About the Guest
Today on the broadcast, David Cox talks about the impact of suicide on the survivors.
David CoxDavid W. Cox is a marriage and family counselor in Spartanburg, SC. He holds a B.A. degree in Religion from Wofford College, and Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. The focus of his doctoral work was counseling and suicide intervention. As a part of his training, Dr. Cox completed a two-year clinical residency as a Hospital Chaplain. He also had a ten-year career in Emergency Medical Service and was named 1989 So...more
Today on the broadcast, David Cox talks about the impact of suicide on the survivors.
David: There are two things you don't want to do – you don't want to just slap a Band-Aid on it and pretend like it's not there – just cover it up and hope it will go away. The other thing is you don't so completely focus on the problem that you neglect the healing.
There's a middle ground that we need to arrive at where we talk about it, we bring it out in the light, we call it for what it is, we even call it sin because to simply focus on the way they died is to misunderstand what their life represented.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, March 21st. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. How do you deal openly and honestly with the reality of suicide when someone you love takes his life?
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. Dennis?
Dennis: Bob, we receive a lot of letters and e-mails from our listeners, and one got my attention from a radio listener, and I'll just read it. She says, "Yesterday our pastor committed suicide. I have a two-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. What do I tell them? Several parents are also asking me for advice. Our church is having a congregational meeting tomorrow night. Your advice and prayers would be appreciated."
You know, what she is talking about is a family that has been impacted by another person's suicide, and they have a unique set of needs to know how to process, as those who are left behind, the living, and how to coach and guide and help their children and family know how to cope in the absence of someone they loved.
Bob: That's a subject that we are dealing with this week on the program, and we have got a guest who is helping us do that from Spartanburg, South Carolina. His name is Dr. David Cox. David, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
David: Thank you so much.
Bob: Our listeners who have heard your story know that you have had to deal personally with the impact of a successful suicide. Your father took his life when you were nine years old, and you have continued not only to look at this subject personally but also professionally. You are a counselor today, and I know that this is one issue that emerges for you over and over again as you deal with folks who are in the wake of a suicide.
And you describe this interestingly in a book you've written called "Aftershock." You say that any of us who have had the experience of losing a filling know that you almost can't help but have your tongue keep going to the spot where the filling used to be, and every time you do it's painful, but there is this strange attraction there. You say, for a person in the wake of a suicide, you almost find yourself going repeatedly to that same pain. It's like you can't avoid it.
David: Because there are no good answers. Why did this happen? Why did they choose this? And no matter how many times you go there, you never come away with anything that resolves the anger, the guilt, the shame, what if we had done the right thing? What if we had seen these problems coming?
Bob: Does someone who is a friend or a family member of a suicide victim – do they just have to resign themselves to the fact that there are going to be unanswered questions for the rest of your life and kind of get past that and move on?
David: You have to move on, because you will become paralyzed and immobilized by the guilt and the questions if we're not careful. Dennis, you mentioned the church where the pastor had taken his life, and I can tell you some things they don't need to do right now – they don't need to cover this up. They don't need to deny how this man died.
We need to use The Word, it needs to be talked about, we need to talk about the wonderful things that this pastor did and the way he lived his life for the Lord, and it's a very difficult but necessary thing to talk to these children that are survivors. And when we use the term survivor of suicide, we are referring to those left behind after a successful suicide attempt.
Bob: So you're saying that in the same way that you might eulogize or memorialize a person who died in a car wreck or who died from a terminal disease – we should have that same philosophical approach to someone who takes his own life?
David: I believe so, because there are many more redeeming qualities about this person than – to simply focus on the way they died is to misunderstand what their life represented.
Dennis: That's a difficult assignment, though. I know of a friend who described a suicide in his family as though it was a ripple effect; that it affected and infected the entire family and continues, even to this day, to impact their family and how they're raising their children, because suicide has been introduced into the family vocabulary.
They are now wondering if their elementary children are thinking about suicide; they're wondering if their teenagers are more likely to contemplate suicide. It changes the genetic structure of the family, doesn't it?
David: Well, you use the word "infect." What do you do with an infection? There are two things you don't want to do. You don't want to just slap a Band-Aid on it and pretend like it's not there – just cover it up and hope it will go away. The other thing is, you don't so completely focus on the infection and on the problem that you neglect the healing.
