A service of Reflection for Those Affected by Suicide
An address by Revd Dr Sam Wells
A few years ago I was asked to take the funeral of a woman whom I hadn’t known but who’d lived in the parish where I was vicar at the time. It was a sad story because the woman, who was in her seventies, had had a particularly painful wasting disease and the pain had got so great that one night she had stepped out of bed, put on slippers and a dressing gown, let herself into the back garden, climbed the fence, walked into the local lake and drowned herself. I listened to her widower telling me the story and at the funeral I talked about the things we knew and the things we didn’t know. I said we didn’t know what anguish was going through her mind but we did know how deeply she was loved and will be missed. I said we didn’t know what could bring her to such despair but we did know her life had been beautiful and those who knew her loved her and would always cherish what she’d meant to them.
A week after the funeral I paid a visit to the widower to see how he was doing and show him I was thinking of him. I was fully prepared for him to say how beautiful the funeral was and there was always a chance he might say how well I’d spoken. But he didn’t. He looked straight at me, head still and unblinking, and said, ‘What you said was completely wrong. You said we don’t know what was going through her head when she got out of bed and walked down to the lake. That’s not true. I know exactly what she was thinking. She’d tried before, and afterwards she told me what it was like. I know what she was thinking. I told you that when you came to see me last time. But you weren’t listening, were you. Maybe you didn’t want to listen.’ He didn’t say it in an angry way, but more in a weary voice, as if I was just one of a series of people who hadn’t really listened, either to her or to him.
I learnt something important that day, something that’s stayed with me ever since. If something’s awful for somebody else – if I’m in a conversation with a person who’s considering suicide or so depressed they don’t know how they can go on or living in the aftermath of a loved one taking his or her own life, my role is not to make things better. Not just because I can’t, but for two other reasons. Reason one is that almost any attempt I make to suggest things are actually ok and the person needn’t be so miserable is almost bound to be superficial and trite, and by being so shallow will actually increase the isolation of the other person, which is a big part of what they’re actually struggling with. Reason two is that my attempt to persuade may end up convincing myself and not my companion, making it all the more likely that I’ll get fed up with my companion being so miserable and in the end lose patience with them and walk away.
My role is not to make things better, because that leaves the person more isolated than before. Instead, my role is to stand beside them as they face the hardest things in their life, one of which may turn out to be their fear that they could get to such an isolated place that they might consider something awful and destructive. If it’s awful, I don’t say, ‘Maybe it’s not so bad’; I say ‘It seems very painful. I wonder which is the hardest part. Maybe you can try to put into words so I can share what it’s giving you so much pain to be thinking about on your own.’ If you have a choice between giving someone false hope and giving them the truth, always give them the truth, because once they’ve realised the hope is false then they’ll be worse off than before; but if they can name and face the truth, and find they’ve not scared you away, and found that they’re still here, then they may learn the path to life, which is, if we stay with the truth and walk through it then we can come out the other side of it and find we’re still alive. And if they do that, they’re the other side of hell, and hell can’t hurt them in the same way as before. And if they find you, their companion, are still there, they’ll know a love that’s stronger than death.
The book Song of Songs is a love poem, and people are surprised it’s in the Bible, because people expect the Bible to be very prissy, and they find all these passages about desire and kisses and a whole lot more. But in the Song of Songs is the most important line in the whole Bible, which goes like this: ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, for love is strong as death.’ That’s the whole question the Bible is trying to answer: is love strong as death? There’s no point in giving a fatuous or shallow answer to that question, or changing the subject or making a joke about it. This is the truth we’re looking at. And when someone is looking straight at the truth, about themselves or about the universe and everything, the best thing you can do is to stay still and hold their gaze and not look away.
We’re here today because through choice, circumstance or necessity, we’re facing the question about ourselves and our loved ones, ‘Is love as strong as death?’ And our presence here is our answer. ‘Yes. Stronger.’ But we don’t say it for people: we can only learn to say it for ourselves. Your presence here today is a statement and prayer, that those most on our hearts, dead or alive, may come to know the truth of those words: ‘Love is stronger than death.’