Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Moment in Time

During my first four years as an ordained minister, I officiated at the funerals of three definite and one probable people who committed suicide.

Doing a funeral service for someone who has committed suicide isn’t easy. Christian funerals, at least those of mainline denominations, are set up to help with the grieving process and to offer hope to the mourners. That the one who had died had evidently given up all hope to the extreme sure undermines the good news and any sense of hope.

Let me tell you about one funeral. This funeral took place more than twenty years ago, so the details are not fresh in my mind. At least not all of them; some are so vivid that it is as if the funeral took place yesterday.

The deceased was a 29-year-old male, father of a pre-school daughter, separated from his wife. At the beginning of the separation, the wife and daughter of this man moved from southern Indiana to Indianapolis, which was at least a two hour drive away.

It was a Sunday night. The man had had a weekend visitation with his daughter and had returned her to the apartment of his estranged wife. While his wife was putting their daughter to bed, the father put a large caliber pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. That’s all of the details I remember of the suicide.

A couple of hours after his death, I received a telephone call from one of the man’s sisters. (He had, as I remember, eight siblings). She told me what had happened and asked if I would meet her at her parents home to break the news to her mom and dad. Of course, I agreed. The parents home was only a couple of blocks from the parsonage (a nice thing about very small towns), so I walked.

I won’t go into the details of telling the mother and father about their son’s suicide; just that his sister couldn’t say the words, so I did.

The funeral was almost as traumatic as was informing the parents. The formality and structure of mainline Christian funerals has been developed through the centuries to assist the grieving process. This includes the viewing of the body (or just the casket if it remains closed) by the family before any other mourners arrive; the length of the visitation (which varies depending on the circumstances); the service of closing the casket prior to moving it to the church (unless the viewing took place at the church or the funeral is held at the funeral home); the procession into and out of the church; the graveside service; and of course the funeral service itself.

What I remember most is the service of closing the casket prior to moving it to the church. The deceased was the youngest of the family’s children. He was, I was told, his mother’s favorite. After the formal words, prayers, and blessings, the family and friends of the deceased were to, if they desired, pass by the open casket and then depart for the church.

The mother and father were first to walk by. The mother, a very small woman, did not want to let go of her son. Literally. She reached into the coffin and began to lift his body up. I was standing at the head of the casket and quickly tried to dissuade her. She tightly held onto the body and continued to try to lift her son from the casket.

The problem (and my concern) was that the bullet that had taken this young man’s had blown away the back of his skull. I did not want the family to have the memory of seeing that. So as I held her, I called for her children to help; all gathered around the coffin and pulled their mother back from it. Then they held on to each other and cried. They cried for a very long time.

Somehow I ended up holding the deceased’s daughter in my arms. She held on tight and cried on my shoulder as I said soothing words and hummed a soft song for her. She fell asleep in my arms.

I believe that the suicide of a child, sibling, parents can be the most traumatic event in one’s life. That’s why I have actively supported and practiced suicide prevention through the years.

Since today is World Suicide Prevention Day (I thank Michelene for letting me know of this this morning), I thought I would share this story.

And now, as Paul Harvey says, here is the rest of the story.

About ten or so years later, a young teenage girl was visiting the church during worship. After the service, as folks were leaving and I was shaking hands and hugging them, the girl stood before me and said, “I am sure that you do not remember me, but years ago you held me in your arms at my daddy’s funeral. Thank you. I will always remember that moment.”

And I have never forgotten that moment.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story Nick, this is one of those causes that we don't like to talk about, but it should be spoken about to help people in what is very well their darkest hour.

    Thank you for lighting a candle, and bringing more awareness Nick.And thank you for holding that little girl.

  2. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt story. I just cannot imagine being the one to break it to the parents. You're so brave and compassionate -----your strength is amazing. People go through so much torture inside their minds and the closest ones to them don't even notice sometimes. They say the worst kind of mourning is a parent losing their child. Any kind of mourning, especially due to an unnecessary suicide is absolutely heartbreaking.

    Thank you for this post.

  3. So sad, so very tragic that people believe this is their last option.

    Thank you for this story Nick.

  4. Oh what a sad, sad story Nick. It's nice that the little girl remembered the comfort you gave her.

    Suicide is a terrible thing. I'm sure the people who commit suicide don't thing about what will be left behind. My youngest son took an overdose a couple of years ago, thankfully he was found in time. When I pointed out that he had almost left two little boys fatherless it broke his heart and he swore no matter how bad things got he would never, never do anything like that again. I hope he keeps his promise because it broke my heart that he had tried to leave us all. :(

  5. Nick, that post is so important to all families of anyone that has tried or commeted suicide.

    I am so thankful you were there for that little girl. Hopefully your compassion made a real difference in her young life.

    Thank you Nick for being you.

  6. *crying* wow. What a beautiful, beautiful story.

    I am glad that you were able to sympathize and be there for the family. The other problem with SOME Christian services I have seen is that the minister uses the service as a chance to talk about the "final sin" of suicide and how the person never got a chance to ask God for forgiveness (and so, will burn in hell).

    Those funerals make me angry.

    So much better that you just held the little girl. :)

  7. Nick,thank you for sharing this story with us.that is powerful that the young lady remembered you and came ti thank you.

  8. Yes, thank you for sharing this, Nick. If tragedy ever hit me again, I would want you around. The girl will never forget your kindness.

  9. This is a powerful story, Rev Saint. I can feel the mother's grief at her son's suicide.