There's a middle ground that we need to arrive at where we talk about it. We bring it out in the light; we call it for what it is; we even call it sin, because anything that is not of faith is a sin and, certainly, that's not an act of faith. It's an act of fear, it's an act of desperation. It's someone who is obviously in a very desperate situation.
Bob: Dennis and I were away traveling a number of years ago when we got a phone call that someone on our staff had taken their own life. And I remember the numbness that we all felt when we heard the news. And then I remember going to the funeral a few days later, and one of the great things they did at the funeral is what you talked about – there was a video that showed her life. It showed some of the happy times of her life that all of us wanted to focus on and wanted to remember.
But I also remember thinking to myself – "I don't know what to say. I don't know what not to say. I don't know what to avoid, and I don't know how to comfort." What are some of the things we ought to reach out and say?
David: Let me encourage that person not to try to fix the problem. We're not the Holy Spirit, and we can't fix that hurt in that person's life, as much as we may like to.
Bob, I've heard some amazingly hurtful and even cruel things said, like "Well, you know your loved one is in hell for what they did, don't you?" Or, "Well, they're better off," or "We always knew they were a little crazy, anyway."
The best thing to say to someone who has been there – and, listen, I've been there, and I still don't know what to say – I put my arms around that person, and I say, "I love you, and what I see you doing right now" – let's say they lost their dad – "Your dad would be so proud of you. Your dad loved you. Your dad was a great man." And I try to recount something good about their father that maybe they didn't even know. And I want to encourage them – "You can get through this."
In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said, "What the enemy meant for evil, God used for good, even to the saving of many lives." And you may not be there right now, and it may be a long time before you're there.
In fact, in my life, it probably took 30 years before I got to the place where I could say God has used this for good in my life. And you've got to look for the little blessings in the midst of that crisis – what did this person leave behind? What is their legacy? Everyone's suicide touches at least six lives in an immediate way.
Dennis: And it creates a chaos that's indescribable. I mean, you're expressing an emotional struggle 30 years later.
David: Dennis, I still feel pain about my Dad's suicide. Someone very wise told me one time, "David, when you talk about your dad, there will always be a wince of pain in your soul." And that's exactly the way it is. I don't ever want to let go of that. That's part of what I minister out of. If we lose that, then we lose that ability to comfort others in the way in which we have been comforted.
Dennis: Yeah, and the Scripture really teaches that pain is a tutor; it's a teacher. It leads us to God; it presses us against Him. And yet in a family that is surviving a suicide, the tendency of that family is to go underground – to retreat, to bury it, not talk about it, and to not discuss it among themselves.
If we're speaking right now to a family member that's in a family like that, where they refuse to discuss it and denial is a part of the DNA of their family structure, what would you tell them to do? Would you say, "You know, there's an elephant in the room. We just need to talk about this elephant. We need to talk about the death of our brother, our father, and get it out in the open."
David: And in not doing so, we are making the same judgments in error that our loved one made that took him to a point of suicide.
Dennis: What do you mean by that?
David: Well, probably what he needed more than anything else was to take the mask off and say, "I'm hurting. I'm afraid. I'm angry, I'm depressed, I feel like my life is not worth living, and I'm tired of it." And had he been able to do that, he may still be here today.
So when we sweep his death by suicide under the rug, and we are setting ourselves up for another suicide. It's that denial; it's the refusal to acknowledge the truth and lay it out there on the table. It perpetuates the cycle of suicide.
Bob: You said that it was the Sunday school teacher who broke the news to you of your father's death. She did not tell you at the time that it was a suicide, did she?
Bob: You got that news just before the funeral. How were you told and did whoever did it do it right?
David: My mom told me, and she did the very best job she could. I'm the baby in the family. I felt like, because I was the last one who had seen him alive, that somehow I should have been the first one that had been told. I had a lot of guilt about that later, Bob. I wondered that somehow if they had told me sooner that somehow that may have made a difference. Obviously, it would not have.
The problem in not telling children as soon as possible – children are bright, and they pick up on things, and parents and loved ones who have said things like, "Well, you know, Dad," or Grandad, "went on a long trip," or "God needed them," or "They went to sleep." Things you do not want to tell children because they become afraid of someone going to sleep or going on a long trip, or they feel like, "Well, God needed my dad more than I did." And God did not cause this event in their life, He allowed it for some reason, but He certainly did not cause that.
