By Elizabeth Stone
That day I found my seventeen-year-old daughter lying in her closet in pools of vomit, unresponsive and babbling nonsense. Rushing her to the hospital we began a 36-hour vigil, praying she would survive her massive overdose of OTC’s. Ostensibly, Erin was not at risk for suicide. How could this happen to a good Christian girl, whose parents were both in ministry?
We quickly found that mental illness and suicide did not compute among believers. No strategies in the pastor’s play book, and laypeople were clueless on how to respond; mostly people just stayed away. Problem is, suicide is on the rise in America, increasing by about 30% over the last eighteen years, and has become the second leading cause of death among our youth. This terrible killer is stalking our people, and if we haven’t confronted it already in our own church family, statistically it is inevitable. What, then, is the Christian response to an attempted or completed suicide?
With cancer, diabetes, or a car accident, the church moves into action. In Appalachia, where I live, people show up with meals, put the person on every prayer list in three states, and check in regularly. At death we bring in meals, do housework, go to visitation, show up early for the funeral, provide a meal after graveside at the church, and have tissues handy for any family member in need - wonderful church family caring. The simple rule of thumb for mental illness or suicide is: do the same. Call. Bring in the meals. Visit. With permission, put people on those prayer lists. Do whatever is the norm for the church family. Listen to the grief, as many times as they need to tell it. Show up at visitation and the funeral, and make that after graveside meal. Follow-up with phone calls and visits, invite the family out to church and community events. Survivors of a completed suicide need to know they are not spiritual lepers.
Silence empowers suicide. How do we combat it? By breaking the silence. Erin and I wrote our testimony (Valley of the Shadow, 2014) in order to start conversations in spiritual circles. Back then I scavenged for resources, but now resources are emerging for pastors and laity to prevent suicide and prepare against it.
Think someone’s at risk? Ask. Ask how they’re doing, and if they’ve thought about self-harm. Three levels define risk: suicidal ideation (general thoughts about suicide); a specific plan (how to complete suicide); and having that means to complete suicide. If all three are present, get help: call their doctor, or 911, or get them to an ER.
Proverbs 24:11 says:
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
Hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
Grace. Heals Everything. Being the church in this valley means creating safe, sacred spaces to talk and pray about our brokenness, walking long paths of recovery together. Bringing Christ’s resurrection power to suicide restores not just survivors, but the whole faith community.
The Rev. Elizabeth Stone is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MDiv) and pastors in the PCUSA. After studying math and French at Bethany College, WV, she taught in public and private education for 15 years. She has served on the WV Suicide Prevention Council, and is an advocate with the WV chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Educational ministries in church school, camp, VBS, and music have been her focus, and she has also been a chaplain in hospice. Rev. Stone is married and has five children and five grandchildren. For more from Elizabeth Stone visit her website.