People involved in pastoral care are the primary target readership for this book. It will help prepare the pastoral worker to face a situation that primarily needs a compassionate and understanding response and one needs to be composed and able to stand one’s ground. There is a wide range of useful advice as well as information to help those touched by a suicide find ways of dealing with the emotional aftermath. It is helpful for anyone who finds themselves floundering around trying to make sense of life after being confronted with a suicide.
Father Aidan Troy is a Passionist priest now ministering in the English-speaking parish of St Joseph in Paris. He is best remembered as the priest who accompanied the pupils of Holy Cross Girls’ School during a Loyalist blockade in Belfast’s Ardoyne area in 2001 and 2002.
140 pp. Veritas Publications. to purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
This book dealing with suicide is not one I ever thought I would write when I set out as a priest in 1971. As a student of theology in Dublin during the 1960s, the issue of suicide was summed up as a mortal sin as well as a crime. Indeed, prior to 23 April 2003, my awareness of suicide was limited to what I would read in newspapers and books. As a child growing up in Bray, Co. Wicklow, I vividly recall tiptoeing past a house where a person was said to have died by suicide. But all this was to change on that date in April 2003, when a 17-year-old took his life in Holy Cross Monastery garden, Belfast. This was the first time that suicide and its aftermath became part of my experience. I was profoundly affected and changed by witnessing the enormous sorrow and heartbreak of the family. This book is born out of that day and many others that were to follow.
Between Christmas Eve 2003 and St Valentine’s Day 2004, fourteen young people from Protestant and Catholic communities in North and West Belfast died by suicide. Most were young males but there were females as well. While not all were in the parish where I was a priest at that time, some were. On 14 February 2004, a young man hung himself from the top of Holy Cross bell tower. The church was undergoing restoration to mark its centenary and was covered with scaffolding. This 17-year-old had been at the funeral I had celebrated in Holy Cross church that morning for his friend who had hung himself in his family home a few days earlier. (Both these young people had been seriously injured in paramilitary punishment beatings the previous year.)
Suicides and the risk of suicide continued to be part of my life and ministry to many families and remains so even following my move from Belfast to another Passionist parish, St Joseph’s in Paris, in September 2008. Families and individuals bereaved by suicide are all different and react in diverse ways. I hope to respect this and take this into account in this book. The sacred moments and confidences these families have shared with me following a suicide affect me still. The depth of their pain is beyond anything I could have imagined had these people not opened their hearts and homes to me. I feel privileged to have become part of their lives and remain in close contact with many of them to this day. I hope this book will be their gift to other individuals and families tempted to suicide or battling through the loss of a loved one following a suicide. While I take responsibility for what is contained in this book, the inspiration for it comes from the experience of individuals and families bereaved by suicides. In my estimation, they are among the bravest people I have met in my almost forty years of pastoral work.
This book does not claim to offer all the answers. It is not possible to neatly package the impact made by the discovery of one who has died or to plot out in detail the journey that lies ahead in the following days and years. This book offers some tentative suggestions and observations born of my experience, in the hope that they may be helpful in a pastoral context. There will be gaps that only readers can fill in the light of their own circumstances and outlooks. Some suggestions will be offered of resources that may be helpful, but they will be few. There are many statistics, medical opinions and sociological data that give background information and attempt to shed light on issues surrounding suicide. This book does not attempt to explain suicide as I believe it is not possible to do so.
I hope that this book will help a wide range of people who come into contact with suicide. Some will be the immediate family, neighbours and community. For others, it will be in the course of their particular work or calling. Among these will be medical and hospital personnel, ambulance and police services, suicide support groups and clergy, undertakers and morgue personnel. The circle can stretch even wider, when sometimes whole schools, colleges and parishes are involved. On many occasions, members of media organisations become involved in reporting a death by suicide. And there are those individuals, family member or near stranger, who unexpectedly encounter a suicide, maybe even by stumbling upon the body, or sense they are talking to someone seriously contemplating ending their life.
The first part of this book concentrates primarily on the pastoral needs of the family and surrounding community in the immediate aftermath of the death of a person by suicide. The time from the moment of discovery of death of the loved one to the funeral goodbye will be taken step by step, showing which elements seem to be particular to a death by suicide. I will also suggest what I have found helpful and point out some pitfalls that are best avoided.
The second part traces some of the challenges along the way in the first year after death and suggests some helpful pastoral responses. The emergence of suicide support and prevention groups in many places will be examined and some suggestions offered about how to start such a group where one is needed.
