(Photo: Courtesy Baptist Press/Matt Miller)
HOUSTON – Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, spoke with The Christian Post at the SBC's annual meeting about the impact suicide has had on his family, following the death of his eldest daughter, Melissa, in November 2009. Page exposes the process of grief, hope and healing survivors of suicide experience in his newly released book, Melissa: A Father's Lesson from a Daughter's Suicide.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
CP: For those who are struggling with the emotional stress of grief and sorrow years after their loved one committed suicide, and believe that, as Christians, they should have moved past their feelings of pain and loss, what can you share with them based on your family's experiences that might be helpful to them?
Page: I will tell you that I have found several things to be helpful and those are in the book. First of all, I try to get people to realize that you're not going to get over it, so you're not going to get over it very quickly. Because, as someone once said wisely, I don't know who it was or I'd give them credit, but grief comes like waves on the seashore. They may decrease in intensity and frequency over time, but they always come. So don't think that you ever get over it, and don't feel badly that you haven't progressed further because life with that kind of loss is extremely difficult.
But there are ways that you can help move to stronger places in the Lord. There are scriptures that teach us about prayer, about leaning on the Lord, about the fact that He cares for us and loves us so much. But I also tell families to be there for each other as we deal with grief. One of the things that we must not do, and particularly with survivors, is to start looking for someone to blame. That's natural, but we have to always, as believers, realize God is the giver of every good and perfect gift, and we ought to blame the evil one for the evil that comes in this world.
There's no perfect parent. I was not a perfect daddy, she (Melissa) didn't have a perfect mother, and she didn't have perfect sisters. But we decided early on that we were not going to try to blame each other, but to encourage each other. Life has enough difficulties and Satan wants to discourage, and we believe we ought to encourage people. And so I encourage people not to look for blame, but to look for the healing that the Lord brings and gives in life.
CP: What actions should extended family and church members take to support survivors of suicide long term, acknowledging that the circumstance requires Christians to bring forth different gifts to support those who are hurting?
Page: One thing that I like to tell people – extended families, church families and church support groups – that really in the first several months, people who've undergone a suicide in the family are in shock. They may not even remember that you were there.
I remember my daughter committed suicide the day after Thanksgiving , and so people ask me: "Well, how was your first Christmas?" I don't remember it. But I do remember the second Christmas – that was really hard. So I encourage church members and Christians to be there long term. To be there first, of course. Be careful with trite platitudes, "Well, she's in a better place." That may be true, and we intellectually understand that she's with the Lord, and she's in a much better place. But that diminishes the grief and the hurt that person is feeling. We miss her. We want her to be with us, not somewhere else, even though she's in a better place. So we try to tell people to be careful with trite platitudes. Be there for them. Be there long term for them. Let them know that you care for them. And even though you may not know what to say, you're there to help them – just stay with them, just be there with them. That helps.
CP: Some churches have support groups, such as Christian Survivors of Suicide, but many do not. What are the benefits of having these types of support groups inside the church?
Page: The benefits come from what I call the ministry of presence – that you have someone that's around you, and surrounding you, that's supporting you because people who've gone through attempted suicides are hurting desperately. And that pain doesn't just go away. You don't get it fixed. So you don't need somebody to say, "Well, just snap out of it." You can't just snap out of serious issues like that.
At this year's Southern Baptist Convention, we've passed a resolution on mental illness. We're encouraging churches to be more honest and open than they've been in the past. There are some people who feel ashamed when they suffer from depression or some kind of mental or emotional struggle.
We're encouraging churches to provide ministries, like support groups, to be there for people. But also in a general sense, to be more open and honest about the issues that are out there. And so that people can feel able to be honest in the church setting. So we encourage people to be the body of Christ. And that means an openness to those who are strong, those who are weak, those who are hurting, and those who are not. The truth is, we all hurt at some time or another.