Pastoral ministry is full of first-time experiences — from the first nursing home visit to one’s first baptism. Since I entered “full-time vocational ministry” over ten years ago, seldom does a month go by where I don’t learn something new or do something for the first time. Praise God. I believe that’s a healthy rhythm for ministry. I hope we as pastors never stop learning.
Earlier this summer I had one of those first-time experiences, except this one came like a punch in the gut. It had it all: a steep learning curve, emotional tension, and a heavy voice in my head saying, “This is big. Don’t mess this one up.” What was it? My first funeral service for a suicide victim. One thing is sure — if you stay in pastoral ministry long enough, this experience will be yours, too. May God be kind to you as the pastor, and to the dear family left behind.
One of the hardest parts of the day was seeing family members hurt in a way that I’ve honestly never seen before. A rush of emotion filled every space and every person. The mom was crying. The dad couldn’t stop talking. The brother wasn’t speaking. The sister was angry. Their world was upside down. None of them could make sense of what just happened or what was going on that day, yet, they had to now try to pull themselves together to lay their loved one to rest. That’s where God gives you, the pastor, a place of ministry.
(As a special note, I lost my uncle to a violent suicide when I was a young boy. I’ve spent many hours talking to my mother about her life-long grieving and healing process. Suicide shakes a family to its core and ripples throughout the corridor of time. The words below are not simply sterile truth claims, but those coming from a pastor who has experienced the loss of a loved one due to suicide. At least in part, I can resonate with those who hurt and hurt deeply.)
Here are some steps to take as you prepare for this most likely pastoral challenge.
Prepare Your Heart To Hurt
As I began to prepare my funeral message, God led me to a passage of Scripture to set the tone of the service and my message.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
I have found with every preaching event, and in particular funerals, a well-prepared heart goes almost as far as a well-prepared sermon. I wanted everything to dovetail into a ministry of comfort. From my audible words to physical gestures, I wanted to funnel God’s truth through my heart to the family — just as if my own loved one was in the casket.
Pastors walk with their people. They carry their burdens. When they hurt, we hurt. As you prepare for a funeral message, regardless of the context, ask God to give you a taste of their pain and grief. Ask God to give you a ministry of empathy. A hurting family will notice (and remember) the pastor who has his heart in tune with them.
Give Them Truth To Believe
The family and friends attending the funeral are likely a ball of emotion as they file in to take their seats. Inside they’re thinking, “I don’t know what to think… I don’t know what to feel… I don’t know what to say…” In sum, they do not know what to believe. Their souls have been stretched beyond imagination. Therefore, every time you stand behind a pulpit, and even more so in times when emotions are high, one of your pastoral goals should be to give them words to say and truth to believe. You are not there to simply say something, but there with something to say.
In the funeral message earlier this year, I gave “Four Statements of Truth to Comfort a Hurting Family.” (I’ll use the feminine pronoun to represent the deceased.)
1. Her death is not my fault. The surviving family will face the temptation to blame themselves. They’ll say things like, “You know I really should’ve…. Perhaps I could’ve… If only I would’ve.” Encourage them not to do that, go there, or listen to that voice. It’s a deep dark hole into which no one wants to fall.
The healing process begins on the day of the funeral. The family must be encouraged not to live with the burdens of bondage and guilt. Those who commit suicide are responsible for their own actions. Sure, there were factors. We are wise to remember. Sure, there were circumstances. We do not doubt. Thus, let us always keep in mind the influence we have on other people.
But, they made a poor choice, a very poor choice and their choice was not your fault.
God made us with the ability to choose. God said to the people of Israel, “That I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live” (Deut. 30:19). Let us remember every choice has a consequence. Your choices are not mine. Mine are not yours.
2. Her death does not define her life. Comfort the family with the greater context of the victim’s life. Talk about the length of life God gave them. Speak of the reputation they had and the life they lived. Remind the family of how God blessed them. They were a son or a daughter. Perhaps a brother or sister. If a spouse is involved, praise God for the marriage if the situation allows. Thank God for their children, and their influence.
Direct the family’s attention toward God’s perspective. Quote from Psalm 139. Remind them that God knew her inside and out. God saw every detail of her life. God loved her more than the family could ever have loved her. And only God knows what she (and everyone else) is really going through. That’s an important truth to remember in pastoral ministry.
