Sitting in my Pastoral office many years ago, a man was ushered in looking quite distraught. His son had just committed suicide, and the family was devastated.
Though generally an introvert, the young man in his mid-twenties was a favourite in the family. His death therefore was a major shock, especially because he had not left any note. This led to a painful introspection by almost every family member – each wondering whether they may have been the cause of his despair.
But that was not all. The father came to my office because he was looking for a Pastor to assist them with funeral service and burial ceremony. He conceded that he was not a member of our church, but he came because his Pastor had informed him that they do not conduct funerals for persons who have committed suicide. Therefore, although he was a prominent member of that Church, they could not assist him on this one.
The truth is that suicide is often a very traumatic experience for the families, relatives, and friends of the departed. It leaves everybody wondering whether they may have driven the person to the grave. Furthermore, in many societies, suicide is viewed very negatively – often considered as a bad omen or even a curse. Such families therefore often face serious stigma in the midst of their guilt and pain. The question is: How should we handle cases of suicide or attempted suicide?
On September 10 every year, the world marks the World Suicide Prevention Day – designated for reflection on this taboo subject, to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides. In particular, the day is used to encourage nations with penalties for suicide to review and possibly repeal them. This is because there are many nations (Kenya included) where attempted suicide is considered a criminal offence.
Interestingly, criminalisation of suicide finds its roots in religion, especially in Christianity. Church fathers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were key proponents of the criminalisation of suicide. They reasoned that if every form of murder is sin, so should be suicide – which is murder of self. They thus held the view that for one to deliberately terminate the life given to them by God, is to show the greatest contempt to the Creator. Thus Augustine and Aquinas encouraged Church to treat suicide as a sin.
Unfortunately, from a careful study of the Bible, this position does not obtain. Whereas there are several incidences of suicide – including by such prominent personalities as King Saul and Samson.
Yet, in these and other instances, nothing is mentioned about the sinfulness of suicide. This has created a lacuna through which many church groups have conceived varying doctrines. When 27-year-old Matthew Warren shot himself in 2013, it stunned the evangelical Christians. This was especially because his father, Rick Warren, is a globally renowned Pastor and the best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life” which has helped many people find their purpose. Warren, in an emotional email to the congregation at his Saddleback Church wrote, “No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now.”
He also revealed the mental health struggles their son had gone through for many years. Truth be told, this is the reality and anguish many families go through when they lose loved ones through suicide.
It is this realisation that stirred the Church of England to lead a campaign in the early 1960s to decriminalise suicide. They argued that counselling, psychotherapy, and suicide prevention “would be a better solution than criminalisation of what amounts to an act of despair.”
Indeed, for a person to consider suicide, they have gone through serious mental, emotional, and at times social burdens too heavy to bear. Ours is to help lighten this load, both for the suicidal individuals and for their families.
It is for this reason that we readily stood with the bereaved father who visited my office that afternoon. His face was aglow when I told him that we would conduct the funeral for their departed son.
We hold that what the suicidal person and their family need is empathy and support – not a jail term or stigmatisation.
Suicide is a result of distress and should not be punished