by Anne Basye
Sherry Bryant had already been a social worker for 10 years when her son, Todd, took his life in 1993. Her graduate and professional education had prepared her to face many human struggles, but not this one.
In a survivor’s group, she heard the word prevention for the first time. “All we knew how to do was react after a suicide happens,” she remembers. “Everybody assumed that you couldn’t prevent something like suicide and that we should not raise the subject with someone at risk because that might put ideas in their head.”
Avoiding the subject was not an option for Sherry. With other activists and U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, she devoted the next 10 years to developing and nurturing a national strategy for suicide prevention.
State plans followed with tactics for educating people in schools, churches, workplaces. “We focused on how to educate everybody because it was clear that nobody, not even doctors, knew what to do,” she says.
Several years into their work, she and several fellow advocates made an important discovery. Sherry was a member of Our Savior’s Lutheran in Naperville, Illinois. Fellow activists Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch, whose daughter took her own life, belonged to the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Marietta, Georgia. Stephanie Weber, who started the first suicide crisis line in the Midwest, belonged to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Aurora, Illinois, whose pastor Rev. Wayne Miller—now bishop of the ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod—had helped the group establish Suicide Prevention Services of America in Batavia, Illinois.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we’re all Lutheran. What are we doing in our church?’”
Raising the subject at church
Thus began the Lutheran Suicide Prevention Ministry (LSPM). Its goal is to give arms and legs to the ELCA’s Social Statement on Suicide Prevention, which calls on members, congregations and affiliated institutions to learn more about suicide and its prevention in their communities.
LSPM offers sermon starters, prayer resources, liturgies of remembrance and workshops for clergy and seminarians on how to help those at risk. It coaches pastors on preaching funeral sermons that affirm the sanctity of life without shaming the deceased and survivors. It raises awareness by helping congregations and colleges host panels of attempters and survivors.
Public information campaigns have helped tackle cancer, diabetes, AIDS and other health problems. Suicide is much harder to talk about, especially in church, where fear of stigma has caused families of suicides to cover up and clam up.
That’s unfortunate, Sherry says, because congregations “are set up to do exactly what we need to do for suicide prevention, which is listen, try to relate and stay in touch with each other.”
In the recent best-selling book and movie A Man called Ove, a despondent and isolated widower’s attempts at suicide keep getting interrupted by neighbors asking for his help. Each time he responds, he grows more involved with the world around him.
Calling people into relationship can extend lives. While Ove, like Sherry’s son, eventually does take his life, his friendships extend it by many years. “So often we focus on how we couldn’t help our loved one,” says Sherry. “I’ll never know how often just sitting with my son and listening to him complain about life really helped, or how his buddies and friends and sister helped him.”
More to do
Over a long life, each of us will hit a rough patch at some point. When isolation and hopelessness follow, the small connections are all the more important: a simple greeting, a check-in phone call, a knock at the door.
“The person who will save your life is not your doctor or therapist, but your neighbor, friend, spouse—someone you live with, someone who is part of your natural network and who you feel comfortable talking to,” says Sherry.
So how can a congregation equip itself to be there for people in crisis—for people contemplating suicide, and survivors (usually women) left behind to pick up the pieces after a loved one chooses death?
- Organize a memorial service, candlelight ceremony or walk to name and remember those who have died by suicide.
- Hold a training course in suicide and depression awareness.
- Strengthen existing “companionship ministries” like church greeters, potlucks, circles and socials.
- Light a candle near a window at8 p.m. on September 10 in support of World Suicide Prevention Day.
- Learn the QPR method: Question, Persuade and Refer.
- Post these important numbers in your church: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255. For Veterans, press 1. For Spanish, call (888) 628-9454. Or text START to 741-741.
- Find links to these and other resources at lutheransuicideprevention.org
“We are trying to bring the issue of suicide out of the darkness and end silence and stigma around it,” says Sherry. “The only way to do this is bring it into the light.”
Anne Basye is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.