction I didn’t know existed.
Sometimes, when a person dies of suicide, family and friends perhaps don’t expect it, but they know it’s a possibility lurking out there. There have been clear indications of mental illness, perhaps years — of suffering, psychiatrists, medications, hospitalizations, perhaps even attempts. We were in the other broad category of survivors: We had no idea that death was just around the corner. Later we would learn that our son had probably been struggling with a deep, and deadly, clinical depression for at least a few years. Sadly, people of great ability and experiencing what appears to be solid progress in life often successfully conceal the despair of mental illness. People can feel shamed by the discovery that there are challenges in life that they cannot seem to overcome, and fail to seek the help that would be so gladly given.
In the first weeks and months and years, as we tried to figure out how to live again, there didn’t seem to be any reason for us to address suicide as an issue. As I said, we were in the group of survivors who has no idea that it was coming. I recall saying to my husband one night, “It’s as if a locomotive came out of nowhere and ran him down.” We didn’t know much about recent and hopeful strides in mental health care; we didn’t even know that there WAS anything to know. And certainly most of the people in our circles of friends and colleagues did not go around talking about suicide.
But then, three years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I made an interesting discovery. I had already found that I could clear a room by stating that I had lost a child to suicide. Seriously, people became silent and moved out of my orbit as fast as they could when they heard that news. But breast cancer? People surrounded me with concern and support and information. All kinds of information and offers of help.
Hmmm, I thought. I remembered being a little girl and learning about breast cancer via my grandmother’s ladies magazines, and hushed conversations among women as I eavesdropped on the other side of the wall. Breast cancer was something shameful, and its consequences so horrible that women DIED rather than speaking up or going to the doctor.
Today, two generations later, much has changed. There’s money, lots of money, available for study and treatment, and lots of research being done on breast cancer. It’s no longer stigmatized – even football players wear pink jerseys in October. Public service announcements about mammograms appear everywhere. Lives are being saved, and a lot of attention these days is being directed to the stubborn cancers that have resisted cure thus far.
All because women dropped the hushed tones, and started speaking out.
Could this happen with suicide, I wondered? And so I spent some of my cancer recovery time learning new things, and became, in my own very small way, a suicide prevention activist. Today I volunteer with a couple of national organizations, work which has taken me to Columbus and to DC to meet with legislators and their aides and to speak up for suicide prevention legislation and funding. Like thousands of others, I participate in walks to raise funds for education, research and advocacy. Last summer at GA, I presented a suicide prevention resolution that’s been adopted by our national church
But what does this all have to do with faith? Why bring suicide up in the church? I think that the answer might be summed up in words I heard spoken many years ago by Unitarian pastor Forrest Church in a sermon at Chautauqua: We live, and we die, and our life of faith helps us make sense of those two realities.
Church, the community in which we worship and serve God, is also for many of us the most significant community in which we articulate and absorb realities about life and death. It’s one of the main communities, sometimes THE main community, in which we meet and share loss. All kinds of losses, but especially loss as a consequence of death. We may be people of faith, and we may believe in an afterlife, but those realities don’t prevent us from suffering deeply, or from experiencing anger and bewilderment, in the face of death, and needing a place to go and be with those feelings.
Just last week-end, I conducted a funeral in Euclid for one of my former parishoners from our now closed BPC. I spent some time there talking with one of her dearest friends, whom I had met years ago at OSC. She has experienced three suicides in her family, and another recent loss, and is a mental health activist not to be crossed. She told me that church is the place in which people have checked up on her, asked her how she is, and formed community around her.
It was in church, in a confirmation class a couple of years ago, that an eighth grader asked me, “Do people who die of suicide go to hell?” He had pulled together various conversations he’d overheard after the death of a beloved uncle, and brought his confusion to his church.
Of course, church is no different from other communities in that we often struggle to discuss or respond to suicide. It’s such a devastating, traumatic loss. It so violates everything else we learn in church. “Choose life!” says God in the Bible. How do we even begin address a topic, or a loss in our own small communities of faith, that collides so profoundly with all that we have absorbed and taught together?
