What A Family Suicide Taught Me About The Invaluable Role Of Funeral Directors

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A few weeks ago, I received a heartbreaking call that no person ever wants to take… My younger cousin, at the tender age of 16, and with so many life possibilities and meaningful moments ahead, took his own life.

And while I may work in a profession where death is spoken about casually over lunch, and where I regularly give advice on how to cope and heal when loved one’s pass away, it’s still completely debilitating when this kind of event hits home.

Over the next few days, I mentally prepared myself for the scene that was to come at the funeral home… a casket surrounded by high school sports memorabilia ﹘ the highlights of the too-short life he left behind; A poster of photos collected by his high school girlfriend, instead of a family album filled with graduations, children’s birthdays, and a wedding portrait; A room filled with teenagers who have yet to understand the beautiful life that was about to peak out from the other side of the dark mountain.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the important and invaluable role our funeral director would play in this personal tragedy.

In a week of overwhelming planning and coordination, complicated feelings of anger and confusion, and a funeral packed wall-to-wall with family and classmates all looking for answers, our funeral director was the one guiding light through the darkness.

The Role of Funeral Directors in Suicide Death

Suicide is still a very sensitive and loaded topic in today’s world. People don’t like talking about it even more than they don’t like talking about traditional death. It’s almost as if there is a myth out there that if you talk about suicide, you are inviting the tragedy into your life. But the truth is, talking about suicide openly and honestly is one of the best ways out there to lessen the amount of suicide deaths in the world.

Therefore, as funeral directors, be sure that you encourage family and friends to talk about the fact that the death was a suicide. Giving families “permission” to talk about the manner of death and have honest and open conversations about suicide will help with healing and may prevent it from happening again.

Also be sure that you are using the right wording when speaking about the situation. Many funeral directors choose not to use the phrase “committed suicide,” as it is linked to similar actions such as “committed sin” or “committed a crime.” Your families need as much comfort and support as possible during this emotional time, so instead use phrases like “death by suicide” or “taking one’s own life” ﹘ phrases that acknowledge the situation but aren’t emotionally charged.

In addition to supporting the family during this difficult time, it’s also extremely vital that funeral directors have a pulse on their local community following a suicide death. Both family members and adolescent survivors of suicide are very vulnerable, and being exposed to certain situations could heighten their emotional status. As the primary source of support and guidance during the funeral, it is up to the funeral director to lay out positive thinking and prepare both the family and the community for the events that will be unfolding.

Creating A Helpful Healing Experience for Suicide Families

Be sure that you are supporting your families in any way that they need it, whether it’s walking them step-by-step through the planning process, helping them explain the situation to family and friends, or simply just listening to their feelings.

1. Guide Your Families

The days following a suicide death are mainly about the survivors, and helping them as they begin to question the world around them. The “Maybe I should haves…” or the “If only I hads…” Unfortunately, the only one who holds the answer to those questions is the deceased, so it’s important to put a safety net under your family to help them through the healing process.

2. Give Them The Opportunity To Heal

It’s important that you get in front of the service and do not let anything undermine the healing process of your family. For example, some religions and religious leaders stand by the notion that suicide deaths only lead you down one path in the eyes of God. But whether you agree with this belief or not, the last thing you want is a pastor saying to your emotional families that suicide is a one way ticket out of heaven.

In my case, our family was already facing a number of conflicting feelings about our loved one… but to say that not only are they gone, but they’re in hell? That’s hell itself. Instead, our funeral director got in front of the service and made sure that it focused on memorializing and healing ﹘ nothing slipped in that may have undermined those essential messages.

3. Encourage People To Be Present Through The Process

A suicide death can easily shake up the emotional stability of even the most calm and collected families. Out of respect for the loved one, help to make sure that everyone who is coming to the service is as collected, sober, calm and present as possible. Anger is a very common emotion to come out of the grieving process, but it can be very destructive to healing. Encourage family and friends to be honest and present in their goodbyes, and be there in a real and genuine way. If they do, they will feel better about the process when looking back.

Creating A Safe Space For The Community

Following any death, natural grief feelings and responses will be evident… but it’s even more magnified with suicide. In my recent experience, my young cousin’s funeral not only became a place for our family to heal, but the funeral director also had the enormous task of creating a safe space for the youth community impacted by the suicide of their peer.

4. Prepare Them For What’s To Come

It’s important to prepare any young person of what they can expect from a funeral, before they walk in and are overwhelmed by the situation. Especially with suicide death, help prepare young adults and kids by walking them through what the room might look like, what events will be taking place throughout the day, what the customs of each event are, and whether or not the casket will be open or closed. Give them advice and encouragements, and offer to walk them through the process. It’s also extremely helpful to set aside a place in your funeral home where kids can go if they find that they need a little more shelter ﹘ a place to get tissues, to talk to a counselor, to go and congregate with friends. Be sure to plan this all out before the events begin.

