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Faiths Rethink Stance on Suicide

By Kathi Wolfe

The Rev. Charles Rubey, a priest with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, recently talked with a mother whose son had committed suicide. The woman poured out her grief to him. But what made her anguish even more excruciating, Father Rubey said, was the insensitive way in which people responded to her pain.

"Instead of conveying their sorrow over her loss, they asked, 'What went wrong? Did your son show any signs that he would kill himself?' " he recalled.

The young man was one of the more than 30,000 Americans who kill themselves each year. Father Rubey, who heads LOSS - Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide - said the reaction that the boy's mother encountered after his death is all too common. In society and in churches, well-meaning people often react to suicide in ways that hurt rather than help those who lose a family member to suicide.

But cultural and religious attitudes toward suicide are changing, according to a number of clergy, psychiatrists and suicide survivors. Because of increased awareness of mental illness, the stigma surrounding suicide is decreasing in faith communities and, spurred by a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General, many churches are beginning to confront suicide rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Last year, the U.S. surgeon general issued "A Call to Action," which called suicide "a serious public health problem."

More Americans die from suicide than from homicide, and 500,000 people per year need emergency room treatment because of attempted suicide, the report said. It called for a comprehensive national suicide prevention strategy.

But despite the social impact, suicide is seldom spoken of in churches, says James T. Clemons, author of What Does the Bible Say about Suicide? Even though there is more understanding of mental illness, he said, suicide survivors are still shunned in some congregations.

Too often, "people mourning loved ones who have taken their own lives have been told that suicide is an unforgivable sin," said Mr. Clemons, who organized The Organization for Attempters and Survivors in Interfaith Services ( Not so long ago, he noted, people who committed suicide frequently were not allowed to be buried in church cemeteries.

"Clergy preach on abortion, homosexuality - any social issue you can think of. But you almost never hear a sermon on suicide," he said.

Recently, churches have begun to break down the walls of silence and shame that have surrounded suicide for centuries. Faith groups are passing resolutions and developing programs to foster suicide prevention and reach out to suicide survivors.

The Episcopal Church's General Convention passed a resolution calling for the church to "minister more appropriately to those ... especially at risk of suicide as well as those ... impacted by the suicide of others" at its meeting in Denver this month. The resolution also urges "all levels of the Episcopal Church" to "accord high priority to the prevention of suicide in prayers and programming."

"In the past, suicide was equated with homicide," said Robert M. Watson, a retired Episcopal priest and pastoral counselor in Memphis, Tenn., who helped draft the Episcopal resolution. "We know that people who attempt suicide need support and therapy, not condemnation."

He said that as people learn not to judge those who attempt suicide, people are "less likely to hide it if they've tried to kill themselves or lost a family member to suicide. We need to let them know that they will not be cut off from the love of God."

In May in Cleveland, the United Methodist Church General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, added a statement on suicide to the Social Principles section of its Book of Discipline. "A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God. ... We deplore the condemnation of people who take their own lives, and ... the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends," it says. The statement calls upon seminaries to offer courses on suicide-related issues.

But before churches work on suicide prevention, they must start with a solid knowledge base, said Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.

Many clergy aren't informed about suicide, Dr. Jamison said.

"Often, they don't understand the strong relationship between mental illness and suicide," she said, adding that with training, churches can play an active role in getting professional help for those who attempt suicide.

When someone loses a family member to suicide, "a compassionate minister is a great gift," said Elsie Weyrauch, who with her husband, Jerry, founded SPAN USA, the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network. The Weyrauchs, members of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Marietta, Ga., were heartbroken when their 34-year-old daughter, Terri Ann, killed herself in 1987.

"Terri Ann was a doctor who'd worked with her church on prison ministry," Mrs. Weyrauch said. "But she suffered from depression. One day, she hanged herself. Our minister came immediately. He wasn't embarrassed to cry with us. That was so comforting when we were in such shock."

The Weyrauchs worked through their grief by becoming suicide prevention advocates. Last May, they came to Washington, D.C., and walked to Capitol Hill carrying quilts containing the names of people who committed suicide.

The Weyrauchs were instrumental in drafting the "Message on Suicide Prevention," which the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America adopted in November 1999. The message calls on ELCA members to become aware of suicide as a public health problem and to join in suicide prevention efforts.

"Whoever among us experiences suicidal thoughts should know that the rest of us expect, pray and plead for them to reach out for help," the message states. Offering support to the bereaved, the message says, "Funerals are not occasions either to condemn or idealize an act of suicide, but times to proclaim that suicide and death itself do not place one beyond the communion of saints. Because of Christ's death and resurrection for us, we entrust a troubled person to God's love and mercy with the promise that 'whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's' (Romans: 14:7)."

Alvin M. Sugarman of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta spoke at the first interfaith conference on suicide, held at the Carter Center and Emory University in April.

Saving human life is the ultimate value in the Jewish tradition, Mr. Sugarman said. "But, I wouldn't tell a suicide survivor that suicide is a sin. When people come to me who have lost family members to suicide, I tell them suicide is like a terminal cancer. You couldn't have done anything to save your loved one."

Judaism and Catholicism consider suicide a sin, but many leaders in both traditions now believe that those who take their life are mentally ill, and thus are not responsible for their actions.

"Because the act of suicide is carried out under emotional duress or mental disturbance, someone who has committed suicide is commended to God's mercy," said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

What should people say when they meet someone who has lost a family member to suicide?

"Don't ask why it happened," Mr. Rubey said. "Don't cast any blame. Just say, 'I'm sorry for what you're going through.'

Illustrations/Photos: PHOTO(S): (Religion News Service) Members of the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network demonstrate outside the U.S. Capitol.

Copyright 2000 Religion News Service. Used with permission.

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