When young people stop talking and withdraw from the company of their friends we become concerned for them. We begin to wonder if they are depressed, have broken off an important relationship, or perhaps are becoming addicted to drugs.
Our concern may prove to be unfounded, but it flows out of a deep truth about human behaviour. Silence may be golden, but it can also kill when it shuts us off from other people. And similarly withdrawal from the communities of which we are part is also destructive. Community and conversation are at the heart of healthy living.
We can see this pattern in the stories of Jesus after the Resurrection. In his sadness and disillusionment at Jesus’ execution, Thomas isolates himself and is not there when Jesus appears to the other disciples. He stays isolated and uncommunicative in his disbelief that Jesus’ rising was for real. But he joins their community when Jesus appears again and talks to him, and he later cheerfully goes fishing with the other apostles and meets Jesus by the shore.
Suicide Prevention Week draws our attention to people whose hold on life is fragile.
Their fragility shows itself in many ways, including mental illness and thoughts of suicide. That is why the week, with its associated emphasis on the care of families and friends affected by suicide, invites reflection, not simply about individuals who take their own lives, but also about our responses to suicide.
People who takes their own lives are understandably thought to turn their back on society. Their families and friends often feel their action as a rejection, all the more bitter because it is inexplicable. Their pain is often heightened if suicide was not preceded by conversation about why it was contemplated.
The symbol of suicide is silence: the silence of the person about their desperation, the inner silence of incomprehension by friends and family, their outer silence marked by inability or refusal to speak about it, and the public silence of taboo that deters people from talking or enquiring about it.
These rippling circles of silence shut down both conversation and the natural working of a community to heal isolation. They leave the people intimately affected by it to deal alone with their angers, sadness and bewilderment, and they inhibit their friends from reaching out to them to penetrate the silence. Death reigns and the silence becomes more oppressive. In some cases that leads to further suicide.
If suicide is to be prevented and if death is to be followed by healing, silence needs to be replaced by conversation. For human beings the paradox inherent in nature that out of death comes life is realised through conversation within a community. It has been the privilege of support groups such as the Jesuit Social Services program Support after Suicide to promote such conversation at a personal level and by bringing people together. Those who take advantage of this personal care often find that the hearts frozen and immobilised by the ice of silence thaw and move again.