When a cry for help can be a life-saver
MIND MOVES:Don’t allow suicidal thoughts to isolate you, writes TONY BATES
IT’S RARE nowadays to see a church jam-packed with teenagers. Services and sacraments no longer seem to hold the same relevance that they did for previous generations. But recently, there were close to a thousand young people at the 10 o’clock Mass in St Peter the Apostle, in Neilstown, Dublin.
Alongside the regulars, young people packed the pews and stood six deep along the aisles. They were there to say goodbye to their friend, a boy of only 17, who had taken his life. They stood in silence, listened respectfully and participated in every part of that ceremony.
Rap music announced the arrival of the remains at the back of the church. Six of his closest friends wearing white shirts and ties carried the coffin, and a heart-rending burst of tears reverberated through the congregation.
The chief celebrant stepped up to the microphone and spoke of the devastation that was palpable. His task wasn’t easy, but he had the measure of this community. He named the shock and pain that people were feeling, without trying to offer easy explanations or empty consolation.
He invited everyone to notice what they were feeling and to accept those feelings; if they were angry, to allow themselves to be angry; if they were sad, to know it was okay to be very sad; to acknowledge whatever feelings were there and not to hold back in sharing those feelings with God – whatever He meant to them.
The priest didn’t try to make sense of what had happened to this boy; he didn’t blame anyone or any organisation. He described a boy who was popular, confident and someone who gave a great deal to his community. He spoke of the wonderful friends and supports that were always there for him.
This boy had died on the first anniversary of his best friend’s death; he had also taken his own life. His message was that our actions have consequences; sometimes we can’t see or imagine how painful those consequences can be.
The simple words, “I need help”, he said, might be “the most powerful sentence you will ever speak”. He urged everyone to listen to him or herself and to recognise when their life was too hard to handle alone; and to take the risk of telling someone.
Suicide may seem to be the only way out, but when we talk things out, we discover that there are always other options and other solutions. Later, he told everyone precisely what supports were available in the immediate locality.
This was not the voice of a Church that preached to its congregation in a righteous tone; this was a Church that stood with its people and held them in their pain, and allowed them to face their grief honestly.
A friend of the dead boy shared some personal memories of their friendship. He painted some hilarious scenes of their times together. Before he could speak, however, his grief overcame him, and he broke down sobbing. Two of his friends in white shirts immediately went and stood by his side as he spoke. His heartache had initially brought the assembled community to tears, but his description of the “antics” with his friend brought the church alive with laughter.
People need spaces where they can come together in difficult times and not feel alone. The “Mass houses” and “Mass rocks” of 17th-century Penal Law Ireland clearly served such a purpose. Communities gathered secretly around the celebration of Mass, against a background of oppression and deprivation, to draw strength and solidarity from each other.
If we are no longer looking to the churches, where is it possible for people to come together at critical moments? Community means nothing until the people who are part of it experience belonging in times of pain and joy.
A final piece of music was played as the boy’s remains were taken from the church. We were haunted by the beautiful words of Adele that played over the tears of those left behind:
“We could have had it all,
Rolling in the deep.
You had my heart inside of
And you played it to the beat.”
Tony Bates is founder director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health (headstrong.ie)