Karen and Ross Woodhouse are Pastors and Suicide Bereavement Group facilitators at Fairfield Baptist Church in Hamilton. 

The phone rings; it is a mum who shares with us that her 17-year-old son has recently taken his life. She is shattered. The family is shattered. How is she supposed to move on when kids aren't supposed to die this young? What did she miss? Why couldn't he have come to her and talked about how he was feeling? Didn't he know how loved he was and that they would all be completely and utterly devastated? We validate their grief and arrange to meet up, offering them all the support and resources that might help them. Unfortunately, this is a relatively common scenario for us.  

Our work in suicide bereavement began after our good friend and local Baptist Pastor, Pete Powell, took his own life on July 16th 2012. He was a much-loved colleague and the life of the party…on the outside. This loss shook us to the core and forced us to look at our grief. Ross was out looking for him with another Pastor friend in the late evening and early morning in the dark after his wife had let us know he was missing. The next morning, we got the phone call that he had been found not far from where they were looking. Ross' questions began immediately. If only we had kept looking? If only we had asked him how he was doing? What signs did we miss? What if Ross takes his life under the same stresses of pastoring? We shared with, cried with and supported each other. 

We began to look at the issue of suicide in New Zealand closer to see if there was anything we could help with in this space. The statistics are well known to be shocking, particularly for the young people in our country. According to Statistics New Zealand, 607 people took their own lives in 2020. That rate was slightly lower in 2021 at 538. The male suicide death rate is higher than the female rate, and the confirmed rate by age group and sex is highest among males aged 45 to 64. 

Our experience with Pete and learning a bit more about the high suicide and suicide ideation rates in New Zealand were the catalyst to getting involved in this space. So we started by getting some training in suicide intervention and prevention via ASIST so we would know what to do if we came across someone wanting to suicide. This provides suicide first aid with the goal of keeping the person safe for now and coming up with a plan together for the future. God has led several people to us over the years since who have been in this place, and we have been able to put support in place for them and give them hope to keep living.  

In our work, we discovered that people who have lost someone to suicide are 65% more likely to take their own lives compared with losing someone in death by natural causes, whether or not the deceased person is related to them by blood. 

The latest research on bereavement shows that for every one person that takes their own life, 135 people are affected by it. Some will require professional help to process it all and be deeply affected (about 15-20), and others to a lesser extent. In New Zealand, the latest figure of 538 people who have died by suicide in 2021 would equate to 72,630 people affected by suicide, with 9,000-12,000 people severely affected. This led us to look into bereavement work.  

We undertook some training in a course called WAVES which was developed by Skylight. Skylight was founded in New Zealand in 1996 as an organization providing resources to help families navigate bullying, loss, trauma and grief. A number of the resources have been written by the wife of another previous Baptist Pastor who took his life. When she was widowed at a young age, Tricia searched for resources to help her children process the grief they were feeling. She ended up writing a large number of excellent resources. 

WAVES depicts grief as it comes and goes, with periods of calm and periods of overwhelming intensity. It is an eight-week programme that supports bereaved adults through suicide loss who are at least six months post losing their loved one. We have facilitated several WAVES courses since 2017. Although this is not a "Christian" course, it allows discussion of spiritual well-being via the Te Whare Tapa Wha health model, which so beautifully presents well-being as a holistic care model. People who have often never been in a church can come to this course and be warmly welcomed with the provision of a safe space allowing conversation, tears and stories. The topic of suicide can be opened up with others who have also experienced this type of loss. There is a mix of education and sharing, group activities and reflections.  

After the initial phone call from a bereaved person, we will meet with them at a cafe for coffee. There are papers to fill in assessing the person's coping skills, experience of loss and risk of suicide, allowing conversation and support. Once we have 6-10 people who have done this and are keen to do the course, we start within a few weeks. No one has met anyone else in the group and has courageously come to an unfamiliar place to talk about something deeply uncomfortable and painful. The groups start a bit quieter with tears and limited sharing as we all get to know one another. By the end of the eight-week course, the participants are smiling, laughing and really bonding. We talk about the realities of what has happened, the questions that people have, and how we can move through the pain and live with suicide loss in a positive way. It truly is a huge privilege to walk with hurting people this way.  

We also run a monthly peer support group in the church cafe, which was birthed out of the WAVES courses and a desire by people to still meet with each other and to help support others who are newer down this path. We also built up a library of grief books and developed a resource material collection. As far as we know, we are the only providers of suicide bereavement support (apart from a group in Tokoroa) in the Waikato community. It is one of the most meaningful ministries that we do as a church and as a couple as we show Jesus' love tangibly to these really broken people while we minister to them and strengthen them and their families.  

We run short presentations and love to equip churches by educating people and sharing about the work we do. If there are people you know who are struggling with suicide loss, please feel free to contact us if that's helpful to you. We have loads of resources available that we'd gladly share with you. 

Contact us by email or phone:[email protected] or 021 437803 

Other contacts: 

Need to talk? 1737.org.nz Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor. 

Lifeline lifeline.org.nz 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) 

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