It isn’t a new idea. Or my idea. But it’s one I support. Let’s stop saying that someone “committed suicide”.
Suicide is still a stigmatised death. You only have to have one pastoral encounter with a heartbroken survivor of suicide (a family member, a friend, of someone who has died by suicide) who is afraid that the way their loved one dies would permanently prevent them from being received into God’s loving care, to understand that the way we speak about suicide, and the theological legacy it points to, needs to change.
While there are no explicit Scriptural prohibitions of suicide in Judaic or Christian Scriptures, teachings have arisen out of the prohibition of murder. There is a suggestion that shifts in Christian theology occurred in the early church under Roman rule, when some Christians died by suicide rather than be captured and tried, or to hasten their experience of an afterlife with God. Some considered these Christians to be martyrs, but writing in the fifth century, Augustine condemned such thinking declaring suicide to be self-murder and therefore an unpardonable sin. Aquinas, a significant thirteenth century voice in the shaping of theology in the western church developed Augustine’s idea and suggested that heaven would be denied to those who died by suicide.
I don’t believe that to be true. And I’m in good (theological) company. People who die by suicide can receive a Christian burial, be buried in the churchyard (if you happen to find one with plots still open), and the way that they died is not an unforgivable sin.
We say “committed” about sin. We say it about crime. We say it about adultery. So how about we give up using that construction about suicide? How about we say “died by suicide” or “died of suicide”? It is accurate. Suicide survivors’ organisations have asked us to make that shift. And it points us away from the historic connection with criminality and unforgivable sins.
One surivivor of suicide writes, “By shifting our language around suicide, we have the power to reduce some of the massive shame carried by survivors of suicide. If you feel scared or helpless about what to say to someone who’s lost someone to suicide, take comfort in knowing that, by changing your language about suicide, you’re offering a countercultural act of kindness”.