Suicide and the Funeral: Facing and Naming It

Cemetery

My 21-year-old younger sister Julie suicided nearly 30 years ago.  Looking back, it was the 1980s’ relative lack of understanding of suicide’s causes, and resulting stigma, that left our family utterly flummoxed as we prepared ourselves for her funeral. Each family member had conflicting needs and concerns due to our separate roles during in this crisis. Inadequate personal theologies about the disposition of her soul disrupted our ability to plan the funeral and the (dreaded) luncheon that followed. Our clergy person had a big job with us.

As a pastoral therapist I have struggled with helping survivors make meaning of suicide so as to find redemption and healing. Current psychiatric understanding and the deep wisdom of religious traditions nowadays concur regarding the human psyche, mental illness and suicide (as I wrote about in my last post). Today’s clergy and counselors are better equipped to attend to the diverse needs within each concentric ring surrounding the deceased: the neighborhood/school/work/worship communities, family, and within families, each individual’s responses to suicide. All these “rings” are represented at the funeral.

Looking at my own personal experience, I can identify various ‘theologies’ and psychological orientations at work.  I am glad for the better integration of clinical understanding and religious wisdom in 2014 than in 1985:

  • The day after Julie’s death, we came home from meeting with the funeral director to find a still-warm loaf of homemade bread at the back door, with no note and no clue as to who in our small rural neighborhood had looked after us with such care. Here was the gift of bread, of sustenance, without comment.
  • Julie’s boss from the beauty salon volunteered to “do” her makeup and hair for the viewing. (I heard later she needed a few cigarettes in the director’s office before she could get started!) Most Christian funerals have a viewing, and Jews do not, but all traditions have the rituals of washing and respectfully preparing the body for burial. We need to feel assured that someone has touched our loved ones’ corpses with a tender hand. I felt this trust, and Colleen’s story of her nervous smoking draws a grim but grateful chuckle from me still.
  • At the funeral home, my brother’s anger and pain–he had been the one to find her body–and my reactive defensiveness and guilt for living too far away to have saved her–we’d shared a bedroom until I left for college–erupted at each other in the “casket room.”   We were to choose from among the fancy and the budget versions, and although we both experienced all range of feelings later, at that moment his and mine collided over what she “deserved” for “doing this to us” versus love and pity. We got through it and her body was laid to rest in sold blue silkiness and simple, smooth dark wood.
  • Over 300 people attended her visitation and funeral! My family had been so ashamed about her suicide that we feared few would attend. We realized this fully when we didn’t know how much food to order for the luncheon. (Our pastor urged us to order lots.) We were blessed to meet many of her friends and former schoolmates, none of whom spoke words of blame to us. We had been afraid of that, too.

The theologies and pastoral psychology at work in our pastor’s approach showed ways in which he too was a victim of “suicide stigma,” as well as the ways in which he was a channel of grace. Although he correctly anticipated many mourners, he missed the mark by failing to talk at all about Julie or suicide at the service:

  • The mourners were not in a state of mind to talk about Julie’s life without talking about the anomaly of her death, and none of us were able to face the dual task.  Our pastor, too, seemed unable to talk about both and defaulted to speaking of neither. Truth is, Julie was a person beloved by God, who suffered and died of suicide. By trying to avoid upsetting us with perhaps inadequate theology, he neglected the fullness of who Julie was, and left Julie unnamed and “forgotten” at her own funeral.
  • He lost the opportunity to preach an instructive, helpful message to the large community present, most of them young people who may have carried their own vulnerability to depression, drug abuse and eventual suicide.  Though suicide happens silently and alone, the community at his disposal was ready for release from silence and isolation about mental illness and suicide.

But I cherish one of the ways he became a channel of graced lovingkindness. In the pre-funeral meeting I had protested his plan to use a customary funeral song based on Psalm 91 and other scriptures. But as the gentle piano played “On Eagles’ Wings” midway through the service, I was finally able to cry.  I had wanted not to cry, and not to face my anger at God for not saving my sister’s life. But our pastor wisely made me go to that dark place. The theology of Father Joncas’s song forced me to wrestle with  this God, Who collects all souls to Godself even if He does not save our mortal lives. I now feel deeply into the image of God as a mother eagle, carrying our souls when our mortal lives cannot go further:

Let the Beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for He shields [her] all day long and the one the Lord loves rest between His shoulders. –Deuteronomy 33:12.

There is one last thing to be said. Perhaps it cannot be responsibly said to a large audience from the pulpit, but it must be said in the confidentiality of the counseling office. We are not privy to the content of the prayer made in the moments before one suicides.  Perhaps suicide is perceived by the individual not as throwing away one’s life, but entrusting one’s soul to God.

As a Priest, Pastor or Rabbi, you cannot be warm bread or assistant undertaker. You cannot settle quarreling among siblings at the funeral home. But by naming suicide as a real symptom of depression, you can exhort all of us to reach for help, sense when others need our extra love and care, and work for justice in opening access to mental health. So please make us all face suicide. Exhort us to sing the ancient Psalms that cite God’s eagle-eyed witness to all our intentions. Preach to us a little confoundment: make us place the mystery of death in God’s Mysterious care. For in truth, the ‘snare of the fowler’ of Psalm 91 captures and destroys all mortal life, but never the life of the soul.

You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord

who abide in His shadow for life

Say to the Lord

“My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!”

 

And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings

Bear you on the breath of dawn

Make you to shine like the sun

And hold you in the palm of His hand.

 

The snare of the fowler will never capture you

And famine will bring you no fear

Under His wings your refuge

His faithfulness your shield…

 

You need not fear the terror of the night

Nor the arrow that flies by day

Though thousands fall about you

Near you it shall not come…

 

For to His angels He’s given a command

To guard you in all your ways

Upon their hands they will bear you up

Lest you dash your foot against a stone…

 

And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings

Bear you on the breath of dawn

Make you to shine like the sun

And hold you in the palm of His hand,

And hold you in the palm of His hand.

2 thoughts on “Suicide and the Funeral: Facing and Naming It

  1. Lovely, Laura. No wonder Psalm 91 made you cry. It’s bittersweet. Your experience brings to light the suffering of & challenges for the family whose beloved child, parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt or uncle of the person who died by suicide. Unfortunately, I speak from experience.

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