Finally, the care of pastoral workers will be examined. These generous people also need support and help so they do not become exhausted and eventually ineffective in their reaching out.
While the book is written from the perspective of a Catholic priest, I hope it will offer support, encouragement and practical suggestions to people of all beliefs or none. It is offered to all involved in pastoral care whether they are ordained or not. Death is near us daily, in various forms, whether we have religious belief about the afterlife or not. But nothing has prepared us for the moment when it bursts into our own lives. We have never been there, even though we have heard about it since we were born. We know it will come to us but it is beyond our experience. In the meantime, we can, at best, search for greater understanding of it and ways to cope.
Even if the immediate family are believers, talk of God cannot always be assumed to be a good starting point when arriving into the aftermath of a suicide. God will never be absent from the situation, but can only be invoked for help or comfort if and when the bereaved indicate that they are ready. When people are lost in the midst of unbearable pain, struggling with loss beyond words, it may not be the best time for an outsider to bring God into the story. Reminding them of his presence may not bring the comfort intended by the person of faith. Indeed, God can be seen as the cause of their loss and pain. They may blame him and ask ‘why?’
Following a suicide, there are added questions about why this happened and whether it could have been prevented. Suicide is utterly unique in that it goes contrary to the drive for life that characterises the human person. It is normal and understandable not to know how to respond to news of the suicide of a relative, friend, colleague, neighbour, classmate or other acquaintance. It is important not to feel that one should know precisely what to do or how to react.
Just after I was ordained a priest, I was offering a Mass of the Angels for a baby who had died on the eve of her baptism. The grief was tangible and I can still remember the numbness of the young couple that morning. In all the preparations for the funeral, the young mother had uttered not a word. Her feelings were beyond words. I did the best I could to deal with the situation sensitively, but I failed badly.
As I preached about the baby and God’s part in the event of her death, the up-to-now silent young mother stood up in the front seat where she held the white coffin of her dead child. In an absolutely clear voice, she denounced me for daring to speak about her baby and God at the same time. ‘How dare you,’ she said, ‘tell me what God was doing when my baby died.’ She was totally right. I could feel the blood drain from my face and I knew that there was only one response: silence. It was necessary to let this young mother have her voice heard and appreciated. She was right and I was wrong. All I said was that I would continue with the Mass and remember what I had just heard.
Afterwards I met with that mother and she was able to tell me how devastated she was to hear the death of her beloved baby somehow caught up in the plan of God. I never forgot her words and to this day I remember with gratitude that young woman for teaching me a lesson that has stood me in good stead over the years. When I came face to face with so many suicides after 2003, I already had been formed and instructed by that mother thirty years before.
It is hoped that some pastoral skills will be developed by reading this book. But it must always be remembered that pastoral carers matter not for what they have done or will do, but because of who they are. When the pastoral worker enters the scene of a suicide or the danger of one, their best gift is their humanity shown through compassion, tenderness and love. That is all they have. That is everything and they need no more. The journey they begin with others, no matter how long or short it lasts, can resemble something of a wilderness. Pastoral companionship is not measured on a watch. It takes as long as it takes. As a pastoral carer the attitude has to remain that of an apprentice eager to learn.
‘I NEVER THOUGHT THIS WOULD COME TO MY DOOR’
Suicide is something we usually hear about in other families. Our hearts go out to those who are left heartbroken. We think (and hope) that it will never happen to us. But if the unimaginable happens and that person who so recently was part of us is gone, and gone by suicide, the world of meaning that we relied on is shattered. There is utter disbelief. This was not supposed to happen.
It is nearly impossible if you have not been there to describe what those first few moments following discovery are like. They are frightening to behold because you know that this person, this family, will never be the same again.
This chapter will deal with what a pastoral carer might find upon arrival at the scene of a suicide. The aim is to give some guidance on the role of the pastoral carer in these very early stages of the grieving process so soon after the suicide has been discovered. This chapter will also explore the different reactions people can have, including denial, anger, guilt and shame. Approaching and helping children who may have been close to the deceased must be done very delicately, especially if the child discovered the death. Some resources to help with this very sensitive matter will be indicated.
Being Present to the Pain
In those first few minutes after the discovery of the death, there is usually much activity as people move around without really knowing what to do. I believe that our body and mind protect us from the full horror of what has happened by allowing a kind of numbness to set in. Often I have seen people unable to think or to remember names and telephone numbers that at other times would be easily recalled.
