Opinion: Compassion, science needed for suicide funerals

Melinda Moore

Losing a loved one to suicide may be one of most painful and confusing events in life. As Catholic priest and writer Father Ron Rolheiser reflects, “It brings with it an ache, a chaos, a darkness, and a stigma that has to be experienced to be believed.” Many are plunged into a spiritual crisis. My mother-in-law likes to say that she has a “love-hate” relationship with God now, years after after losing her eldest son, my husband, to suicide.

No one is spared in this experience. Suicide bereaved have statistically higher levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempt. How others behave and communicate about their loved one’s suicide may allow them to either feel judged and misunderstood or comforted, impacting their trajectory of grief and potential health outcomes.

Maison Donnelly Hullibarger, 18.

The Rev. Don LaCuesta, who gave the homily at the recent funeral mass of 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger of Temperance, Michigan, used the occasion to articulate his own thinking about suicide, rather than comfort or minister to the loved ones left behind. This was a wasted opportunity to minister to the truly suffering. The tragedy is that it could have been averted with a little bit of training and, perhaps, a dash of compassion.

Clergy are not trained in the science of suicide and how to competently address it in the aftermath, at the funeral, or the weeks, months and years that it takes to process this event. Clergy and faith leaders often fall back on their own life experiences, prejudices, or misguided understanding of church policy to address suicide when confronted by it in their own congregation. This is the very reason that behavioral health providers are being mandated nationally in a number of states to receive specialized suicide training. The burden of suicide is so great and the ability to address it with competence in behavioral health is minimal.

As well-intentioned as LaCuesta may have been, his admonitions are laced with judgment and prejudice. “Our lives are not our own. They are not ours to do with as we please. God gave us life, and we are to be good stewards of that gift for as long as God permits. The finality of suicide makes this all the worse. You cannot make things right again.” They suggest unremitting condemnation for the sin of suicide. This is simply not consistent with science or how most faith view these deaths of despair.

We know that misinformation and punishment only lead to shame, stigma, and further darkness around an issue that desperately needs light in order to combat the powerful psychological forces of suicide. Part of this may be spiritual guidance from clergy and faith leaders who provide hope and assurance that God has not abandoned their loved one or them in this moment of profound despair.

There is a science to the suicide funeral. We know that the language we use and the modeling of attitudes by leaders, such as faith leaders, will make a difference in how bereaved individuals will understand their experience with suicide. Clergy may guide family members, parishioners, and others to compassionately react to a suicide death and mobilize efforts when individuals who are most impacted are struggling and at risk.

Melinda Moore is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University and clinical division director of the American Association of Suicidology.