I have written before in this blog about the conversations I have with the bereaved families of deceased students and colleagues – some of the most difficult conversations I have as the university’s leader. There is a particular challenge in having those conversations when the deceased has died by suicide. I always feel, when I telephone bereaved families that I am intruding on their grief – as I wrote in my blog on the subject, I am an unknown, with a curious job title. But this is especially true when the cause of death is suicide. In these conversations, there is an aching loss and a degree of incomprehension which it is almost impossible to fathom.
“I could not stop for death” begins a disturbing poem by Emily Dickinson, [but] “he kindly stopped for me”, and that sense of being interrupted, utterly confused is powerful. The families are often numbed. They have so many questions, and the tragedy is that the questions will really never be answered. In every case, the families have been forced to encounter something they were not really aware of – just how distressed, unhappy and desperate their son, daughter, brother, sister, cousin was. There is very often a degree of estrangement involved. Because of the loss of their loved one, they will never be able to acknowledge, at one extreme, how serious the gulf which had opened in their intimate, familial relationships was, and at another, never be able to say that that argument – about music too loud, room too untidy, relationships, or money, or whatever – well, it really wasn’t all that important after all. And I know, as I end the call, that the questions, never answered, will be with the family forever, whatever further details they learn. If they are difficult conversations to start, they are extremely difficult conversations to end: absolutely nothing I can say will remotely touch what the family is experiencing.
Suicide remains one of the leading causes of death amongst young adults, and particularly amongst young men. Suicides remain very rare amongst the University community, but when they happen, they are shocking. Sheffield Hallam is committed to supporting the mental health and well-being of students and staff, and we have a wide range of services designed to support people and to engage those who are feeling distressed. The University works closely with others in the Sheffield Suicide Prevention Strategy, including the other University and the NHS as well as with charities. The intention, of course, is that no-one should fall through gaps, and in cases of suicide it is almost invariably the case that the student had been supported by our services Perhaps by definition we never quite know how many suicides have been prevented – but clearly, in cases where students or staff die by suicide, the support has not been enough. “We will never know all the things other people worry about”, writes the novelist Ann Patchett in her new essay collection ‘These Precious Days’, which itself explores questions of death and how all stories have an ending. “We thought we understood”, said a step-father to me, naming the deceased, “but there was so much we didn’t know about [her], and we never will.”
The conversations I have with bereaved families are part of my job as the University’s leader – I’m talking to them as a representative of the community. Inadequate though my words inevitably are, I have an obligation to say them and to listen to what the families say. In the case of conversations after suicide, the sense of the yawning gap between what one can find words for and what one wants to say is especially wide. I’m envious of those whose training and perhaps character– priests, counsellors – seems to have provided a vocabulary for such encounters. There’s a line in one of Jan Morris’s books – again, I’ve written before about Jan Morris in my blogs – where she says that the most valuable and enduring quality is human kindness: ”people talk too much about love”, she writes “and not enough about kindness”. What I take away from my conversations with families who are beginning to respond to losing a relation to suicide is something about kindness to others in the face of overpowering challenge.