There is no instruction book that can tell us how to cope with a suicide. It is in a category of its own. There is excellent research done on the topic in terms of gender, age and other factors. This research must continue in the struggle to understand and reduce the incidences of suicide. But at the moment of the discovery of the death of a loved one, information and statistics on suicide will not be at the forefront of people’s minds. There is just the shattering realisation that the one who was so alive is now dead. At this moment, nothing has relevance for the family but the devastation they are feeling. This is palpable as you enter the home or the scene of the suicide. The family in their state of shock must be respected and we, in our pastoral or friendship capacity, should not feel that we have to know what to do immediately. Nothing we can say will connect until we are in some sort of communion with the bereaved. From this earliest stage of an unfolding tragedy, the pastoral carer can only lay the foundation of empathy and support by trying to enter in some even small way into the world of the bereaved. There is a value in just being present for the bereaved. There is no need to know all the answers; it is important just to listen and take cues from those present.
This truth came home to me over twenty years ago when I lived in a parish in San Francisco. The cook in the parish house was diagnosed as HIV positive. None of us priests had any real knowledge of what to say and how to approach this young man. Our words were inadequate and didn’t prove helpful. It was clear that the only one who seemed to be reaching him and helping him was a lady, a great-grandmother, who was the housekeeper. She talked to him and he often went to chat to her. Finally, I asked her how this was working out so well. Her answer was blindingly simple: she asked him what she could do for him. His answer was equally simple: hold me and hug me. She entered into a real human communion with him. I, and maybe some of the other priests, lacked this ability of communion.
Let me give another example. One bright Sunday afternoon, I was asked to go to a house some distance from where I lived in Belfast. When I arrived, there were a large number of young people out on the street, speaking in hushed tones. They seemed to be everywhere – at every gateway, sitting on the kerb and leaning against cars. What was noticeable was the almost total lack of sound. As I made my way into the house I got a few nods and I could sense their eyes on me. The front room was packed with people. The coffin was in the window space. A young woman was sitting on a chair weeping her heart out, with her hand on those of the young man in the coffin. Apart from her sobs, there was silence.
Nobody spoke a word except to offer me a seat. There we sat, in total silence. At the beginning, I felt so uneasy. Shouldn’t I as a priest know what to say and do? I didn’t. It gradually came to me that I was the least qualified in that room to say or do anything because I knew hardly anything of what had happened. I had just arrived and I could only presume that the other people in the room were family, relations and neighbours.
After what seemed an eternity, but what was probably less than half an hour, I picked up the ‘message’, the ‘vibe’ from those in the room, which seemed to say ‘we are all lost and we too don’t know what to say or do’. I was glad that I hadn’t rushed in with words or suggestions as soon as I arrived. Even an expression of sympathy could have been out of place.
It was impossible to be sure that I had picked up the right vibe, but I got the sense of what was happening. It was worth taking some initiative, even though I was an outsider to this scene of terrible grief. Gently and quietly, I asked if we should say a prayer for the deceased young man and those who were heartbroken at his death. Without saying a word, people began to drop to their knees in readiness to pray. Far louder than the noise of knees hitting the ground was the sigh of relief — we were going to do something at last. In the Catholic context, we prayed a decade of the rosary.
When the prayer ended, people sat back in their seats as before. What I had not realised was the number of young people from the street who had gathered around the door as they heard the murmur of prayers being said. Now that the silence was broken, tea and introductions were made and the sequence of events leading to the discovery of the young man was gone over many times and in great detail. The lovely young woman at the coffin joined in and told her story.
Clergy, in particular, may find it difficult to let the words of the family, or their silence, indicate where they are in the aftermath of a sudden death, especially that of a suicide. A long time after this happened, I took part in a television discussion on suicide and mentioned this need to wait for people to let you know what is happening. The following Monday morning, a priest phoned me to say that when I made this observation he didn’t think there was much sense to it. However, the very next day he was called, for the first time in his ministry, to the home where the suicide of a young person had been discovered. As he went into the house, he felt so inadequate and afraid that he might not have the right words to offer. He recalled what I had said and so he just sat down until the situation became clearer to him. By the time he did speak, he had a much better idea of what might possibly be helpful.
