(Photo: Courtesy of Highland Park United Methodist Church)
Christians throughout the world were shocked to learn that Matthew Warren, the son of Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, had committed suicide Friday evening at his home in Mission Viejo, Calif., following a lifelong battle with depression and mental illness.
A 2012 report published by the Centers for Disease Control reveals that 38,364 people died in the United States in 2010 from suicide – an average of 105 deaths each day. From 2008 to 2009, an estimated 8.3 million adults reported having suicidal thoughts. And among teenagers and young adults, 15 to 24, suicide accounts for 20 percent of all deaths each year.
The Rev. Dawn Anderson, a part-time pastor at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, started the Christian Survivors of Suicide (CSOS) support group 17 years after she experienced the trauma of coping with the aftermath of her late-husband's suicide in 1993.
Anderson, then a young mother of two boys, expressed that she did everything wrong as she attempted to cope with her grief. Years later, as she embarked on a career in ministry, she saw the need for a biblically-based support group that would provide hope and encouragement to people who are experiencing the guilt, shame, sorrow and anger that follows the death of a family member or friend to suicide.
She told The Christian Post that she was inspired to start the CSOS group after she received feedback from people whom she had encouraged to attend a secular suicide survivors group, in addition to the Christian-based grief support group she led that was for all types of loss. According to Anderson, people said they actually felt worse at the secular group, "whereas, they left our group feeling better."
"This prompted me to start CSOS when I had the opportunity during my internship," she said. "My goal is for people to leave our group with a sense of hope."
CSOS incorporates video lessons and group discussions that are facilitated by Anderson, twice monthly. Participants in the group also receive a free information packet that includes handouts that describe suicide bereavement; scriptures that provide hope and comfort; tips to help navigate relationships and the holiday season; and creative ideas to help honor the person who died.
Anderson said that in her journey, her faith was essential to helping her make sense of the tragedy. "I had wandered from the church, and although I believed in God, I did not have a personal relationship. My husband's death led me back to God and I experienced God for the first time as the Great Comforter, and took encouragement from Jesus' example as a 'man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.' That personal relationship I developed during my grief also led me back to church and eventually seminary."
There are many gestures of support that friends, colleagues and church members can provide to those who are grieving. But Anderson advises people to avoid the clichés about faith, because they're not helpful, at least in the early stages. "The most important thing to remember is just to be a caring presence, and to listen and love."
She continued: "The worst thing a Christian can do is to suggest the loved one is in hell because of their final act. The survivor needs the assurance their loved one was immediately in the presence of God at the time of their death. Another thing survivors hate to hear is, 'It was such a selfish thing to do.' It's far better to realize that this is a death as a result of mental illness, and there's no reason to view it (or judge it) any differently than a death from a physical cause."
That being said, Anderson points out that the grief experienced after a suicide is far different from the sadness that follows a natural death. "Although people in 'regular grief' often feel anger and guilt, those emotions seem to be intensified in a suicide survivor. Guilt in particular is strong. Everyone seems to think they could've prevented it somehow."
She noted that survivors also suffer from persistent "Why?" questions and flashbacks of the traumatic event. "The survivor may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and may need special trauma counseling, especially if they were the one to discover the death."
Over time, survivors of a suicide loss can feel stigmatized or isolated as people stop talking about their loved one who died. But Anderson said this is where friends and family members can step in and share their stories about the person.
"There's a strong need to feel the person's life had meaning, and for their life not to be defined by the way it ended," said Anderson, who added that many survivors find healing in working for suicide prevention or suicide-awareness fundraising walks.
"Remember birthdays and special events," she added. "And whenever possible, encourage the survivor to talk about their loved one. Gifts in the person's honor, perhaps on the anniversary date of the death, can be very comforting." Anderson also recommends offering to visit the grave on a special date or taking flowers to the gravesite.
"I've found friends are often afraid to bring up the subject because they're concerned the person will be reminded at a time when they're feeling good. Survivors always say, 'I'm thinking about them anyway, so it's such a relief to know I can talk about it!'"
Church leaders who would like to start a CSOS support group can contact Dawn Anderson via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To get a CSOS group started, Anderson first suggests contacting a survivor who feels passionate about helping others. She also recommends contacting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which provides a training program for group facilitators.
Even though the support group is centered around biblical principles, participants don't have to be Christians to benefit from the material, which is designed to help those recently affected by suicide, as well as people who lost a loved one more than 60 years ago.