As I write, it is raining. It is dark. It is November. I ask myself if the bleak and unspeakably sad subject of suicide should, once again, occupy this column. But a recent attendance at a meeting in Clonmel, held under the auspices of the Irish Association of Suicidology, convinces me that it should.
The meeting, the second in a series, was organised by Councillor Joe Leahy, a member of the Association’s council. The Association is dedicated to the prevention of suicide. The urgency of that dedication is underlined by the facts and figures. In 2011, 511 people took their own lives, and this does not include deaths from unspecified causes, such as some so-called accidents. While deaths on our roads are showing some signs of stabilising, the figures for suicide are escalating.
Statistics are a cold official way of presenting a problem that engulfs and changes the lives of so many people. There are the immediate families, that fan out into the extended, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins and friends. But suicide touches everybody, neighbours in the street, colleagues in the workplace, students and teachers in schools, and, indeed, the community. There is about it the quality of despairing poignancy that is echoed by the English poet, Walter de la Mare, when, responding to the suicide of a friend, he wrote: “What dumb thing made you go so suddenly from the light we know, the life we know.”
While the first meeting in Clonmel largely looked at, and distributed information on, the professional help that is available, in psychiatry, psychology and counselling, the more recent meeting concentrated on the personal experience of families struggling with the guilt, anger and bewilderment of the loss, especially of a young person. The unanswered questions: the Whys? the What-ifs? Why did we not see some signs? What do we say to our other children?
The father of a 23-year-old young man spoke passionately about the day that is forever etched on his memory, when his son took his own life. Nothing prepares parents and family for such an experience, he said, and he had chosen to “go public” about it, because “suicide thrives on silence.”
He re-traced the minutiae of the day: the comings and goings that seemed ordinary, but which assumed momentous importance in hindsight. His son called three times “to the shop” but he (the father) had not been there at the time. There was the haunting and unanswered question: had he been there, might things have been different.
A neighbour was the last person to see his son alive. He did not respond to a greeting. He seemed preoccupied. And then came the heart-breaking discovery and the cradling of his dead son in his arms.
He spoke about the family’s journey through grief following such a life-changing experience, though there was now the acceptance that while life may have been altered it was not destroyed. There were good days and bad days in the long slow process of arriving at some level of that acceptance.
The entire emphasis of all the speakers was that there is good practical and emotional help now available to people who might be contemplating suicide as an ultimate solution to life’s inevitable problems. Disseminating information about this help, is an important component in the agenda of the Irish Association of Suicidology, and indeed is the specific objective of the Clonmel meetings.
Representatives of the Samaritans and a new Kilkenny bereavement group, also spoke. The Samaritans are available day or night, offering an understanding listening ear. Two further organisations are mentioned in the literature - Console and Living Links.
Some of the organisations working in this area are now stepping beyond the listening ear into proactive involvement, such as visiting schools and the production of dramatic presentations to illustrate a healthy approach to the natural problems which growing up entails.
The Irish branch of the International Women’s Organisation - The Soroptomists, of which there is a branch in Clonmel - has undertaken the production of a small card, containing the telephone numbers and general information about all the helping agencies. The Irish Association of Suicidology itself has produced a considerable number of easily readable pamphlets, giving very accessible information on the Risks and Myths about Suicide, Living with a Depressed Person and Helping/Supporting Someone who is Grieving.
Since suicide knows no boundaries, neither class nor age nor circumstances, supporting those bereaved has become not uncommon in ordinary life today. “The most important thing you can do is just to be there. You might not know exactly what to say or do. That’s alright. Just don’t let your discomfort keep you away from the person who is grieving”: is the advice. Pick up the phone. Run an errand. Drop off some warm home-cooked food. Go for a walk together. But never minimise the loss, nor pry the personal matters, or advise quick solutions.
While it might seem insensitive and simplistic to even mention the word solutions to what is an emotionally highly-charged, not-fully-understood, human experience, it is reassuring to know that there are people, professional and voluntary, working and serving in the cause of a reduction in this great tragedy. Councillor Joe Leahy promised a further meeting in the New Year.