I take a few days at the Outer Banks of North Carolina every year to study, plan and pray. Today was beautiful and unseasonably warm, so I took a long walk on the beach. I was thinking about some families related to the church I serve who have lost loved ones to suicide recently. The beach was empty with only a person here or there, and I thought how much it reminded me of the solitary journey many experience when a person they love takes their life. I stood on the beach, staring at the ocean, thinking about their sadness. What a terrible loss it is to endure. I have lost friends and church members to suicide over the years, and I have presided over funerals and attempted to comfort those who gathered. But I still cannot quite imagine what it is like to lose a parent, child or sibling this way.
I mulled this over, trying to imagine how hard it must be, and prayed for God’s peace for these families. When I started to walk away, I noticed that a recent storm had severely eroded the shoreline, leaving the steps from the cottages to the beach hanging in mid-air. It occurred to me that the storm that so dramatically changed that beach is a bit like the experience of losing a loved one to suicide. Even if they saw storm clouds gathering, they had no idea of their power and intensity or their capacity to sweep out a whole portion of their lives so suddenly. Families in that cottage ran down those steps for years in different months and seasons. They played on the beach, rode the waves, built sandcastles and took naps on blankets and in chairs. But the storm took their steps and cut off their access to the place where they spent that time together. Now they sit in their cottage and wonder what to do and how they will regain that space together. They have their past, but the present and future are suddenly inaccessible. That sand will not be replaced quickly. What took a few hours to remove will take months and even years to recollect. Sand fences will have to be erected. Sand bags may have to be put in place. One day they will rebuild their access and regain that space, but in many ways it will be a different beach, and it will take a good deal of time.
If you have lost someone to suicide and are still trying to figure out how you will find that space of joy again, I have some suggestions.
- Hold them graciously. We must acknowledge that in despair, the one who takes his life even rejected the love and hope of God for his life. I am sorry my friend did not turn to God in that moment. I am sorry your loved one did not either. But we can forgive them for the way their decisions brought such sorrow to our lives if we hold them graciously. If I can do that, it allows me to let them be in God’s hands and realize that I can hold myself graciously and forgive myself as well.
- Hold them joyfully. Do not allow one decision related to death to overshadow years of decisions that were demonstrations of love and treasured existence. The sadness we feel over their death, even this particular type of death, does not eclipse the joy we have for who this person was in life.
- Hold each other gently and dearly. The closer you are to someone who takes their life, the more you will find that grief crouches in unexpected places and jumps you when you least expect it. You are dealing with the loss of one who was dear to you. If you attempt to overcome that all on your own, you will carry a terrible weight. So hold each other gently and dearly, and you will be a means of God’s grace and healing to each other.
If you have a friend who has lost someone to suicide, by all means be patient. Ask them how they are doing, but don’t rush them. Sand returns in its season and with a lot of effort. Grief has no dump truck and no bulldozer to make it all better in a few days or weeks.
I do not know what my friends who took their lives believed about God in their final minutes. I do know that they did not understand clearly that so many people believed in them and loved them. Their despair does not invalidate our love, anymore than it invalidates God’s.
Paul is helpful when he writes:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:35, 37-39
When I got to the pier, I turned around and began my walk back down the beach. There was a father there with four young children all playing in the sand. They seemed so happy together. I imagined a mother in a cottage somewhere nearby enjoying a blissful and well-deserved nap after saying, “No honey, you take them, I’ll be there shortly…” The gulls were calling. The sunlight gleamed on the water. The sound of waves was like the greeting of an old friend. I thought about how beautiful life is at such moments. The joy on the face of a child can take your breath away all by itself. All these gifts from God, like seashells on a winter’s beach all around you and beyond number.
Read the original and expanded version of this post on Rev. Tom Berlin’s personal blog.