By Rheta Murry
It certainly was a difficult funeral service, but also an amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with people who were far from God andbring hope at that time.
Lin Wurzbacher, senior pastor ofBlessed Hope Community Churchin Webster, N.Y.
WEBSTER, N.Y. (PD) — The announcement and plea for advice looked a little chilling as Lin Wurzbacher asked for help from fellow pastors in the Pastors.com forum.
“I just found out tonight that someone in our church committed suicide,” said Lin Wurzbacher, senior pastor of Blessed Hope Community Church in Webster, N.Y. “I just talked to him on Saturday. I asked him if he had any suicidal thoughts and he said absolutely not. ... I'm meeting with (his wife) tomorrow. I've never ministered in a situation like this and could use all the advice, wisdom and prayers I can get.”
Wurzbacher sought help after realizing not only did she not know exactly how to minister in this situation, but she was dealing with her own negative emotions on the subject. Pastors on the forum responded with advice, support, and prayers. Some colleagues counseled her to avoid the platitudes and easy answers, to say little while praying a lot, and to allow family members to talk about their own feelings.
“If you are not familiar with the stages of grief, get familiar now,” wrote one pastor in the forum. “In situations like this one, they are magnified immensely. For example, one stage is anger. In suicides the stage is probably the hardest for all of the survivors”
In counseling the family before, during, and after the funeral, Wurzbacher said she talked with them regarding the guilt they all feel. People feel like they should have done something to help, or they should have tried harder, they could have talked the person out of the act.
“The very first night I talked to [the wife], I told her this wasn’t her fault,” Wurzbacher said. “Even though I struggle with this because of the situation, no matter what she has done, she did not deserve this. It was his choice.”
Wurzbacher said she had been counseling the couple for quite awhile. Five days before, he had told her he had suicidal thoughts. A day or two later, he said he was not suicidal. Within a few days, the man killed himself.
“It certainly was a difficult funeral service, but also an amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with people who were far from God and bring hope at that time,” she said.
Grief, Wurzbacher said, hung over her congregation for quite some time. Wurzbacher preached strongly the message of God’s grace in the funeral, imparting the love of God even while we are sinning. And she told everyone how deep and wide God’s love is.
Since then, Wurzbacher said several others in her church have expressed suicidal thoughts. One man came to her very depressed, talking about suicide. When the man said he wanted the pain of depression to be over with, the pastor drew on previous experiences.
“I told him it is not over when you die, there is a part of you, your spirit, which would live on,” she said. “I remind them there is a spiritual life. I felt lead by the Lord to speak that way. You have to use discernment in each case, to talk to someone who is suicidal. I knew at that moment I had grabbed his attention.”
Dr. Dee Bissell, a therapist for many years, provided several suggestions to help pastors minister in this difficult situation. She struggled with guilt and anger when her son committed suicide.
“Pastors need to be prepared with suggested resources. It would help if a pastor had a resource list available, so the person didn’t have to do his own research,” she said. “Also, don’t suggest regular grief groups, because they don’t work for us when someone has taken their own life. It is a different dynamic.”
Some of the resources Bissell found helpful included After Suicide by John H. Hewett; The Suicidal Mind by Edwin S. Shneidman; andDon't Waste Your Sorrows by Paul E. Billheimer. The American Association of Suicidology and American Foundation For Suicide Prevention
also can provide valuable information to a pastor, she said. Bissell and colleague Michael P. Creurer wrote a booklet called Good Grief.
Through journaling, reading whatever resource she could find on the topic, and writing poetry, Bissell worked through her own guilt and pain. For awhile, she even led a five-person support group for people who had lost loved ones to suicide.
Bissell said her pastor, Charles Schmitt of Emanuel Church, prayed with her and let her talk, without giving advice or asking a lot of questions when her son died. He asked how he could help. Schmitt also asked for permission to talk about Bissell’s son from the pulpit, and asked what she would be comfortable with him sharing.
“I told him to be honest, that my son took his life,” she said. “I think people need to know what he was suffering from. They wouldn’t be able to minister appropriately if they didn’t have all the information. You can also expect a shocked response sometimes because not everyone will understand.”
Bissell’s pastor also asked his wife and others to sit with Bissell through the funeral service and a subsequent memorial service. She says church members took her by the hand and lead her through her grief.
“A couple sat in church with me,” Bissell said. “If I broke into crying, they walked out with me. If I needed to cry, I could cry.”
Pastors and friends allowed her to work through her grief and other feelings in her own way. This, she said, was a great resource. Different people need different things, she said, and she needed to know why and needed to do her own research.
“I am a therapist, and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t help,” Bissell said of her son.
Bissell also recommended pastors refer anyone dealing with thoughts of suicide to a hospital.
“If that person won’t go, they can always call police and say they are suicidal,” she said.
Though they encountered suicide in different ways, both Wurzbacher and Bissell say they learned a lot from their experiences. And, they have both had to deal with their own grief.
When I was praying about my son, why he would take his own life, the Lord showed me that it was not about me, but about David. David had made some decisions and that God dealt with them. He was offered some help and he chose not to (take it).
Dr. Dee Bissell
“When I was praying about my son, why he would take his own life, the Lord showed me that it was not about me, but about David,” Bissell said. “David had made some decisions and that God dealt with them. He was offered some help and he chose not to (take it).”
Wurzbacher, too, let her members know that the person who commits suicide is dealing with his own demons. She said each case is different. Some commit suicide to get away from the pain while others have lost their own identity through job losses or the loss of a relationship.
“They don’t feel loved, or they feel that their life doesn't matter,” she said. “In their darkest moments, they think the world would be better off without them.”
While dealing with how to minister to the family, Wurzbacher received a lot of good advice from the forum and from other friends.
“A close friend just emailed these words of comfort to me,” Wurzbacher wrote in the forum. “Remember that even the Holy Spirit could not override this man’s free will. I say that to assuage any guilt you, his wife, or anyone else may have with the ‘should have,’ ‘would have,’ ‘could have,’ and ‘if only.’ God knows.”
Words of comfort and support even months later can help the person dealing with the intentional death of a friend or family member. Platitudes such as, “he’s in a better place,” or “he’s not hurting anymore,” do little to help the situation, Wurzbacher added.
Another portion of the suicide death a family member struggles with is where that person will spend eternity. Some have been told that, because the person took his own life, he will spend the rest of his life away from God.
“I think more damage has been done from this than anything else,” Wurzbacher said. “We have to put our focus on God. We can’t judge. We can’t understand how great he is. We encourage people to put their hope in God.”