“Student committed suicide, please call ASAP.”
The text flashed across my phone while I was sitting in my Tuesday night Bible study. It is the kind of text I have received countless times before, and it is never easy to read. A 14-year-old Chinese boy from an immigrant family killed himself. As the local senior police chaplain, I was called in to provide support, grief care, and help to school personnel. When I arrived at the school the next morning, I was asked to meet in the vice principal’s office with the student’s teachers and guidance counselors. These staff members were in shock, wrestling with grief and guilt. They asked the “what if” questions: What if I missed something? What if I could have stopped him from doing this?
One of the student’s teachers stated, “There is nothing you can say that will convince me that it isn’t my fault. I missed the signs. I could have stopped it.” I felt the weight of those words and wanted to relieve this teacher of that sadness and guilt. Yet what someone feels in that moment is real—as real as it can get. I cannot talk someone out of feeling regret for what they could have done, but what I can do is listen with care, offer compassion, and help people understand the dynamics of suicide. My role as a chaplain is not to negate someone’s feelings, but to walk with them through their grief.
Before arriving on the scene of a suicide, I remind myself of my particular lens as a white, Irish, Christian, female law enforcement chaplain. The Irish commonly practice and give space for public and communal grief and mourning traditions. There are countless cultural, ethnic, religious, and geographic traditions with regard to loss. It is paramount that I reflect on my own cultural, vocational, and life experience with, understanding of, and responses to grief. In addition to being aware of my lenses, I try to be sensitive to the lens and understandings of those whose worlds I step into. Their cultural experience with and practices of grief could be starkly different from my own. There is no normative approach to death, including suicide—but there are best practices that span the diversity.
Risk for Suicide
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016 suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. There were more than twice as many suicides (44,965) in the United States as there were homicides (19,362).1
The concern is not just for completed suicides, but also for suicide attempts. It may never be known why an individual takes—or attempts to take—his or her life, or what influences those reasons. There are, however, some warning signs we can watch for. For more information on assessing the risk of individuals for suicide, see the sidebar that accompanies this article.
On my first day as a police chaplain, I received my first call out: to deliver the news of a young man’s death to his family. He had, tragically, jumped off the roof of the local movie theater’s parking structure. My chaplain partner and I arrived at the family home to deliver the death notification to the mother and father—but a relative visiting from Hong Kong was the only English speaker in the home. After we shared the news with the relative, she was overcome with shock and grief, bringing confusion to the parents who still didn’t know what was happening. When the parents comprehended the news of their son’s death, they were distraught. As chaplains, we provided presence, care, and resources. Since neither I nor my chaplain partner spoke Cantonese, we connected them with the local Chinese funeral home. These “care-givers” helped them culturally process the death and accompanying issues such as shame and grief. There are different types of responses each of us can give and roles we can play as care-givers, walking with others through their pain and loss.
Care-givers can provide space for the multitude of feelings that result from a suicide. When individuals commit suicide, the community may ask the “why” questions: Why did this happen? Why couldn’t I stop it? Why didn’t I see the signs? As care-givers, we can remind people that suicide is one person’s decision. Family and friends may feel responsible and blame themselves, and at the same time be angry that this person did not give them a chance to help.
Anger is part of the grief process and a normal reaction to suicide. There may have been signs of distress before the suicide; however, it is almost impossible to know exactly what a person is thinking unless they are fully open about those thoughts. One person’s suffering, sadness, and decisions have repercussions that reach deeply into the community. Neither the “what if” nor the “why” questions will bring the person back. It is important, however, that each person have the opportunity to be honest about their feelings stemming from the loss of their loved one and the decision that loved one made to die.
Everyone grieves differently. Grief can be shaped by one’s family of origin, experiences, culture, ethnicity, community, and personality. It is important to be sensitive to how others grieve, not comparing their process to one’s own. People need space and time to mourn. Funerals and other rituals help people share their grief and collectively remember their loved one. Yet the public nature of these services might be difficult and complicated in the case of a suicide, with the complexity of pain and uncertainty that loved ones may feel.
From Suicide Completion to Suicide Prevention
In the aftermath of death by suicide, friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors can be left confused and sad. We can help people work through their emotions by acknowledging what happened, asking about their feelings, and being open to hearing the variety of memories they might share with us of the person.
As we walk with people in the aftermath of suicide, they may long to return to the days of old, before their loss. We can encourage them to gradually move into their new normal and find ways to keep taking steps forward in the midst of their loss. Yet recovering from losing a loved one to suicide takes time, and there is no guarantee that the survivor will be stronger after this, nor that full healing will be the outcome.
A few years ago I responded as the police chaplain to the suicide of a popular, beloved, 16-year-old African American student. His mother had committed suicide five years before him.2 He was involved in sports and service clubs and was loved by both students and teachers. I led debriefs for teachers, students, friends, and family. The memorial service drew almost 1,000 people from the community. As chaplains responding to the crisis, we worked in partnership with school staff, parents, crisis counselors, and others. Three police chaplains, including myself, from two different agencies conducted his memorial. His death provided an opportunity for us to educate people about suicide prevention.
