Whatever these labels I wear, whatever these words assigned to me, there is one label among them which I hate with every fiber of my being: suicide survivor.
I hate it, because it’s the one label that I didn’t have a hand in choosing. I get to wear the Anabaptist label because that’s my faith tradition– I chose that label, and can take it off any time I want.
But suicide survivor? I didn’t pick that one, and no matter what I do, there’s nothing I can do to run away from it other than denying my own life experience. I’ve briefly referenced it in the past without details– and don’t feel emotionally up to telling my story– but in short, I lost my paternal grandfather to suicide when I was 17 (he had just turned 70). I had lived on our family farm with he and my grandmother for many years as a child after my parents divorced, and he and I were close. It still ranks #1 on my “most painful experiences” list, even after all these years. (I later struggled with suicidal behavior myself, a story I told here on the blog).
As such, I’ve always been passionate about suicide prevention having lived the painful aftermath of suicide myself, as well as someone who has come close to taking my own life. For something so painful, so tragic, something that wounds so deeply, it is actually something that is often quite preventable– if we have the right tools.
For all the talk we Anabaptist do on peacemaking and nonviolence, I think we’re missing an opportunity to expand what peacemaking (and teaching others how to make peace) can look like in a tangible way. Suicide remains a leading cause of death in the United States– more than killed by homicide, more than killed by war, and is not some distant issue. Real people are dying right around us, and we have an opportunity to be peacemakers in order to prevent more deaths from occurring.
And so, make peace we must.
Churches today are too often ill-equipped to prevent suicide or guide a faith community in a healing process after a suicide has occurred– and I say that as both a pastor and seminarian. In seven years of seminary, I’ve had a total of one conversation with a faculty member on the issue of suicide. As a pastor and former lay leader, I’ve also seen churches completely undereducated and oblivious to the real opportunity to prevent death and help people find peace. As a faith community (meaning big “C” church) we simply haven’t valued making suicide prevention a priority.
We have failed to be peacemakers in one of the areas where we can actually have a real, tangible, and immediate impact for peace within the lives of people we know and love. This, along with 82,934 other things I’ve compiled, must change. But this first– this is priority. Lives are actually at stake, and lives can actually be saved.
This week I’m participating in the Patheos Book Club, and have been reading Dr. Karen Mason’s new book, Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. In the book, Dr. Mason notes that 1/3rd of all pastors will experience a suicide in their congregation– a serious number to consider, along with the many other helpful statistics found in the book. As I read the book, my heart broke as I realized how many lives could potentially be saved if we would make this a priority in the Church.
Beyond geographic lines, beyond denominational lines, we must make this a priority– and we must do it together.
Dr. Mason’s book is the most comprehensive book I’ve read on this subject (and I have actually read quite a few), and she handles a difficult subject in a way that compliments both faith and psychology instead of a one-or-the-other approach. She covers everything from suicide warning signs to dispelling myths about suicide, to a survey of different Christian theological stances on the issue. This is a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone working not just in a church, but anyone working with people.
What I found most practical however, was her call for us to train our church leaders. There are many different suicide prevention training programs that are readily available for your congregation (many are listed in the book), and we must capitalize on this opportunity to equip ourselves to save lives. And we must do it quickly.
If we’ll throw thousands of dollars into a sound system, and millions into a building, but set aside no time or money to train people to save lives, well, I think that would mean we stopped being the people of Jesus.
This is an issue where those of us from across the spectrum should be united (and repentant): we Anabaptists will quickly protest the latest death from war or execution, Evangelicals are quick to protest any relaxing of abortion laws citing “sanctity of life”, and everyone in between has their own issues around death that they’re quick to protest.
But what about the people dying in our own churches? How are we actually peacemakers if we’re not actively, proactively, helping these seemingly invisible people make peace and choose life?
Here’s what I think we can do immediately:
1. Preventing Suicide is a must-read. If you’re a church leader, please get this book and carefully read it.
2. Consider purchasing this book as a gift for your pastor, and use it as an opportunity to discuss the seriousness of this issue with them.
3. At your next church business meeting, take a stand on this issue. Demand that your church set aside funds to train and equip the congregation (not just the pastor) to prevent suicide. Don’t take no for an answer– if a church isn’t interested in potentially saving lives in the congregation but is interested in building campaigns, I can say this with confidence: move the heck on.
4. Use this as an opportunity to show unity with other churches in your area– host the training, and invite other congregations/denominations to come and participate in the training.
5. Finally, don’t just ignore this issue/post because you don’t think it applies to you: trust me, suicide knows no boundaries. You don’t need to be a church leader to get educated on preventing suicide– this is something that everyone should do. Get educated. Read up. Dispel some myths. Be committed to being a peacemaker in the lives around you.
We can do better than we’ve done in the past. The Church has historically failed on this issue, but it doesn’t always have to be this way– you and I can usher in a new era where we take suicide seriously, where we educate ourselves, and where we commit to being peacemakers right here, right now.
* I was generously given a copy of Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors free of charge from the publisher, and was under no obligation to favorably review or endorse the book.