5. Don’t Let The Funeral Become Bigger Than It Is

It’s very tempting to help families pull out all of the stops when it comes to memorializing and honoring their loved one. Their life was big and unique, and so their funeral service should be designed in the same fashion. However, with suicide death (and youth suicide especially), it’s important not to glamorize a person’s life or make the death bigger than it was. Why? Because larger than life funerals and memorials can easily encourage imitation, especially among the emotionally vulnerable.

Just think about it… when you mention in the eulogy that “John is in a better place,” or you rename the football field after the quarterback that passed away, you get people in the community glamorizing the death, and even wishing that people would honor them in the same way. Therefore, be sure that you keep the funeral to a reasonable size.

6. Offer People Helpful Resources

Last, but not least, be sure to give family and friends a lifeline when they are feeling vulnerable and at their lowest. For example, offer up cards that provide people with the contact info for 24/7 grief and support hotlines that they can call when they need someone to talk to. There are also a number of confidential online resources, such as The Suicide Prevention Lifeline or The Trevor Project, that you can make available to your community on your website. When things get too intense in life and there is an impulsivity among people to change the path that they’re on, these resources can be the tools that will save someone’s life. By populating your community with these safety numbers, you are increasing hope and decreasing risk.

If you are a funeral director, how do you view your role and responsibility in a suicide death funeral? Do you feel an increased responsibility to your family and your community, or is it just like any other funeral? Be sure to start a dialogue in the comments below!

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  1. Janice J. Richardson

    Beautifully written article. Thank you for outlining the importance of the funeral process in a death by suicide situation.

  2. Rilee Chastain

    Thank you, Janice! I am so glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Jeff Zealley

    Rilee,

    Thanks for this great article. I teach in the Mortuary Science program at Salt Lake Community College and will share this article with my students. It contains some very helpful information.

    I appreciate you taking time to put this together.

    I’m so very sorry your family has had to go through this.

  4. Rilee Chastain

    Jeff, thanks so much for the comment. I hope your students find this article helpful… It’s an important role they are setting out to fulfill! Thanks for all that you do!

  5. Robert Hall

    Ms. Chastain, There is a post on Youtube, I think, called The Bridge. It is a year long study of people who have jumped from The Golden Gate Bridge. The Bridge is now the second most popular place to commit suicide in the world. A bridge in China seems to have taken the first place now.
    Suicide has always been a mysterious action, sometimes you can understand the reason and sometimes it comes out of nowhere. I have always been so sympathetic for those left behind.
    I have been to a funeral where the death was classified as a certainty to an eternity in hell. I have wondered if that ever caused people to decide not to end their own life or if it only caused more pain for those affected. And the young people who so quickly decide that their situation will never be better and kill themselves is so very tragic for all involved. It is truly a devastating situation. Your comments were well thought out and to be remembered.

  6. Rilee Chastain

    Robert, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I will definitely seek out this video you recommended. I hope that the advice in this article and the unbelievably powerful work of those in this industry can somehow lessen these types of events. Thanks!

  7. Jeff Harbeson

    Well done Rilee. Suicide creates immense pain for those left behind and I believe our industry needs increased awareness/training on the subject. #thefuneralcommander

  8. Rilee Chastain

    Thanks so much, Jeff! I completely agree… funeral professionals are the difference between a painful or a helpful experience for these families.

  9. Dave Savage

    Rilee,

    We appreciate the information you provided. In our book we share an additional suggestion about TIMES OF REMBRANCE in the weeks, months and years after the funeral.

    Friends, co-workers, neigbors, relatives and aquaintances are ofter reluctant to bring up the memory and name of the loved one because of the concern of bringing additional emotional duress to family members.

    We share the story of a women we met at a Death Cafe event in Atlanta. At special times of remembrance (birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving day of the death etc.) she passed out a favorite candy bar of her son, to particular people who cared about her and perhaps were also close to her son.. This gave permission to the other person that it was OK to talk about her son. Hearing the name and stories of her son was a vital part of her healing and brought her closer to those in her community and circle of care. Dave Savage HeartfeltMemorialServices.com

  10. Rilee Chastain

    Hey Dave, thanks for sharing this story! What a wonderful way to continue the healing process.

  11. Paul Fransham

    Thank you Rilee for a great article. I have specialised in working with young people for many years as a counsellor and this article is spot on. Thanks again, Paul.

  12. Rilee Chastain

    Paul, thanks for the kind words! I am so happy that you found this post useful! 🙂