How can I best minister to someone who has lost a family member to suicide? My good friend's son recently took his own life, and I'm at a loss as to what I should do or say to her. Can you help me?
The first thing you need to realize is that, in addition to her grief, your friend is probably experiencing a wide range of conflicting emotions and working her way through a huge amount of guilt and self-incrimination. Parents of suicide victims tend to blame themselves. They run through the "what ifs" and the "if onlys" a thousand times in their minds. They tell themselves that they ought to have seen what was coming and that they should have done something to prevent it. If they don't blame themselves, they may blame their spouses and end up destroying their marriages. If you're going to reach out effectively, you need to be aware of all this.
You also need to be very careful that you don't make the wrong use of this information. Once you understand what's going on inside your friend's head, you may feel tempted to rush in and try to "fix" the situation. Avoid this at all costs. If circumstances offer an opportunity, you should by all means assure your friend – gently and quietly – that her son's death was not her fault. But don't push this idea on her. Try to find the middle ground between "doctoring" her on the one hand and steering clear of her on the other. Some people in your situation say, "I'm so overwhelmed by this person's loss that I don't know what to do, and therefore I'm not going to do anything." That's not a good idea.
The better plan is to resolve to be a good listener. Practice empathy, remembering the biblical exhortation to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Draw your friend out with carefully worded questions. Try to get inside her feelings. Be there for her as she processes her emotions. Encourage her to seek professional counseling and to fight any tendency she may have to withdraw into herself and "clam up" about the terrible thing that has happened. Do what you can to make it easy for her to talk about her feelings and grieve openly.
If your friend is a Christian, you can be certain that she's wrestling with big questions about her son's eternal destiny – questions like, "Can the sin of suicide be forgiven?" and "Is my son in heaven or in hell?" As you probably know, Bible scholars have answered these questions in many different ways over the centuries. What you need to bear in mind is that this is not the time for an in-depth theological discussion. As you have a chance, you can encourage her with two thoughts. First, suicide is never the act of a rational mind, and as a result we probably shouldn't put it in the category of intentional disobedience to God's law. Second, the Scriptures assure us that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover every sin. Beyond this, there's really only one legitimate thing you can say – namely, that every question will be answered and every doubt resolved when we see Jesus face to face.
Finally, urge your friend to seek the help of others who have walked this path before her. There are several reputable organizations and ministries that sponsor support groups for parents and family members of suicide victims. GriefShare, for instance, offers a wealth of encouragement and practical advice for those who are struggling with the recent loss of a loved one. The following groups can also help your friend find the assistance she so desperately needs at this crucial time in her life: SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education); The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; The American Association of Suicidology; and The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program.
Below you'll find a list of some additional resources and referrals. If you think it might be beneficial, we'd also like to invite you to call and discuss your questions with a member of our Counseling staff. Your friend is welcome to do the same, of course. It's a free consultation.
Suicide (resource list)
Grief and Loss (resource list)
Helping Loved Ones Grieve