Dennis: You know, I picture you as a nine-year-old boy, and I think of where I was at nine. I mean – my life was very tranquil, predictable – I mean – there were some bruises and scrapes on my knees but nothing like this kind of earthquake. As you would think about helping a child process the suicide of a loved one, where would you begin?
David: I would remain calm, and I would use as much age-appropriate information as possible, keeping in mind that a child's attention span is about the same length in minutes as they are old. So if we have about a six or a seven-year-old child, we don't have a long time to get this information across to them.
The surviving family members must be present. If they are not the ones that can break the news – and the hardest thing that I've ever had to do as a professional counselor is sit down with children with a mom or dad present and tell them their mom or dad is gone.
Dennis: Are you saying you told children that their parents had committed suicide?
David: I have had to do that, yes, because the surviving parent simply couldn't do it. And so the next best thing is Mom sitting here, right by me, and we tell the child with Mom here so that the child knows Mom's okay, Mom's not going anywhere.
We must tell that child, Dennis, "Your father loved you. You did not cause this. This wasn't because you didn't pick up your toys or because you made a bad grade on a spelling test. This had nothing to do with you. You could not have made him take his life. You could not have stopped him.
Your dad loved you very much, and you don't need to blame yourself for this," because children in a certain age group from about six to eight believe that they are sort of the center of the universe and that everything happens for them and because of them.
Dennis: Yeah, we see this happening all the time in a divorce.
Dennis: Children think they caused the divorce and put themselves in between their mom and dad trying to be a peacemaker and pull them together. You're saying the same thing is true in this.
David: Exactly, if the child thought, "Well, I hate my daddy for making me clean up my room, and I wish he was dead." And then that father dies by suicide, if that's not cleared up in that child's mind, he may believe that somehow there's a cause and effect there.
Dennis: If you were going to read a passage of Scripture to a child just to draw their hearts from the horizontal to the eternal, what passage would you read to a child?
David: Psalm 56:3.
Dennis: That's pretty emotional for you to even point people there.
David: Because the Sunday school teacher that told me of this scribbled that verse on a piece of paper.
Dennis: For you as a boy, and you looked it up later in your own Bible?
David: Looked it up later. I still have that piece of paper today, and Psalm 56:3 says, "When I'm afraid, I'll trust in Thee." I was so afraid. For the first time in my life, I was afraid, because my dad was gone. And also, for the first time in my life, I knew I had a heavenly Father who loved me, that I could trust in, and that I could call upon, and He became real to me for the very first time.
Dennis: You know, trying to make sense out of the death of a parent to a child – I don't know that any human being could know where to begin. But after we've told them the truth, and after we've explained it to them, and we've read Scripture on an ongoing basis, we have to continue to engage them around this and not just assume, because they don't want to talk about it, that everything is okay.
David: Because they're checking us out, too. And if Mom or Dad's not talking about – the family that remains isn't talking about this, then maybe that means this is not an okay subject. And I think that happened in my family. My mom and sisters were so concerned about me, they were afraid to bring it up – "We don't want to upset David."
Bob: That has been the case for years, still today. This is not a subject that you go to with your mom, is it?
David: It's become moreso since the release of the book in October.
Dennis: Has she read the book?
David: She has.
Dennis: What did she think about the book?
David: She was very proud. I think it was hard for her to see that in print. It's a very private part of our family, so it's caused all of us to have to be more open about it, and I felt very much that I needed my mom's permission to be able to tell the story in print. But we are now having some conversation about it in some ways, maybe, for the very first time.
Dennis: You and your two sisters are now discussing it when you get together, like, for the holidays?
David: We had a book signing at a Wal-Mart near my office a few weeks ago, and my mom and both of my sisters were there, and it was, like, a family reunion in the middle of Wal-Mart as I signed books. And I just thought, "What a God moment." I mean, "is this not God working all things together for good?" We were able to all stand there and hug and love on people and just see how God had healed our family.
Dennis: It was not awkward?
David: It was not awkward at all. It was a little unusual, but it certainly – it felt so good.
Bob: As you look at your mom and your sisters, do you see the scars of suicide still in their lives?
David: I see scars, but I see healed scars. I see big scars but not scars that are open and weeping and bleeding and that cause dysfunction.
