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15 August 2014

Church: where no subject is taboo?

Church: where no subject is taboo?

It's unbelievably selfish. A coward's way out. How could they do that to their children? … These are common responses I've heard to the news of a suicide. There's a tang of disbelief, a chiding sting, a hangover from the days when we were just meant to pull our socks up, keep calm and carry on. Or maybe they just articulate the pain of the left-behind. The bewildering aftermath. In the wake of Robin Williams' suicide, there is a palpable confusion in the press and the need to understand what drove the beloved, comic genius to the point where he couldn't stand living anymore.

At the other end of the spectrum, a government investigator this week concluded that prisons must do more to stop young inmates taking their lives, in a report on 80 prison suicides in 18 to 24-year-olds. Perhaps the prison suicides are more circumstantially comprehensible, but still a damning indictment on how we live now.

There have been times in my life when I've felt surrounded by suicide. The empty, unblinking hole of it staring rudely at me wherever I went. It was the saturating mood music of my teenagehood. Unlooked for, it punctured my late 20s when my friend took his life. More latterly, working in prisons, its ever-present threat hangs carelessly in the air, nonchalantly lurking as people are cut down –still breathing - ligature by ligature.

My relationship with this thing called suicide started before all these encounters when the woman that lived with us killed herself. It was Christmastime. I felt like someone had taken my insides out. I didn't understand how she could be dead. And then, in my 12-year -old newly existentially-capable brain, I wondered why God had allowed such a thing. I was angry. Angry at God. Angry at her. Angry at the people who called her selfish –even at 12, I knew it was complicated and that selfish was not a word to be associated with the act. Not long after this a close family friend also committed suicide –this man was definitely a Christian, he had a wife and two kids. What was going on? And where did these dead people go? Did God allow them into heaven or, having felt so miserable on earth that they ended their own lives, did they languish in hell for committing the unforgivable sin?

How do we, who follow this God of abundant life, of life in all its fullness, walk with those in our midst who are considering taking their life? Or who sometimes think of it? Here are three possible starting points for consideration, though this is a deeply complex subject. First, very practically, we need to know what our limits are as lay people and when to call in the experts - that's wisdom, there is no shame in it and lives can be saved by the right intervention.

Second, we have to encourage a culture as church, where no discussion is off bounds, where no subject is taboo;where suicide and suicidal feelings should not be taboo. When was the last time you heard a sermon preached on them or heard them discussed after church? We must encourage a culture as church where we read up on common mental health problems and addictions, if we don't already live with them or know about them. We can engender that no-taboo-subjects-culture by being honest ourselves, by being vulnerable and sharing our own struggles with others: maintaining a façade when everything is crumbling isn't a biblical principle.

This leads me to the third point: that church needs to keep tackling the endemic of loneliness (not that this is the cause of all suicide). Jesus calls us to deep, messy, painful, wonderful, genuine relationships and community –this will cost you something. If none of your relationships currently cost you anything, then look again at your family, your friendships –there needs to be a sacrificial element in at least some of them. Get out of your comfort zone. For example, when was the last time you invited somebody you didn't know round for tea? Or out for a walk? This is a small start, sure, but God's loving-kindness pursues each of us relentlessly and on this earth He usually uses other humans for this pursuit. So, reach out. Get involved. Ask God to help you extend yourself, your home. Whatever you might be able to give, to share with another, to –however momentarily –alleviate loneliness.

I have so many questions without answers on this subject, some personal and some more theological. But what I know for sure is that we serve the resurrection God and where death seems to rule, we are to earnestly seek Him to find how He wants to bring life and love and fullness once again.

So, I cried when I read about Robin Williams' suicide. I cried when a young woman successfully committed suicide in a prison I work in a few weeks ago. I cried for them and, of course, for the ones I've known. And then I cried out to the author of love, asking 'what should I do?'

Sara Hyde works with, and campaigns on, women in the criminal justice system