Questions I can't answer

I have been working with families who have lost a loved one to suicide professionally for over 20 years now. I have ben trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills, Effective Suicide Prevention and Care for Caregivers, Sudden Loss and Trauma, QPR Institute Training, and LOSS Team practices and policies. I am a certified first responder to assist families who have suffered a loss to suicide and a team leader for our Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide. Once, when taking a training for law enforcement chaplains in the field of suicide, I asked the instructor how many suicide scenes he had attended. He responded, “ten or twelve.” I’ve attended ten or twelve a year for the past decade and 5 to 7 a year for a decade before that.

I am not afraid to talk about suicide. I am not afraid to talk about death. I have had the sad and serious responsibility of being the one to notify family members that they have lost a loved one to suicide on multiple occasions.

I have a strong system of support. I follow procedures for diffusing and debriefing. I have access to a professional law enforcement psychologist when needed. I work with a team who are trained to look for signs that I need help.

Still, I found myself in a situation not long ago where I was struggling to find the right words.

“What is suicide?” is a tough question coming from a 7 year old whose 14 year old sister died by suicide. There were younger siblings in the room as well. “suicide is when the person who dies made a decision or took an action that resulted in their own death.” I began. “Sometimes, when a person isn’t thinking well, we say that the person isn’t in their right mind. Sometimes, when a person isn’t in their right mind they do something that causes them to die.” Then I asked, “Did that answer your question, or do you need more information?”

The answer satisfied the questioner, at least at the moment. My follow-up question unleashed a torrent of questions from an older brother, who wanted to know how several different types of suicide occur. He wanted to know details about hanging, self-inflicted gunshot wounds and drug overdose. While acknowledging that all of those means of suicide exist, it wasn’t the right time or place to go into details because of younger children in the room. On the other hand, I didn’t want him to go to the Internet for answers to his questions. There is too much that is too graphic for a grieving person in that location. I wanted him to know that he could trust me and my team to provide the information he needed. I arranged for a couple of us to have a conversation with him and his mother after the group meeting.

The entire conversation was so painful for the mother that she had trouble focusing. Her grief was so raw and the pain so deep that for a while I was in what I call “Tissue Dispenser Mode,” when about all I can do to comfort a grieving person is to make sure that they don’t injure themselves and provide tissues.

Of course I left resources. I try to always lave resources. I know that in the midst of shock and grief people can’t remember the words that I say. I left a book on talking with teens about suicide and grief. I left another book with specific things to do with younger children as they grieve. I left a document about talking with teens and children about grief and suicide. I left a packet with information about support groups and counseling services and a host of other community resources. I gave the children wrist bands with the suicide hot line and text line on them. I handed out cards with contact information.

But, as I mull the interaction in my mind and write up the reports, I know that I didn’t get all of the questions answered. I know that the question, “What is Suicide,” comes with other questions: “How could someone do that?” “What could have prevented it?” “Why did she do that?” And, most frightening of all, “Will that happen to me?”

I am a busy person. I know that there are a few people who think that my priorities are a bit skewed. There are some who think that I spend too much time on community outreach ministries and not enough time caring for the members of my congregation. They are definitely right about the second part of their observation. I could definitely spend more time providing care and visitation to those in need within the church. I know that there is room for adjustment and shifting of priorities.

But I also know that these children and their cousins and friends need and deserve competent follow up. I know they need a support group where they can meet regularly with people that they trust, people that they know understand them, people who will answer their questions honestly. And I know that I need to take the lead in setting up that group. It is not just a little bit important. It is life-and-death important.

But there is something else that I know. Death by suicide is increasing in our community. We haven’t “fixed” the problem by our response. All of our hard work and all of our interventions are less that what is required.

As a pastor and theologian I know that I am not the savior of the world. I know that I can’t fix the brokenness of this universe by my actions alone. I know that I am not the source of hope and faith and love. It isn’t all up to me. I can’t do it all.

To think otherwise would be to abandon humility and, eventually, to abandon my ability to help at all. I do this work because I know that God is present in every conversation. I do it because I know that Jesus showed us the way of resurrection. I do it because death is not the end.

And I’ve been doing it long enough to recognize that some questions left in my mind and some second thoughts are a good thing. Each night my prayer is one of placing these tender and irreplaceable young ones in God’s eternal care. Then in the morning I get up and go to work once again.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!