During a two-week period in July our parish was faced with the reality of suicide three times. The magnificent summer sunshine somehow jarred with the dark clouds of sadness and despair which hovered over our frightened community.
Two single men, one 58 the other 26, and then a young mother of four children whose youngest had just received First Holy Communion in June. Three families who did not see this coming had their world turned upside down in an instant and for some of them, particularly for surviving parents, their lives will never be the same again.
Those deaths left me frightened.
Firstly I am frightened that there is so much silent pain in the hearts of those we share our lives with. I am frightened too that for an increasing number of people, ending their lives is the only way they can see out of their pain.
I call it silent pain because no matter how much awareness of mental and emotional illness there is, and the availability of services, there are many people who just seem to be unable to reach out for help. One of my closest friends describes that very dark space she sometimes finds herself in as being in a dark deep hole surrounded on every side by walls. She looks up and sees a light but is unable to reach it.
I was also frightened at the effect that three deaths by suicide in such a short time had on our community. We all feel more vulnerable and our grasp on life seems more tenuous than before.
A few people who have loved ones struggling have spoken of their fear that recent events could somehow ‘lead’ to more tragedy within their own families.
There is also the fear that when a number of deaths by suicide occur it somehow makes it more ‘normal’. As we waited for one of the funerals to arrive at the church door I heard a man say to another: “ah isn’t it the pattern of life these days”. I am very uncomfortable that death by suicide would in any way become normal in our society but I’m genuinely scared that we are heading that way.
The language used around deaths by suicide is also extremely sensitive. There is still something in our collective memory about how suicide was viewed and treated in the past and so we have banned any words which attach any sense of judgement, shame or responsibility to the person who has died.
Those words have been replaced by compassion, empathy and understanding.
However, I have to acknowledge that within the families of those who have died and within the community there is often a level of anger towards the deceased which is now confined to private conversation. I wonder if there is any space where death by suicide can anymore be described as wrong without that being interpreted as a judgement or criticism of the person who has died?
I apologise if the very posing of this question causes hurt or pain but having witnessed the lifelong devastation which suicide causes I believe all of the emotions and reactions must be part of the public conversation about this most difficult of subjects.
A prayer for one in despair
God our strength and our redeemer: you do not leave us in this life nor abandon us in death. Hear our prayer for those in despair, when days are full of darkness and the future empty of hope. Renew in them your sustaining strength for we believe that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
…and for loved ones touched by suicide
God of peace, govern their hearts in this time of great confusion. Help them to take their thousand questions and “what ifs,” which swirl furiously in their minds, to Jesus, the Prince of Peace who has the power to calm the storm. As the Holy Spirit helps them take their anxieties to you in prayer, flood their souls with the peace that passes all understanding. When they cannot pray—when their hearts and minds are so overtaken by grief that they cannot find a word—remind them that the Holy Spirit prays for true believers when they do not know how to pray.