That’s why we have days like this: To learn how to do it. In some ways, it’s like any other horrible loss – but then sometimes we need to learn to respond to those, too. In other ways, it’s very different. I’m going to offer you three things today, because maybe three are enough to hang onto:
First, learn the language. We try not to say anymore that someone “committed suicide.” Why not? Because that makes suicide sound like a crime rather than a consequence of mental illness, which science tells us that 90% of suicides are. We would never say that someone “committed a heart attack,” or “committed cancer.” We don’t stigmatize physical illness by calling it a crime. Same with suicide.
Second, remember Jesus. What does Jesus do when confronted with ill or heartbroken or grieving people? He doesn’t turn away. He doesn’t try to pretend he hasn’t seen them. Jesus always wades right in, walks toward, reaches out. Jesus is fearless! Jesus is always healing, with hands, and spit, and mud, and food, and drink, and words. Jesus models for us what to do. Walk toward, not away. Listen. Offer help, and then actually give help. Listen. Write notes. Show up. Listen. You wonder whether people who die by suicide are excluded from eternal joy? Look at Jesus. He never condemns those who are in need of healing. Listen, and then share the good news of hope: We are always, always, surrounded by loved.
Third, learn a little about suicide. Learn about mental illness. Learn about help and prevention.
Learn, for instance, that suicide is preventable. You will still hear people say that there’s nothing that can be done; that when a person makes up their mind to end their life, nothing can stop them. NOT TRUE. Research and experience continue to show us that when properly treated, people with serious illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder, and people who have suicidal thoughts, can emerge from the darkness and move into productive and joyful lives. Nearly everyone who has attempted suicide and lived to tell the story is grateful for whatever interventions restored them to life. Don’t let yourself be fooled by platitudes which are downright wrong and even dangerous.
Learn the signs of mental illness and of the possibility of suicide. Learn how to pay attention, and what to notice. Learn how to respond. Learn what to ask and what to do.
Church is a place we can do that. Tonight, in fact, at the Methodist church across the street, there’s a program by a representative from Life Act, the organization I mentioned last week that does the walks at the Zoo and provides extensive education on suicide prevention in the schools. Go across the street and learn! Invite trainers in mental health and in suicide prevention to do programs in the church. There is Mental Health First Aid Training, just as there is Red Cross training for dealing with injuries and for performing CPR. There are programs specially focused on suicide prevention training. There’s even one for congregations called Soul Shop, in which I was trained last spring.
Why do all this in church? Why not leave it to schools, or community groups, or hospital classes?
Because we live, and we die, and the faith community is where we make some sense of those things – and we need to help each other do that in a context of God’s love, taught and practiced.
And because we in the church practice a faith marked by baptism and resurrection.
Do we speak for ill or for good, James asks? Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks?
What DO we say? What do we say when confronted by a catastrophic loss of life? What do we say, and how do we live, when everything in our world is shaken, when the ground tilts beneath us, when nothing will ever be the same? What are we saying, what are we believing, what are we enacting, when we respond to death by suicide, and when we take it upon ourselves to prevent future deaths?
This is what we say, and believe, and embody:
You, whoever you are, whether “officially” baptized in the church or not, you are a beloved child of God. That is the name we say at baptism, and it is the name that is irrevocably yours. Beloved child of God. You have been a beloved child of God since the very beginning of your life and nothing, neither death nor life, nor anything in all creation, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:38) NOTHING.
And you, whoever you are, beloved child of God, your hope lies in the love and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the new creation toward which he is leading us, the new creation in which there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, in which every tear is wiped away.
We live by faith and hope and love. We have to do a lot of gritty work in between our birth as beloved children of God and our resurrection as beloved participants in God’s new creation. We do a lot of living, and it isn’t all la-de-da. Some of it is hard and life-altering and requires way more courage and perseverance than we ever had in mind to practice.
But we are a beloved people of the resurrection. We are a people who speak out and live out the lives to which God calls us by faith and in hope and for love. We are called as God’s representatives of a love so recklessly abundant and complete that it embraces us in all circumstances. And so listen, and share your stories, and learn, and act – out of faith and hope and love. Amen.