by Cassie Moore, DCE
Tips for Helping Youth Cope After A Suicide:
- It's important to validate feelings of shock, anger, sadness, and confusion. Don't undervalue what students are saying by "one-upping" them with your own personal reflection or stories. Let them talk without interruption.
- Allow students to express their feelings in a safe, appropriate manner. Some students may want to discuss it openly, some may prefer to sit quietly and reflect, some may not be deeply affected at all. Respect wherever they're at and give each person a chance to have his or her own outlet. Allow them to journal, paint, talk, or sit quietly--whatever they need.
- Don't hesitate to show your own feelings to your students, but be aware that you are a powerful role model for them at this time, too.
- To avoid copy-cat behavior, give your students the facts of what happened but do not try to explain what led up to the person's decision.
- Don't allow students to view suicide as an acceptable means to dealing with their problems. Spend your time focusing on how to help students cope positively with their own grief.
- One of your most powerful tools is your presence. Don't feel like you need to "fix the problem" and make your students feel better. Be a support, be a shoulder they can cry on, and be a person they can talk to openly and honestly. You don't need to be an expert or know exactly what to say in order to be an effective crisis counselor in their lives at this time. Sometimes silence is the best balm for students. Simply being willing to sit with them and be a physical presence can be just as helpful as hours of conversation.
- Don't say "Everything's going to be fine" or "I know exactly how you feel," and don't use cliché phrases like "time heals all wounds". These phrases do nothing but invalidate a student's pain.
Questions that May Arise from Students (And How to Answer Them):
Q: Why did she/he kill herself/himself?
A: We don't know. We'll never be able to figure out the answer to that question, as the answer has died with this person. We need to focus on working through our feelings together and talking about preventing future suicides, rather than trying to explain why.
Q: How did he/she kill himself?
A: If you have the facts, specifically answer the question in a tactful manner (i.e. "He hung himself"). Do not talk about explicit details, like what the body looked like or what type of weapon was used.
Q: Who's to blame for this suicide?
A: The person who committed suicide made the decision; there is no one else to blame. It did not have to happen, and it is no one else's fault.
Q: Is it OK to be mad at my friend for making this decision?
A: Yes, your friend made a very bad choice. You have permission to be feeling angry at them. However, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can work through forgiving this person and the pain they have caused us.
Q: Is a person who commits suicide going straight to hell?
A: The LCMS does not have an official stance on the eternal state of someone who has committed suicide, since that person's spiritual state is known only by God.
Martin Luther himself said, "I don't have the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil." However, Luther does go on to say that this statement should not be misunderstood or misused in a way that would downplay the danger and seriousness of this sin in the minds of people (Luther's Works, American Edition, Vol. 54, p. 29).
So, how do we answer whether a person who commits suicide goes to hell? Simply, we don't know. An "unpardonable sin" is committed when a person consciously, stubbornly, maliciously and persistently resists the efforts of the Holy Spirit, who seeks to work saving faith in the person's heart by convincing him of the truth of the Gospel. In other words, that person dies without forgiveness, having continually rejected Jesus Christ--the only One through whom sin can be forgiven.
If a suicide victim dies in this state, then he has committed the unpardonable sin. If, however, he had saving faith in Christ at the time of his death, then he is not guilty of that particular sin.
There are a couple of considerations one should keep in mind when dealing with the difficult subject of suicide. A person who takes his own life, and is mentally sound at the time, enters into great spiritual peril since this last act in his life eliminates the opportunity for repentance. However, there are instances when Christians, due to severe depression or another form of mental illness, take their own lives.
In any case, Christians should be cautious when making judgments about the existence of faith in the heart or the eternal destiny of another person. We need to remember that we have a loving, merciful God. Ultimately, only God knows the fate of those who commit suicide.
Q: What should I say about my friend now that they made the choice to die by suicide?
A: Remember the positive things about your friend, and feel free to share those good memories. But, be sensitive to their family members and close friends--be willing to give them the privacy that they deserve.
Q: What's an appropriate way to remember this person?
A: The American Association of Suicidology does not condone permanent markers or memorials such as plaques, special pages in yearbooks, or trees, as these things often glorify the suicide victim and can contribute to other students considering suicide. An appropriate way to remember your friend would be something like a scholarship fund or contribution to an organization.
Q: What are the warning signs of suicide?
A: Common signs include dramatic changes in personality and behavior, giving away prized possessions, fascination with death, saying goodbye to friends or family, written or verbal statements about death and/or suicide, or making a suicide attempt.
Q: What should I do if I have a friend who's suicidal?
A: Listen to your friend and support them. Let them know that they are not alone, and that they are not the first person to be feeling like this. Don't minimize their problems or take away from them by focusing on yourself. Most importantly, don't keep this a secret--you need to get your friend some help. Talk to a counselor or psychologist, since they have special training to help people just like your friend. It's important to stay with your friend until they are connected to a support system, like a parent, teacher, school counselor or nurse, pastor, youth leader, or counselor. If someone is in immediate danger, don't hesitate to call 911.
Resources for Students:
911 or any local hospital
Cassie Moore is a Director of Christian Education overseeing middle school ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up in Illinois and Minnesota, and earned her degree from Concordia University in Irvine, California. She is passionate about relational, Christ-centered ministry, and enjoys observing culture, exploring new places, painting, writing, reading, and talking to strangers. She lives with her husband, Tyler, a seminary student at Concordia Seminary St. Louis, and two Australian Shepherd puppies. Read more of her writing at her blog at zealousglow.wordpress.com.