A Note About the Series: The month of September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and I believe many of us have been affected by suicide one way or another. Throughout my life, I have seen the detrimental effects of it on individuals, families, and whole communities. I believe it’s time the church addresses the heartbreaking reality that suicide has left its mark on many, if not on everyone in our pews. This is my attempt to start that conversation in my own context. This is a three-part series about suicide and the church. I hope that this will allow others to tell their story. The fact is too many wonderful, beautiful, and precious people have left this world much too soon. It’s time that we share our story so that those dwelling in darkness know that they are not alone. “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
Now, here’s her story…
I remember meeting Sarah, but to be honest we only had a handful of interactions. She was a shy sophomore in high school with bleach blond hair. She normally stood off to the side, talking to one or two others. She seemed to be good friends with the senior pastor’s two daughters, I think they went to school together. When I talked to her, she rarely made eye contact, and she did the same with all the other adults who came up to her. It seemed to me that she didn’t feel that comfortable in her own skin.
I met her over the summer of 2014 while I was a youth group intern at a fairly large Presbyterian church in Georgia. One of the first events where I got to talk to many of the teenagers, including Sarah, was at the summer pool party for the youth group.
The senior pastor hosted it at his house, and it ended up being a great event. We probably had 20 kids there, and I think every kid had a smile on their face. Sarah was one of those kids who seemed to be grateful that school was over, and summer vacation had finally begun.
As the youth intern, my main job was to assist one of the pastors on staff who dealt with youth and family ministries. Over that summer we put on movie nights, ice cream hangouts, and went on several mission trips and retreats. Though it seemed we had a different activity happening every week, the only one Sarah came to was that pool party in late May. I don’t even remember her coming to church that often.
She was distant and not a big part of our youth program. But who was I to say she wasn’t an important part of that church group? I was only there for a few months and saw a small glimpse of what life was like at that church.
But then something happened halfway through the summer. It was a tragedy. One night we got the news that Sarah had died, and it looked like it was a suicide.
I remember my heart sunk when I heard the news. The question that kept coming to me that night was, “Why?” and I knew I wasn’t the only one asking that awful question.
A few days later I heard that her father was two hours away when he got the news. I can’t imagine what that drive back home was like. What could have been going through his mind as he drove back home knowing that his child was gone? It must have been the most heartbreaking, silent, and sorrow-filled car ride ever. My heart broke just thinking of him and his wife grieving.
It was a tragedy for the church as well. No one saw it coming, and it left everyone shocked, including those in our youth group who saw her just a month ago at our pool party.
Just like that, she was gone.
The senior pastor did a great job at her funeral a few days after her death. The church was fairly full, and a number of her classmates showed up as well. I sat in the back of the church and just watched as he beautifully preached about hope amid this great tragedy.
But after the funeral, we didn’t talk about her or what had happened. At staff meetings we were silent about the subject, and so were our youth meetings the following weeks.
I couldn’t understand why we didn’t address it with our youth group. She had been one of our own, and yet it seemed like we pushed this tragedy under the rug. It was evident that some of our youth were taking it very hard. You could see it in their eyes, some of them would even tear up at times when they walked into our youth room. Others seemed to shut down completely. Discussing the parables of Jesus wasn’t the main thing on their minds during Sunday school.
Sarah. Death. Suicide. Those were the things on their mind.
Everything that happened was done in private. Our kids mourned in private. The senior pastor counseled the family in private. And then we moved on as a church as if nothing happened.
I realize that it was a tragedy and much of that grieving needed to be done privately. But she was one of us. What about the church and the community grieving together?
I didn’t see any of that over my summer there, and I just thought it was odd. I was a distant observer, so I didn’t see everything that happened, but it seemed pretty clear that after the funeral we weren’t going to address it again. At least until someone else brought it up.
Finally, a lot of those emotions, all the questions, and tears came out on the last night of our mission trip in Atlanta with the senior high group. The senior pastor’s two daughters, who had sat next to Sarah just a month and a half before at the pool party, cried their eyes out. Others teared up, some grew quiet, but they were all asking “Why?”.
That night we finally talked about it, but I don’t think we would’ve done it if those kids didn’t start talking about it first.
Suicide is not something that is usually talked about, especially in the church. I think we are silent on the topic because we are intimidated and confused. Does this mean they are going to hell? Why would someone take their one, precious life? Didn’t they know that they were loved?
Many of our questions about suicide are hard to ask, but they don’t always reflect a true understanding of the topic or the person. A lot of doubts and concerns about this could be clarified if we simply talked about it, and even brought in a trained professional to address these concerns and questions with our church members. And that is why it is so important that when we grieve, we do it together as a community.
There is no doubt that the funeral was powerful; it was a healing experience, but we can’t end there. The church must be willing to be a source of comfort and support not only to the family but to all its members in times of tragedy.
This topic is not going away. A recent article by Insider reported that deaths by suicide have risen by more than 50% since 2000. In 2017, the CDC said 6,769 young people aged 10-24 died because of suicide. This affects everyone, including those in the church. We are not immune from having people in our pews who have suicidal thoughts, or who know of someone who has died because of suicide. This is a topic that we must talk about, and wrestle with the questions that our parishioners are asking…including our youth.
The gospel even has an important place when it comes to something as awful as this. Even in the midst of death, there are pangs of resurrection deep within our soul.
“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
There is hope in the darkness.