Living with suicide and moving beyond coping
As today, World Suicide Prevention Day, renews the focus on an especially tragic loss of life, William Scholes hears how clergy are being helped to deal with suicide and about a retreat to support anyone affected
COPING with the death of a loved one is always difficult, with the pain of bereavement and loss heavily magnified when they have died by suicide.
Clergy are among the first to enter the family circle in such times of crisis, offering spiritual support and attempting to address the impossible question "why?".
The Churches have long acknowledged that their clergy play a vital role in supporting those bereaved through suicide.
As far back as 2008, the leaders of the four largest Churches told the assembly health committee that when it came to the "major social problem" of suicide, "We are still dealing with the 'aftermath' long after the statutory services are gone".
"Likewise we are committed to reducing the risks by offering a listening ear and a safe place to discuss problems," they said.
Yet many priests and ministers admit to being ill equipped for the specific challenges of pastoring and counselling families affected by suicide.
One practical initiative, which started to take shape in 2012 to give support to clergy, is a group called Flourish - A Churches' Initiative on Suicide.
Flourish includes clergy from across Northern Ireland's Churches as well as the Churches' Community Work Alliance, the Public Health Agency and Belfast-based suicide prevention charity Lighthouse.
Its aims include developing guidelines for clergy, training programmes, raising awareness of suicide, supporting families and organising services of reflection for those affected by suicide.
To coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, marked today, Flourish is sending copies of a new handbook with advice on speaking about mental health and suicide to more than 1,400 clergy.
The booklet includes advice on preparing a service, suggestions on scripture and choices for music that could be used during the service.
Methodist minister the Rev Mervyn Ewing, a member of the Flourish steering group, explains that "often clergy feel isolated when faced with this issue".
"For many clergy, providing pastoral support to families affected by suicide can be very disconcerting and perplexing," he says.
The new handbook is, he believes, "a very reassuring resource for clergy who are faced with the aftermath of suicide and offering pastoral support to families affected".
Mr Ewing will be speaking later this month at a retreat at Lough Derg which hopes to "offer a sacred space for people who have been affected in any way by suicide".
In recent years Lough Derg has developed, among other things, a particular ministry to those affected by suicide.
Fr Cathal Deery, a Clogher priest who is part of the Lough Derg priest team, will be spiritual director of the 'Living with Suicide' day.
He hopes the day will offer support not only to people bereaved through suicide but also those who minister to the suicide bereaved or work in support services.
"It is estimated that every year around 800 die by suicide in the island of Ireland every year - a reality that casts a shadow on the lives of hundreds more; families, extended families, personal and professional networks, whole communities," says Fr Deery.
"During the pilgrimage season we encounter many pilgrims who share their witness to the heartache of living with suicide in their lives.
"We want to offer something to support those people who have been affected by suicide, either through personal loss or with suicidal ideation, or for those ministering to the suicide bereaved or working in support services."
Fr Deery says the day retreat was "not a conference in the secular sense of the word".
"Rather, it's an invite for people to come to a safe place - the sanctuary of St Patrick - where they might find some sense of healing and peace in the midst of pain and struggle."
Knowing that "moving beyond coping is possible" is important for people affected by suicide: "On a day such as our 'Living with Suicide' day, we wish everyone to experience the gift of hope."
Meanwhile, the sort of practical advice contained in the Flourish handbook is also much needed.
"Clergy have a huge role to play in offering pastoral support during some of the most testing times in our lives," says Madeline Heaney from the Public Health Agency.
"It can often be difficult for clergy to know how best to address mental health issues and suicide within their congregation, and we hope that this new resource will support them at such times."
As Jo Murphy from suicide prevention charity Lighthouse Ireland says, "suicide is such a big concern in our communities".
"Churches play a pivotal role in supporting people who have been bereaved by suicide," she says.
"This resource has been developed with the churches to encourage clergy to talk about mental health - and encourage people to reach out and seek help."
:: More information on Flourish at www.wewillflourish.com
:: The Living with Suicide day retreat takes place at Lough Derg on Wednesday September 23 from 9.30am to 4pm. More information from www.loughderg.org or 00353 71 9861 518
:: If you or someone you know is in distress or despair, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. This is a confidential service, where trained counsellors will listen and help immediately on the phone and follow up with other support if necessary. The helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also access the Lifeline website at www.lifelinehelpline.info