I didn’t know what to say.
When my mother called me to tell me that a dear fellow Christian and family friend of ours had taken his own life, I thought I’d misheard her. “What happened exactly?” I kept asking. When she had to hang up shortly thereafter to go help the family, I went about my day believing that there had been some sort of unfortunate accident or illness. I was wrong. She called back later to confirm the news, and for the first time that I can remember, we both sat on the phone in silence. Every now and again one of us tried to wrap our minds around it – “I just…I don’t know…” – before falling back into the quiet.
We weren’t alone. In the weeks that followed I watched our church family struggle, too. Depression and suicide is so rarely discussed openly in the church that no one knew what to say or do – whether to draw attention to what had just occurred, or whether to shy away from it. The normal platitudes we use for the natural deaths of long-lived believers don’t hold up in these situations, and neither do many of the comforts we offer to the families of those taken from us too soon.
When Edmond Sanganyado wrote recently on depression in his blog (referencing two articles here and here which are very useful), I found myself moved by his acknowledgment that the church has a role to play in our culture’s understanding of suicide and of depression – as a place of healing, we have something to give. As a practical matter, and because of my own experiences, I felt inspired to offer some tips on how to address the way we talk (or don’t) about mental illness and depression in our own congregations and, by extension, to minister to the families of those who have taken their own lives.
1. Create an atmosphere of openness, understanding, and compassion for those who struggle with depression and with mental illness. I suspect that one of the reasons Christians are always shocked by suicide in our own communities is because we never see it coming. “They seemed so happy,” we say, bewildered. “The last time I saw him he was fine.” But in reality, we don’t know what struggles people face. Depression is far more than a bad day – it’s a condition that needs treatment. And it does not discriminate: people of all ages and stations in life can face it.
As Christians, it will help us to talk about depression and other forms of mental illness openly and without code words, to acquaint ourselves with what these conditions are and how they manifest, to be acquainted with the warning signs and to reach out to those who are struggling. We must not equate depression or any sort of illness with a lack of faith in God, with a lack of strength or fortitude, or with “inadequate Christianity.”
By providing an environment where people can admit their struggles, or where we can reach out to those we suspect might be struggling, we will be less shocked by the presence of depression in our congregations and will be far more equipped to help and support those who deal with it.
2. Remain compassionate, loyal and steadfast. Depression is not a consistent disease. It can cause irritability, sadness, and suicidal thoughts, among many other symptoms. There are periods of recovery and periods of relapse. When we see depression in our congregation, we need to understand we’re in it for the long haul: from diagnosis and beyond. This is a long-term undertaking, and not something that one casserole or one visit or one prayer is enough to fix.
Additionally, if there is a suicide in your local Christian community, please understand that being present – consistently present – for those in mourning is key. Grief does not end with the funeral, and for people working through the emotions that accompany the suicide of a loved one the following days will be difficult and lonely. Remember them on holidays and on the regular days that follow after. They may not want company – and you should abide by their request if they do not – but there are other ways to be present: texts, cards, emails, prayers, lending a hand where possible. Don’t worry about what to say. You don’t need to say “it’s okay” or “I guess he was just unhappy” or “I don’t understand why.” If you feel lost, focus on the family rather than on your own bewilderment or on the deceased: how are you? What can we do for you? We want you to know that we love you.
3. Do not ask for unnecessary details. Depression is a complicated condition; it isn’t often “caused” by any one particular factor, but rather by a combination of multiple factors. Resist the urge to diagnose people, or to ask for details on their condition so that you can trace it back to a moment, a spiritual failing, an event, or a person. The nature of their depression is between the depressed person and their counselors or doctors, and we do not need to know all the details in order to offer our love and support.
Similarly, when dealing with a suicide, do not attempt to ask about or “guess” what caused the act. I understand that some curiosity is natural, especially when such an event is unexpected; it’s one way humans process the inexplicable. But keep it to yourself. Vocalizing such speculation will only cause pain, and ignores the multiple factors that drives a person to such a decision. Additionally, do not ask for details about the manner of death. I was appalled, when my friend passed away, by the sort of questions people asked aloud: did he leave a letter? How exactly did he die? What was it like?
There are details we do not need to know and should not expect to have shared with us.
4. Do not cast blame and do not sin in your hurt or anger. After our family friend passed away, when I witnessed the grieving of his family, I grieved, too. After a suicide, it’s natural for those left behind to feel a mix of emotions: grief, certainly, and pain, and shock, and often anger. You might find yourself thinking, “How could you?” You might want to blame the person who passed away or express anger that they took their own life. Those feelings are natural, and we should allow ourselves space for them. But be careful to work through those feelings in an appropriate and godly way, and do not burden a bereaved family by sharing your anger or blaming the loved one they’ve lost (even if they are doing so themselves) in their hearing. Listen. Be there. Cry with them. Offer help. Above all, understand that depression is a sickness and that those who take their own lives are lost in the grip of it.
5. Be constant in prayer and plentiful in resources. Once we can be more open about depression and other illnesses in our churches, it will be natural to pray for them and to pray with people about them. Don’t forget these people struggling! Commit to uphold them as they seek help. Additionally, pair the promises of prayer up with useful resources. Here are just a few that your church can offer:
- information on area psychologists and psychiatrists (there are faith-friendly ones out there, but all psychologists and psychiatrists treat depression, and will be respectful if you express that your faith is meaningful to you)
- information on local/national suicide prevention hotlines (1 (800) 273-8255 is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and takes calls in English and Spanish)
- information on local support groups (or Bible study groups or small groups centered around depression and struggles with mental illness)
- practical support (if necessary, rides to the doctor/appointments, reminders to take medication, prayer, and most especially encouragement)
Throughout the Bible, Christians are reminded again and again of their duty to the fatherless, the orphaned, the widowed, the poor, and the helpless. “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them,” asks 1 John 3:17, “how can the love of God be in that person?” As we minister to those who struggle with depression and bereaved families in the aftermath of suicide, let us always remember mercy, and kindness, and the great grace we have received. It is to this that we are called: the church was meant, always, to care for the hurting, and in doing so to express God’s great love and mercy.