Suicide, Faith, and Compassion

| 1/22/2008 8:37:04 AM

Martin Luther is said to have made waves early in his career by performing a Christian burial for a young boy who committed suicide. Five hundred years later, some churches, including many Protestant ones—Luther’s theological heirs—do not follow his example of valuing compassion for suicide victims and their loved ones over dogma.

Kate Braestrup encountered this sad reality in her work as a chaplain for game wardens, an experience she recounts in an excerpt from her memoir, Here If You Need Me, published in the UU World, a publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In the piece, game wardens tend to the body of a suicide victim found in the woods as Braestrup speaks to Dan, the deceased woman’s brother. Dan tells her how his sister, Betsy, visited a church the previous Sunday, where the pastor described suicide as a singularly unforgivable sin. Dan expresses his dismay that the church would likely be unwilling to host Betsy’s funeral or bury her in the churchyard. Here’s how Braestrup responds:

“Um . . .” I said. And very carefully, after several deep and calming breaths: “I don’t know that pastor personally. I don’t know what he knows and doesn’t know about severe clinical depression. Which is what your sister died of.” I placed my authoritative hand on the console between our bucket seats as if it were a pulpit. “Dan,” I said. “Look around.” Obediently he peered through the rain-washed windshield, up the road toward the blurry outlines of half a dozen green trucks.

In lieu of righteous anger, I heard my voice take on the sure and certain cadences of preaching: “The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of—one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan—it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”

Later, Braestrup gives Dan a list of area pastors to contact, not Unitarian Universalists like herself but “fairly conservative pastors who knew the earth was round and knew something too of the etiology and course of acute mental illness.” Plenty such people exist, and there’s much that others—the mourning, the confused and misinformed, the rigid and judgmental—can learn from their compassion and grace.

Steve Thorngate

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