During the service, we spoke from John 12:24: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We handed out stalks of wheat and encouraged everyone present to live their lives to the fullest. The memory of this young man now lives in them. We encouraged them to tell others that they care for them and to reach out to those who may feel hopeless.
When the seed dies, hope, life, and purpose can result. Grieving and remembering together is an important step in the healing process. Life can come from loss, and death and pain can be redeemed.
Ministry of Presence
Care-givers walk with others through their suffering and can provide safe places for them to be heard, known, and loved. In my early years, my grandmother played a key role in my life. No matter the pain in the world or in our family, she communicated safety and value through words, prayer, and presence, which I carry with me today as an adult. This ministry of presence— “being with”—is foundational to my role as a law enforcement chaplain. The love and presence of God are embodied as we spend time with the other person in their moment of crisis and time of suffering.
A ministry of presence can bring comfort and express care without words. This sacramental presence encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual care. It is a revelation of Jesus’ care and compassion through listening and being with. During the baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks affirmation and value over Jesus in Matthew 3:17, saying, “This is my Beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” A ministry of presence communicates the beloved value of God over each person no matter where they are on the faith journey. One of the most important things we can say and do to help someone feel safe and secure is to remind them of their core identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.
Be a Voice of Hope
As we walk with individuals through their grief, we can speak of God’s hope and future in their lives as a first step in helping them work through pain. A ministry of presence gives space for their pain without promising them that everything will be okay. From my training in suicide intervention, response, and prevention, here are a few examples of things we can say so that our ministry of presence brings hope rather than harm:
“I am so sorry that you are going through this. I am here with you now; you are not alone.”
“Together we will find you the help you need.”
“It won’t always be this way.”
“I may not know exactly what you are feeling, but I care about you and I want to help.”
Below are some guidelines that will help us as we walk with others who are grieving the loss of their loved one:
offer a Ministry of presence. We can embody the peace and presence of God by being present with others, sitting with people in the midst of their pain, creating safe places for others.
Don’t be afraid to ask the question, are you okay?
It’s not okay, but it won’t always be this way. Clichés we use with others can bring more pain. The fact that this individual was in pain and took his or her life changes the loved one’s life forever. Yet things won’t always be this way. Eventually loved ones begin to rebuild life after loss.
recognize Guilt, shame, and anger. As we care for people, they may feel like they could have done something. Going down that road won’t bring them back. The person made a decision and took their own life. The emotions people feel are real, and we need to create healthy space for feelings such as guilt, shame, anger, and sadness to be expressed. Be aware that some cultures practice within an honor and shame construct.3
Help others understand the impact of the death imprint. When people see or experience something traumatic, the brain takes a picture of what has been seen or what can be imagined. That death imprint lingers. Smells, sights, and sounds might cause the memory and pain from that event to be recalled. Be patient and sensitive with others when this happens and prepare them for this experience.
Walk with others through the multifaceted reality of grief. This includes helping others assess their process in dealing with loss and death and engaging in self-care practices. Recommend articles and books on loss and grief.
As a care provider, be aware of and walk through your own grief. Care-givers also need to process their grief and engage in self-care. Walking with others through their grief can result in compassion fatigue for the care-giver.
Begin building, or strengthening, a partnership of local care-givers (e.g., mental health professionals, grief counselors) who can help after tragedies like suicide. Working collaboratively requires ongoing communication before the crisis. This partnership will provide support and care for care-givers and those who have lost loved ones.
Remind others that God is with them. In the midst of the loss and pain, we must remember and remind those we are caring for that God is always with us. Psalm 32:7 says, “You are my hiding place; you shall preserve me from trouble; you shall surround me with songs of deliverance.”
Speak of God’s hope! Even when hope is elusive, it is there and encourages others—and us—to see what is ahead.
Albert Y. Hsu, Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
New Hope Grief Support Community:
Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss
This article is adapted with permission from a two-part series previously published on the Fuller Youth Institute blog: “In the Aftermath of Suicide: Helping Communities Heal” and “In the Aftermath of Teen Suicide: Working Toward Prevention,” as well as the post “Ministry of Presence.” Find all at
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System) Leading Causes of Death Reports, 2016, https://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcause.html.
- One study revealed that teens under 18 who lost a parent to suicide were three times more likely to commit suicide than children and teens with living parents. See “Children Who Lose a Parent to Suicide More Likely to Die the Same Way, Study Finds,” ScienceDaily, April 23, 2010; www.sciencedaily.com.
- In some cultures, loyalty to community and tradition can be valued above individual feelings. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict says that in a guilt culture, you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels, but in a shame culture, you know you are good or bad by what your community says and whether it honors or excludes you. A guilt culture is driven by the individual, and a shame culture is driven by the community. See J. Fish, “Guilt and Shame,” Psychology Today blog post, September 20, 2016; www.psychologytoday.com.