Attending to the Grief-Stricken
Presence, physical and emotional, is the essence of the pastoral response in these circumstances. Bit by bit there grows an awareness of the myriad, turbulent emotions of the bereaved. Shock, numbness and denial are part of the first heart-wrenching wave. There is a sense that this cannot have happened – it can’t be him; it can’t be her. ‘There must be some mistake’ is the hope that is put up as a defence against the truth of what has just been learned. This can be followed by a comment about when the dead person was last seen and how they looked or behaved. If sickness or depression were factors, someone might say that no one could have seen it leading to this. Some people physically run away because it is just too much. I remember seeing a mother run when she saw me walk towards her house following an all-night search for her missing son. As she passed me on the narrow path, she simply shouted, ‘It can’t be true. It can’t be him’. She was gone and it was only later that I could meet her and listen to her pain and desolation.
I have frequently been asked if, at this early stage, we should use the word ‘suicide’ as we begin engaging with the family. There are deaths that are interpreted from the beginning as a suicide and we should never be afraid to name ‘suicide’ when this is clearly the case. However, talk of suicide right away is not always helpful. This will come later and gradually. It is my experience that it is better to wait and listen for the language the family use to describe the death. Some will openly talk about a suicide having taken place. Others will use roundabout ways of describing this sudden death. In some circumstances, there may be a lack of knowledge as to whether suicide or an accident is the cause. The family will in their own time talk about what they believe happened and then it will be possible to relate to the death as a suicide.
All deaths leave a huge gap and some of the emotions and reactions mentioned above will occur as part of the grief response. In the aftermath of a suicide, there are additional factors. As well as the numbness and denial, some of the bereaved will lash out in anger at what this person has done. It is as instinctive as the running away reaction and says nothing about the real love and affection felt for the deceased. It is just impossible for them to comprehend and piece together what has happened. At this point, the pastoral carer may have to act as something of a lightening conductor for the grieving person, family or community. The anger and distress has to go somewhere. Such strong emotions may also become self-directed and turn into feelings of guilt, as the suffering family berates themselves for failing to anticipate this conclusion. Some may ask themselves, ‘What does this say about me and my family?’ which can then lead to feelings of shame. All this is normal. The main response at this stage will be to listen and allow the bereaved to express whatever they need to express.
Another response to death by suicide may be silence: there is so much to deal with, so much happening, and there are so many unanswered questions. It seems almost futile to start a conversation with anyone and so a deep silence can rule. The bereaved don’t know what is going on in their hearts and minds, and often feel incapable of articulating anything. This needs to be respected. The bereaved should not be hurried. However, it is important that the pastoral worker be alert to the person who withdraws.
This needs to be monitored because the interior world can haunt a person and bring them into places from which it is not easy to leave without serious damage. At the scene of every sudden death, and particularly that of a suicide, everyone who can should try to watch out for the signs of a person who withdraws. Just be there for the person should they wish to test the waters of talking. Even a little opening up can prove critical in such moments. It is not helpful, of course, to have people feel they are being observed and shadowed at every turn, so sensitivity is crucial.
Following a death by suicide where church allegiance or religious practice are not evident, there is still the same need to ‘listen’ to the silence and to the words, to ‘read’ the situation and be ready to offer some initiative by way of words or actions. It always seems acceptable for the latest person who arrives into the house to eventually ask what happened once you have judged that it is safe to take this risk. Risk it is, because you never know for sure whether people are ready to talk or not.
However, time and time again, I have found that people welcome the chance to tell and retell the story. It is almost therapeutic for those closest to the one who has died to have another chance to tell it once again. It may be that the best you can do is to be present, to accept tea or to assure the people that their loved one will be in your prayers. It is important to respect the religious beliefs or absence of such, so the mention of prayers can be put in such a way as to reassure the relatives and friends that you are doing this because you want to share with them this awful loss.
In the aftermath of a suicide, we are in territory for which there is no map and very few signposts. The common denominator may not always be religious belief but humanity in pain binds us incredibly closely together. It is interesting that in the Passion of Jesus, when all but a few of those chosen by him had deserted, it was a Roman soldier who proclaimed, ‘This truly was the Son of God’ (Mark 15:39). What he saw in Jesus was not his teaching but his tremendous love to the point of death on a cross. When we remember that Jesus took flesh and became one of us, we will always be close to those who are going through their passion and know what it is to be crucified.
