Faith-Focused Programming May Help Suicide Survivors

Authors: Shauna Springer , Melinda Moore

Editor's note: Shauna Springer and Melinda Moore serve on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention's Faith Communities Task Force, which provides resources on the topic of suicide loss. Dr. Moore is co-lead of the task force. As part of Suicide Prevention Month, the Action Alliance invites faith communities across the nation to pray during the weekend of September 6 to 8 for those whose lives have been touched by suicide.

For many, the path to healing after the loss of a loved one involves a spiritual journey. We would like to share our thoughts on the important role of faith leaders in that journey. 

Dr. Springer: 

As the senior director of TAPS suicide prevention initiatives, most of my work involves out-facing training and consultation that combines professional expertise with the wisdom of survivors’ lived experiences to help prevent suicide and promote healing after traumatic loss. Many TAPS families have shared that communities of faith could support them more in their grief after a traumatic loss. 

Faith leaders are often emotional first responders in the darkest hours of our lives. The ability of faith leaders to provide well-informed support is critical to posttraumatic growth. The TAPS Suicide Prevention and Postvention team is dedicated to addressing anything that impacts the healing journey, and helping faith leaders respond with compassion and sound guidance is a specific focus. 

Dr. Moore: 

Like so many TAPS participants, I lost a loved one to suicide. My husband, Conor, died by suicide early in our young marriage. 

It was the most painful and devastating event of my life and, like so many, I turned to my faith community and clergy for comfort, support, and an understanding of this experience within the context of my faith. Unfortunately, they, too, were at a loss as to how to think about this devastating event. No one, not even my parish priest, knew what to say. So, I had to journey and discover my own path toward spiritual recovery and healing.


 Suicide Survivors holding hands


Research Shows Peer Support Helps 

Dr. Springer:

Active collaboration with researchers like Dr. Moore, who share our dedication to this sacred mission, is vital to helping us understand how to best support the TAPS family. High quality research helps us refine our best practice TAPS Postvention Model of Support and identify targets for further work. 

The model consists of a three-phase approach that includes stabilization, grief work and post-traumatic growth. Stabilization focuses on identifying and addressing suicide-specific issues that may complicate the grief journey. Grief work is the process of moving away from how our loved ones died and rebuilding relationships with them that focus on how they lived and served. Post-traumatic growth is the process of finding meaning from the loss, such as being motivated to prevent other suicides.  

Dr. Moore: 

Out of the most painful experience of my life, there was enormous personal growth within the context of the pain and distress. The growth did not lessen the pain, but it gave it a profound meaning and ultimately gave purpose to my own suffering. 

I conducted a longitudinal research study for TAPS exploring the potential for posttraumatic growth as the result of engagement with TAPS, either as a participant or as a peer mentor. 

My research team and I have found that participating in TAPS, particularly being a peer mentor and helping others in such a profound way, is positively correlated with post-traumatic growth along with other positive health outcomes, such as lowering depression and stress, and increasing strength, appreciation for life, new possibilities, and relating to others.


Focusing on Faith in Healing 

Dr. Moore: 

Our research did identify an opportunity for growth in TAPS programming to address the spiritual needs of survivors of suicide loss. 

Dr. Springer: 

Dr. Moore’s research makes clear that we need to bring faith-focused healing into a more prominent place in our programming. During last year's National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar (NMSSS), we hosted a panel of leaders from different faith communities who have a well-grounded understanding of how to support suicide loss survivors. Faith-oriented discussions will continue to play a role in our programming in this year’s National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar (to be held October 11 to 14 in Phoenix, Arizona - registration is open now). 


Resources for Faith Leaders 

The work of the National Action Alliance Faith Communities Task Force is another way that we have your back. After losing loved ones, many of you have had less-than-positive experiences with faith leaders. Some of you have left your communities of faith because you have not received the support you needed. 

Faith leaders are well-intentioned, but supporting survivors of suicide loss, is not always a focus in their professional training. To address that gap, the task force has developed a number of very practical resources to support faith leaders in their role as emotional first responders. Sharing these resources in your faith communities may help survivors get the support they need after loss. Please explore the links below to access these resources.  

Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is the senior director of Suicide Prevention and Postvention at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Dr. Springer is a licensed psychologist with an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a doctoral degree from the University of Florida. Known to many veterans as “Doc Springer,” she has helped hundreds of warriors reconnect with their tribe, strengthen their most important relationships, and build lives that are driven by their deepest values. She is a frequent speaker and presenter on suicide prevention and postvention strategies.  

Melinda Moore, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. Dr. Moore serves on the board of the American Association of Suicidology as the chair of the Clinical Division and is the co-lead of the National Action Alliance’s Faith Communities Task Force.  She recently published The Suicide Funeral: Honoring their Memory, Comforting their Survivors with her co-author, Rabbi Dan Robert. She conducts suicide bereavement research at Eastern Kentucky University with an emphasis on Posttraumatic Growth.