This past week I have had the unfortunate and difficult task of responding and ministering to a teen suicide in our community. Adam was a young man in our youth group that took his own life. For me, it is the first time I have ever lost a close member of our youth group to death; suicide or otherwise.
It still feels surreal.
I still can’t quite believe I won’t see him again, hear his laugh, or have a great conversation with him. I’m not sure it has really sunk in yet.
All death can create feelings of mourning and sadness, but suicide is different. It is so sudden, abrupt. You feel as if a piece has been taken out of you that will never be replaced. This bright, young life with so much promise is over.
Its a punch to the gut, because so many would have told him how much they loved him. So many people would have talked him down, or tried to stop him. The 600+ people who came to the viewing or the 200+ who attended the funeral I officiated would have told him they loved the beautiful, uniquely made child of God that he was.
Ironically, I was reading the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” two days before Adam’s death, and I highlighted this phrase in my Kindle, after Morrie attended a funeral of a friend, Irv:
He came home depressed. “What a waste,” he said. “All those people saying all those wonderful things, and Irv never got to hear any of it.”
Indeed. What a waste.
As I unpack the emotions involved with this sort of tragedy, I hope and pray that my story and advice may help someone else as they walk along those who deal with the ramifications of teen suicide, and hopefully, to avoid it.
There are no easy answers, but there are specific things you can do to lend effective pastoral care:
Give clear guidance & leadership to the family – in moments of trauma, surviving family members operate in a fog or shock. They need you, as the minister, to give clear and affirming leadership. Take as much off their plate as you can.
Keep your phone at your side at all hours – be ready to reach out, call, and text youth and parents at any hour.
Run to God in your pain – encourage others to leverage their pain as a way to lay hold of God, and not the opposite.
Keep the focus on Jesus – if officiating the funeral, keep the focus on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, God’s loving sovereignty, and positive memories of the deceased.
Keep the focus on love – people need to be reminded of why they are at a viewing or funeral: its because they love that person. All are gathered because they care, and that is to be celebrated. If you love someone, tell them immediately.
And mean it – Youth ministers and parents fight for teenagers daily and love them with a passionate love. Live each day to the fullest, and if God ever brings a teen to mind to pray for or reach out to, act immediately. Keep fighting for your kids, and “leave it all on the field” so that if suicide does happen, you can know you did all you could.
Mourn with those who mourn – don’t give advice and for goodness sakes don’t say “Everything happens for a reason.” Just be present and weep when you want to weep.
Avoid “If only…” – it is so tempting to torment yourself with thoughts of “if only I had done this, etc”. I chose to affirm the fact that we have loved Adam well as a Christian community, which we have. Focus on the positive memories and how you have worked on someone’s behalf. Ultimately, the choice of someone to take their own life is just that: their own choice. Beating yourself up after the fact will not change what has happened. While incredibly sad that someone has taken their own life, there are also other potential suicides you have also possibly prevented over the years. If there is any positive side to “if only” thoughts, let it be an inspiration to reach out to teenagers that much more. God will do what is absolutely best – You will be asked the question, “Is he/she in heaven? Is he/she in hell?”. The short answer is: you don’t know. The long answer: God is perfect. Honestly, none of us really know at the time of death, especially in terms of a suicide where the profession of faith of the individual is in question. It is dishonest to give a false hope, or conversely, a false judgement. The grave is very silent and death is final on this side of eternity. What we can do, however, is trust in Jesus’ words, remember Jesus as the Good Shepherd, remember that a teenager is still a child, and that God will do what is perfect, just, loving, and eternally secure. We are not God, but we can trust in God’s perfect Word and God’s perfect character.
I will always love and miss Adam. I will think of him for the rest of my life. He has made an indelible mark on my life.
Ministry and loving others is a risk. You never know what is going to occur.
However, I think we can all agree its a risk worth taking.
It is always better to love and lose someone than not to love at all.
Keep up the good fight.
Clark Chilton is a student ministries pastor in the trenches of youth ministry!