As I prepared for this message, God reminded me of the thousands of choices I’ve made over the course of my life. I certainly would not want all of them to define my life. At the same time, we cannot let one decision define the life of a suicide victim. For every poor choice they made, there were likely a hundred positive ones to follow. Speak of those healthy choices. Encourage the family with the life of their loved one. Let those thoughts define her life. Surely she would have had it that way.
3. Her death needs my forgiveness. How the family responds on the day of the funeral will likely set the trajectory for the future. It is vitally critical for a hurting family to forgive their loved one for the mistake they have made. Release the family to forgive their loved one. Give them permission to have a heart of compassion. As an aside – God will likely use certain members of the family to minister to other families who have experienced (and will experience) the same loss.
It’s likely that the suicide occurred only days before you preach the funeral message. The event is still very raw and there is a web of feelings. Some members of the family are gripped by anger. They feel wronged and rejected. Others are stricken with sadness. Some are overwhelmed by loneliness and fear. Still, others are consumed with doubt, confusion, anxiety, bitterness, and a host of other emotions.
As those emotions creep in, encourage the family to be careful in their analysis. We must all (including you, pastor) be careful to not try to figure out why people commit suicide. We don’t know what was truly going on in their life or in that moment.
So what must the family do? Forgive her. Forgive her. Forgive her. The Apostle Paul charged the Ephesians, “Forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). That’s the only way they will ever get past it. There is freedom in forgiveness. The victim needed their forgiveness while she was on earth and now for their sake, she needs it more than ever.
But as you speak on forgiveness, remind them that their forgiveness can only heal so much. There is a forgiveness they simply can’t provide. Tell them of a greater, chief forgiveness found only in Jesus.
4. Her death is covered by the cross. Every family of a suicide victim is likely subjected to the intense emotional pain caused by the erroneous teaching that suicide is the “unforgivable sin,” or the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” The heart of family members can be ripped out in believing their loved one is now in hell solely because of their final choice here on earth.
Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29).
What’s Jesus talking about? Not suicide, but unbelief. A total rejection of God. God can’t forgive those who do not ask to be forgiven. Though not “unpardonable,” suicide is a serious sin. Suicide is murder, a grievous sin. But be quick to announce before the gathered family that suicide is indeed a forgivable sin.
As the Psalmist sings, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1).
Preach the gospel, then apply the gospel. The sin of suicide is no match for the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Tell the family plainly of the forgiveness found in Christ. Not just a one time forgiveness, but a total forgiveness — past, present, and future. If the victim was a follower of Christ, they are covered by the cross. Their faith in Christ and repentance of their sins equals eternal salvation. Not just their last sin, but all of their sins. That is the straight Bible (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 10:9-10). No matter the bumps and bruises, God saves sinners — forever.
As the cross covers her life, so it also covers her death. God’s saving hand is not stayed and it is not shortened by suicide. His grace goes deeper still. Comfort the family with the gospel and ask them to lay their lives on the mercy of Christ, too. Plead with them to give their lives to the God who forgives suicide victims.
Don’t Waste The Graveside
There are few moments like the short minutes of a graveside. Leverage it for the health of the family and the comfort only Jesus can provide. To help things begin, you may choose to call the family’s attention surrounding the burial plot. For the family, that piece of ground will always be a special place. They’ll want to come to that spot to remember their loved one and thank the Lord for their life. Encourage them to do so.
As a pastor, you don’t want the family to miss this moment. They won’t do this again. Remind them of the finality of the moment and of the day. Encourage them to finish the day well. How they respond in this moment could set a trajectory for the rest of their lives. Settle it now. End well. Mark this moment. Don’t miss it. Pray for a sense of Spirit-wrought forgiveness and peace around the graveside.
Read a passage of Scripture, perhaps Ephesians 4:29-32. Lead them in asking for God’s help to forgive their loved one, themselves, and other people. Keep in mind that suicide is often a familial nuclear bomb that can have potential effects for years to come. It is very important that the family settle their peace with one another and with the Lord as they lay their loved one to rest.
Close with a few minutes of silence, then lead them tenderly in prayer.
Pastor, may the Lord bless as you preach the Word and shepherd your flock. We live in a fallen world. We are broken, dying men who are leading others just like us. In due time, it is likely that you will find yourself addressing the hurting family of a suicide victim. Ask for God’s help as you lead with faithfulness. Comfort the family and bring glory to Christ — in the aid and attendance of the Holy Spirit.
Editor’s Note: Looking for addition resources on preaching a suicide funeral?
Listen to this episode of Pastor Matters on Pastors and Suicide (Part 1).