“What am I supposed to say?”
Unfortunately, there are times in the life of the clergy when we are called upon to officiate at the funeral of someone who ended their own life. The situation is not only often catastrophic to the family but also confusing to well-meaning people who are asked to speak or officiate.
According to strict Jewish tradition, there is an additional difficulty because Jewish law adamantly opposes suicide. In a tradition that commands us to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), the Jewish sages rejected suicide as an option for ending pain. Halakah even holds we do not eulogize a suicide because the deceased should not be held up as a model to emulate.
However, today’s practice is to eulogize every person and to recognize that all people are made in God’s image, even or especially those who suffer. And it also needs to be said that not all deaths from suicide are the same. Someone at the end of their life who yearns for a graceful exit is profoundly different from a young person in pain who thinks that their suffering will never end. Sometimes, such as when drugs are involved, no one knows — nor will ever know — whether the death was deliberate or not. In all situations, however, the family and community need love and comfort.
A eulogy for someone who took their own life can take many forms. If we are speaking at the funeral, we can try to meet a myriad of needs: to name and demystify the cause of death out loud and clearly, to acknowledge that many such deaths are by some kind of coercion (whether through addiction or depression), to validate a spectrum of difficult feelings, to reach out to others who are hurting and thinking about doing the same, and to get through each day of grief. We can come together just to carry one small fraction of people’s pain, however little our help may be. The task of anyone who cares is simply to be there and accompany the family and friends through this nightmare.
We can also explicitly acknowledge that no prayers are adequate. In truth, there usually are no words for such a moment. Because there is no established prayer in my prayer book for this situation, I composed the following out of desperation after a young person took their own life. After all, prayers are the words we say when we have no words.
Anyone using this prayer should of course use their own sensitive, good judgment in adapting it to be appropriate for each particular situation. I hope what follows is helpful.
PRAYER AFTER A SUICIDE
Prayers are the words we say when we have no words.
Let there be no whispering, no secrets here.
Our hearts are broken.
_____ took their own life.
And even though it might appear
that they died by their own hand,
no one does this without terrible pain
and inner suffering that seems to have no end.
Source of compassion, help us to cry out loud,
to hold each other gently,
to live with unanswerable questions,
with these feelings of anger and guilt,
with this gaping loss.
Help us to reach out to others who are suffering,
to show them our love, to say the kind word.
The sun sets and rises.
We put one foot in front of the other.
We hold our hearts in our hands.
God of eternal peace,
help us live each day.
Originally published at the Huffington Post Religion Blog on July 22, 2013. We have edited the original language of “committed suicide” to the more compassionate “died by suicide.”