Dennis: I think what God wants to do – in fact, using the terminology of a scar, I think back to a former pastor of mine, Dan Jarrell, who now pastors a church in Anchorage, Alaska. Do you know what he calls them, David? I think you're going to like this. He calls them "holy scars."
Now, think about that. They're wounds that we have had to endure, like you, since you were nine years old – that scar. But they're scars that God has wanted to turn into a trophy – a scar that's not just a place on our hearts that has been wounded, but a place where God's been at work; where He has been real. Just like you reliving that moment when you read Psalm 56:3 and remembering that was really a very profound moment in your relationship with Jesus Christ. That really is a holy scar on your life.
David: It may be a scar that saved my life. You know, people have surgery – life-saving surgery – and sometimes they are very proud to show you the scars, and I believe there are things that maybe we need to be a little more proud of – "Look what God's done in my life," and the physical scars on my body remind me of times when I hurt very badly, and the ability to heal and recover is just something that God has put in all of us, and there is healing for this, Dennis. It's a tough road. I think it's the worst.
Personally, I don't believe there can be a more tragic or difficult way to lose a loved one. But if God is not the God of this, He's not the God of anything. If He can't be real when you bury a loved one because they chose death – Deuteronomy 30 – God says, "I set before you this day life or death, blessing or curse – choose life." Just because they chose death doesn't mean I have to. I'm going to choose life.
Dennis: And to choose life, you have to courageously apply your faith, which you have done since you were nine years old and processing and dealing with this and then through the writing of this book and, David, we just appreciate you, your writing and counseling and speaking ministry. And Bob and I are really grateful for you joining us over the past couple of days to help bring some biblical equipping around a very, very delicate issue. Thanks for being on our broadcast.
David: Thank you.
Bob: Talking about the scars – I'm thinking about Jacob's limp after wrestling. He got a broken bone in that wrestling match and, don't you know, for the rest of his life as he limped, every step reminded him of his wrestling and God meeting him there, and God ultimately bringing him to a place of brokenness and healing, and that's really what you've described having happened in your life, and I think it happens in the lives of many who go through the valley of the shadow of death as they experience a suicide in a family or with a loved one.
Dennis: Yeah, and the key thing about Jacob's wrestling match is he lost – he lost. That's the question. Will you give up and give in to the King of kings and Lord of lords?
Bob: Fly the surrender flag, right?
Dennis: Uh-huh, that's right.
Bob: We've got copies of David's book, "Aftershock" available in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and I hope our listeners will call to get a copy either for themselves or maybe they know someone in their community; someone where suicide has become a part of the reality for their family. This would be a book that you could pass on, along with a note that you'd write to them letting them know of your care and your concern, your love, your desire to help. God might use that in a profound way to draw these people into a deeper relationship with Himself.
We have copies of the book, as I said, in our FamilyLife Resource Center. You can order online, if you'd like, at FamilyLife.com or call 1-800-FLTODAY. We also have a resource that's a 31-day devotional designed for families experiencing grief called "Encouragement for Broken-Hearted Homes," and if you order both of those resources together we can add, at no additional cost, the CD of our conversation with David Cox. Get all the details on these resources when you call 1-800-FLTODAY or when you go online at FamilyLife.com.
Let me take just a minute, Dennis, if I can and say thanks to the folks who help support this ministry and make programs like this possible. You need to know that in the last couple of days, the conversation that we've had here on FamilyLife Today has been used by the Lord to minister profoundly to a lot of folks around the country, folks for whom suicide is a present reality in their family. Something that has happened recently.
A lot of those folks have contacted us not only to request resources but to request prayer, and we're glad that we can be here to assist with practical, biblical help for your family when you're going through something like this, and we want to thank the donors who make that possible – those of you who help underwrite the expenses of this program.
You can make a donation to FamilyLife Today online at FamilyLife.com, or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation, and let me just say thanks in advance for your financial support. We really do appreciate it, and I know the folks who have contacted us this week appreciate it as well.
Well, tomorrow we want to talk about what we can do to have a different kind of family than the one we grew up in, especially if we grew up in a family that we wouldn't look back on an describe as a godly family. How can we have a distinctively Christian family if that wasn't modeled for us. We're going to talk about that tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.
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