Breaking the News to Children
Often, the first on the scene of a suicide will be a family member, neighbour, colleague or member of the public who may come across what can be a gruesome scene. Very quickly there will be police, ambulance service, doctor, clergy, undertaker and others. Response will also come from neighbours who are immediately sucked into a situation that may be completely new to them. Word spreads so fast because of mobile phones and soon the news has to be broken to family members who are not close by.
If the discovery is made by a child or children are present at the scene, some issues arise very quickly. The importance of listening is key in this circumstance, to hear what the child is saying – and not saying. Each child will have their own way of putting a ‘shape’ on death, so it is crucial to talk to them and find out what they know and don’t know about death. This will allow you to judge how to help them cope better.
Children are great observers but, because of their young age, they may not be very good at interpreting events. Children miss very little and notice small changes in adults’ attitudes. They will immediately know that something serious has happened. They will see relatives, friends and strangers gathering, talking and shedding tears. Some of these people will be in uniform and may arrive in police cars and ambulances. To small eyes and hearts this must be frightening. The child may be taken to a relative’s house in the immediate aftermath of the discovery but their questions will go with them and will not disappear.
When dealing with children in these situations, bear in mind that age and development are factors that influence how they perceive what has happened. A pre-school child will have seen cartoons in which their favourite character is killed or injured, yet in the next episode that same character is back – fully alive and unscathed. While children do not live in a fantasy world, they can see death as reversible and temporary. At an older age they will come to know that death is final, though they may not yet associate it with their own lives. As the child moves into adolescence, they will realise that not only is death final and irreversible, but it is also personal: one day they too will die.
Listening to children talking among themselves will reveal these different stages of understanding. A pastoral carer arriving on the scene following a suicide may well be asked what the children should be told or if they should be moved away to stay with relatives. There is no one answer to these questions. Those who know the child best will be able to tell the pastoral carer the stage of understanding they believe the child has reached. In the light of that understanding and having talked to the child about the one who has died, a plan for the coming days can be put together.
As always in the area of death and, in particular, suicide, the language used to talk to the child will be important. To explain that the loved one has gone to heaven may be sufficient as a first response where there is a religious background in the family. Even the pre-school child may be familiar with being in a church and possibly church services such as Mass. Children attending school will already have been introduced to religious ideas such as angels and saints, and some of these may be of help.
It is important not to use words that may increase the child’s insecurity. For instance, in the Liturgy for the Dead, prayer is offered that the person ‘rest in peace’ and enjoy ‘the sleep of the just’. In that context, such language is both appropriate and comforting. However, these words may cause the child to worry that a parent or someone close to them who goes for a ‘rest’ or a ‘sleep’ may not come back. Common sense is the best indicator and most families have their own way of dealing with reassuring their children.
If the family into which the pastoral carer arrives does not have a religious connection, it is important not to introduce religious terms without any explanation or preparation. If children are present who have not been introduced to religious practice, such new language may be confusing, even frightening, for the little ones to hear.
Keeping the child’s trust by being truthful and using words they understand will help create a better future for the child. In the days ahead, there will be so many new happenings for the child that their needs should never be neglected. In years to come, some children will have questions to ask surrounding the events of the death and funeral. As all parents know, the child will hear other children talking about the death and may need reassurance that they and others in the family are safe.
There is no way of shielding a child from this. But the care at home and the readiness to listen to them and answer their questions will go a long way to creating a safe and secure environment for the child. It may also give the parent or other adult an opportunity to further think through their own thoughts and reactions to what has happened.
Family members should not be surprised to find themselves lost about where to turn for help in trying to do their best in this new and bewildering situation. There is help available. Cruse (www.cruse.org.uk) is a charity specialising in bereavement. Founded in 1959, it is contacted by 80,000 people each year for information. (Even this figure helps us know that we are not alone in being unsure what to do). The name ‘Cruse’ comes from a lovely passage in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:12) about a widow’s jar of oil (called a ‘cruse’) that never ran out. From this image the message is given that support will never run out as long as it is needed. That is a wonderful and powerful reassurance when the challenge following a suicide seems too great. Even though Cruse has this biblical background, it is a non-religious organisation which welcomes people of all shades of belief and none. One of their publications that could be consulted regarding children is Has Someone Died? There are other organisations too but the main point is that help is out there.
It is truly amazing how swiftly a family finds itself plunged into this territory of suicide and its issues. From never thinking a suicide would come to their door, they are suddenly faced with arrangements to be made and questions without any easy or obvious answers. In the next chapter, we will begin to explore how these can best be dealt with.