I had a sermon nearly written this week, when I woke up Friday morning to hear about the death of Anthony Bourdain. He died by suicide. This wasn’t the first time this week that a celebrity died by suicide. Kate Spade the famous handbag mogul also died by suicide this week. So, I’m at a place that we need to have a conversation as the body of Christ specifically about suicide.
Suicides have increased 30% in recent years and there have been two reported suicide clusters in Palo Alto in the last 5 years. Within the last year one high school student who died by suicide who was part of an ELCA Lutheran church in Palo Alto.
Since I have come to serve you as pastor, I have presided at one funeral for someone in our wider community who had died by suicide. Personally, I have known two people who have died by suicide, one of them being a family member.
I have had more than one conversation with someone contemplating suicide and I’m sure that I will have others.
The first thing I want to say is that that we should no longer say that someone “committed suicide.” People commit robbery, adultery, murder, and lumping suicide in it can stigmatize mental illness and be not empathetic to those who have attempted suicide.
You’ll find that I use the words “died by suicide” or “completed suicide.” I understand that their are better ways to say things and there is a lot of discussion around which way is best, but it’s important to realize that the way we talk about these things also effects the way we see suicide.
Because if you see suicide as a crime or as a sin, it’s easier to stigmatize those who are contemplating or have attempted suicide.
Languages affects worldview and there is an old notion that somehow suicide is an unforgivable sin.
There is this part of the Luther movie, played by Ralph Fiennes, were a boy had completed suicide. The Father of the boy asks Luther what God says….there is no answer. The next scene is Luther’s struggle with this issue. He is praying to God and rebuking Satan and struggling with what had happened to the boy.
The next scene is Luther digging the grave in the church cemetery. The grounds keeper said the boy couldn’t be buried there because it was a mortal sin. Luther said, “Some say that according to God’s justice this boy is damned because he took his life. I say he was overcome by the devil. Is this child anymore to blame for the despair that overtook him than an innocent man who was overcome by a robber in the woods?”
He goes onto say, “God must be merciful. God is mercy.” Luther than prays absolution over the boy. Our language has to include our theology. We must not say that someone who dies by suicide is somehow in hell.
No, we must say that they were overcome by their depression or mental illness, no different than any other disease that someone is fighting against.
A House Divided
Jesus tells us a universal truth in today’s gospel reading. A house divided cannot stand. He is so right. He is so wise when saying this. What empire has ever lasted for eternity? None. Because they become a house divided.
But, in reality we are all divided against ourselves. We are all both sinners and saints and people who do not have the uniformity of will like Jesus does. So, when we recognize that we are at war even within ourselves we can then show understand how great God’s mercy is toward us, even if our divided hearts and lives end in our own deaths. God is still merciful despite our actions.
But as people of God called to reflect the reality of God’s Kingdom there is more that we can do. We can be truthful about what is happening.
Maybe someone has told you how bad life it, how they wish to end it all, or how better off people around them would be if they were not around. Maybe someone you know has said that they wished they were dead. Perhaps they have even said that they wanted to die.
I want you to know that if some someone has alluded to death, named it outright, or has claimed the feeling of not wanting to go on any longer, they have trusted you with that information.
They have reached out to you with their thoughts. And they are possibly reaching out for help.
Now we are not mental health professionals. But, we are Christians and we can see we are all made in the image of God. Everyone is worthy of being listened to, truly heard and understood, and taken seriously.
It is our human nature to deny the tragic reality in front of us. Our brains will make up excuses. Our discomfort and fear and maybe even anger will try and make us believe that someone didn’t just say what we thought they just said. We will lie to ourselves that our friends just said they didn’t want to go on any longer.
But, we have to fight against that impulse. Ignore that feeling. You have to fight against your own impulse to change the subject, ignore what they said, or lesson the impact.
They deserve to be listened to. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who can no longer be listening to their neighbor, will no longer be able to listen to God either.”
So listen. Listen intently.
You are not going to heal their brokenness, but once you’ve listened you can ask questions.
Why do you want to die?
Have you thought about dying by suicide?
If someone is telling me about their depression or their thoughts about death, a very simple questions I ask is, “Have you thought about suicide?”
Most people appreciate the question. They want to know you take their thoughts seriously. They want to know that you are taking their pain seriously and that you want to know how bad it is. More often than not if I ask someone if they have thought about suicide and it’s not that bad for them, they have thanked me for asking, because they know I’m seriously listening to their pain. In asking that questions they have felt heard.
Now, the concern is always that the answer will be yes. That someone has thought about it. The next question should be, “Have you made a plan?” or “When have you thought about doing it?”
You have to know the risk they pose to themselves. If they say something like, “After I talk with you” or “Later on today.” You know that they require immediate help. It might be time to take them to the hospital or call for help.
Ask them if they own or have access to a firearm. Because if they do, you can make sure that it gets secured in a safe place, away from them.
Stay with them, ask them their risk of completing suicide today. Don’t shy away from direct questions that could possibly save their lives.
Don’t let your fear of what someone might say get in the way of asking direct questions.
Persuade and Refer
You have listen to them, you have asked questions, now is the time to persuade them. Now is the time to ask them not to complete suicide.
There are better ways to do this than not.
Tell them how their death would affect you. Tell them how sad you’d be if they died. Tell them how you would mourn them. Tell them that you would suffer if they were gone. Ask them not to die by suicide.
In my experience telling people there is “so much to live for” isn’t helpful.
Telling them that “they are being selfish” isn’t helpful.
Asking people to look for the good things in life rather than the bad or cheer up,or get some exercise, or just not feel that way is not helpful.
Mental illness is not a matter of lifestyle change. Lifestyle changes can only be so helpful. And sometimes it can take years for someone with a mental illness to get their medication right. Sometimes it can take a long time for them to get semblance of equanimity in their lives.
When my sister-in-law got breast cancer she said, “My breasts are trying to kill me. It’s a weird thing that part of my body is trying to kill me.” Some people brains are trying to kill them. That’s what mental illness can do.
Persuade them to get help. You are not a mental health professional but you can refer them to one. You can refer them to a crises line, you can drive them to a hospital, you can help them get the help that they need.
Listen, ask questions, persuade, and refer to help.
For Those Who Suffer Suicidal Thoughts
If there are any of you in the congregation here today that are thinking about dying by suicide. If any of you here today feel the darkness creeping in and that it seems like the only way out, please talk to me about it. We can arrange getting you some help. Any time of day any hour, I will sit with you, I will be there to help you through this. This doesn’t have to be the end for you. We want you around. I would be so sad if you were not with us anymore. Please talk to me or talk to someone.
Will you pray with me?God you are merciful and abounding in steadfast love. You have created us good and yet sometimes we are a house divided. Help us to listen to others,help us to ask questions, help us to persuade to get the help that they need.Most of all be with those who are suffering. We ask for your peace to cover those who suffer and the vulnerability to reach out for help before their suffering become unbearable. That all may live whole lives centered on your merciful love. We pray these things through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.