On November 15, 1998, my dad called to tell me that John, my younger brother, who was 18, had committed suicide. He had shot himself with a gun in my parents’ home. At the time, I was a senior in college, and my faith in God was already shaky at best. Although I continued to function—I graduated college with honors, got a job, and moved away from home—my faith fell away with my brother’s death, plunging me into years of anger and self-destructiveness that I would not even begin to recover from until 2006, when a friend invited me to Seacoast Church Greenville Campus, where God began to restore my faith in him again.
Fast forward to August of 2020, when my mom called me with similar news. My cousin’s son, Austin, who was 15, took his life in the same way as my brother. The news resurrected pain and grief I didn’t realize I still had. Traci, my cousin, had walked closely with me after John’s death, and as I tried to be there for her in turn, I was amazed to see how she faced her son’s suicide with wisdom and grace. I wondered if her strength came, in part, from witnessing and learning from what my family had experienced.
No Cause of Death Is Beyond the Power of the Cross
At the funeral, no one acknowledged my brother’s cause of death in his service, and the false secrecy gave me a sense of shame. In contrast, the pastors who spoke at Austin’s service stated that Austin took his own life, allowing them to specifically address the loved ones’ pain. They assured us that no cause of death was beyond the power of the Cross, a truth I had never heard spoken.
I bawled into my mask, tears and snot running past my chin and down my neck. I felt the Holy Spirit reach under my scars, into this deep, unhealed wound, and begin to knit me together. I finally had hope that John could be in heaven. I imagined him standing over us with Austin at his side, their arms locked over the other’s shoulders.
Learning from Our Shared Experiences
Traci and I spent a weekend together, which gave us a chance to talk about our shared experiences. We had a similar grief, stemming from the knowledge that someone we loved had chosen to leave in death. In case it’s helpful, I have put together a few thoughts based on what we experienced, regarding how people who haven’t lost someone this way can support someone who has.
The absolute best thing you can do for anyone who is hurting is to pray. I used to not really understand the point in prayer. If God was sovereign, why did he need us to pray? Wasn’t he just going to do what he wanted either way? Some of this attitude was probably due to my grief over losing my brother. However, going on a missions trip gave me the chance to see God tangibly answer prayers, which built my faith in praying in my everyday life. Now, I pray about everything, and I encourage you to do the same—especially when you don’t know what to do for someone. Prayer works.
- ACT NORMAL.
It has been over 20 years, but still, the quickest way for me to kill a casual conversation is to mention my brother and how he died. At times, I’ve considered saying I am an only child because it’s less uncomfortable. Traci feels the same way about reactions regarding her son. “It’s extremely hard,” she said, “to talk to or be around people with pity in their eyes.”
When someone can act normal in response to our stories, we are both grateful. For instance, when a lady in the visitation line for my brother made a rude statement, my friend Elizabeth, leaned over to me and said, “Did that lady borrow your scarf?”
I started laughing because the scarf was awful. I was thankful for her humor and for that moment of normalcy.
- AVOID USING THE LOVED ONE TO PROCESS YOUR FEELINGS.
Witnessing grief often brings up our own grief. But if someone has just lost a loved one, don’t try to process your grief with that person. It’s one thing to say, “I am really sorry your dad died. I lost my dad three years ago.” You can show your empathy and compassion, but don’t launch into all your feelings about your father’s death. If you need to talk about your own grief find someone else—someone who isn’t dealing with a recent tragedy.
- SHOW UP WHEN EVERYONE ELSE HAS GONE.
Right after a tragedy, the loved ones of the deceased are overwhelmed with people wanting to help and express their condolences. Then, people go on with their lives and forget about the tragedy. Meanwhile, the deceased’s love ones are still struggling with the loss. Check in every few months. Call. Make plans. Go to lunch or coffee. Be present when everyone else has gone away.
- GIVE THEM TIME.
Grief is a process. Be patient and merciful. A grieving person may make some bad choices or say some things he or she will later regret. It can be hard to watch. Be there for them whenever you can, and when you don’t know what else to do, go back to my first point—pray. God is good and sovereign. He loves this person even more than you do.
We can all benefit from talking to someone when we’re going through hard situations. Below are some resources to help during crisis.
- The National Suicide Hotline for crisis situations: 1-800-273-8255.
- If you or someone you love has recently lost a loved one, consider attending Griefshare to help process your grief.
- If you need to talk in a one-on-one environment, please reach out to one of our pastoral counselors.
- Several additional options are available at Seacoast Church and in the community to help you during crisis. Visit Support and Recovery to learn more.