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A Reflection on Suicide

Wednesday, 12 October 2022  | Gary Harch

As an Anglican Priest, ordained for approximately forty years, I can still remember my horror at first finding out that people who committed suicide used to be buried in separate sections of cemeteries and denied a service in a church. Fortunately, that has changed, but I wondered how that would have affected the families left behind. In those first years, though I hadn’t taken a funeral of someone who suicided, I decided they and the family would be treated no differently from anyone else.

It is now two months since I first heard the news of the death of former Rugby League player and premier-winning coach, Paul Green. His funeral service has been held at his favourite football field and the ARL season is finished. It’s time to reflect on this tragedy, and for many to consider the future.

I first heard the news as a one liner: ‘Paul Green has died at home aged 49’. You only have to be an occasional follower of Rugby League to know that name. He was sixteen years younger than me. How tragic! It must have been a heart attack.

Then I heard the news again on a different channel. This time the news was followed by: ‘anyone who is suffering distress should contact Lifeline’.

Breaking the silence

Oh, suicide. That’s the way it is first announced these days. Details are not given so people don’t get copycat ideas. There are several euphemisms that are used by reporters or the police, such as ‘X’ is helping us with our enquiries (shortly before they are charged.) Euphemisms are useful when not all the facts are in. The facts are extremely important at a time like this. I remember the funeral of a primary school age boy I presided at in a country town. The rumor was that he had committed suicide. In fact, it was a tragic accident while he was playing with the blinds. I made the comment that it was an accident during the funeral to give dignity to the family. Several years later I noticed that, when blinds were installed in my house, the tradesman fixed the cords to the wall. I thought of the boy and maybe this was the helpful result of his tragic death to try to prevent such accidents in the future.

Slowly the word suicide came to be used in the press. Probably Paul Green’s family had given permission, while also asking for their privacy to be respected for a while. Some friends spoke up on TV. They were upset. Suicide was definitely getting a mention, as was what might be done to prevent it. Then Queensland football legend Johnathan Thurston gave an interview. He was genuinely distressed and could hardly finish the shot to camera. He had been given leave as soon as the news had become known. His comment was: ‘It will not be okay, it will not be right’. Finally, Paul Green’s family announced his brain was going to be donated for research into footballers who had suffered head injuries. Life is always complicated.

How much of this would have been newsworthy if Paul had not been someone with such a high profile? There are many who suicide, including a disproportionate number of Indigenous people. Their stories are not heard outside their immediate contacts.

Eventually the news cycle moved on. I have no personal connection with Paul Green or his family. I do not wish to comment on his specific life. I wish to shift the discussion to a more general reflection.

How is our society currently responding to suicide? How comfortable are we discussing it? Queensland has legislated for Voluntary Assisted Dying. Regardless of our ethical stance, clergy and many others need to know that this is now a legal option and work out what they will do when the conversation comes up.

I have taken the funerals of people who have suicided. I recall one lady whose suicide was expected. It just seemed like there was nothing I or anyone else who knew her could say or do to stop what seemed inevitable. I don’t have a recollection of that funeral being much different from many others; probably we didn’t know what else to say.

For decades I have been involved in the discussion of the pros and cons of what is now called Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD). It has had many different names over those years. I’m no expert but I listen to those who have great experience in all areas of the debate, and the personal stories from families who have watched others suffer from various forms of cancer. While VAD has its own specific context, it connects with the issue of Palliative Care and with the wider ethical debate about life and death.

Unresolved pain

With suicide, there always seems to be some form of unresolved pain. This could be physical, emotional or spiritual, or perhaps a sense of hopelessness.

Have you ever had dental pain? I mean the type that literally has you crawling up the wall? Treatment for such pain is far better than it used to be. However, it isn’t the complete answer. The recent epidemic of deaths in the US and to some extent in Australia relating to Oxycodone addiction and overdosing shows pain control is a fine line, often badly supervised.

Several times I have been given Oxycodone to relieve pain after various surgeries. The last time, they insisted I be given a box to take home in case I needed them. I was determined not to take them and didn’t. I never did get pain that was so desperate that I needed to take them. Would I have been able to stop with one or two?

But not all pain is physical. When the pain is inside, even a powerful painkiller tablet doesn’t fix it. When you have this pain, thoughts such as, ‘I have done my bit, the world is better off without me’, or ‘as long as I ease my pain everyone else will be okay’, can start to creep into the dark recesses of the mind.

Some men live with easy access to a gun, or perhaps a fast car and single tree on a straight stretch of road. I have also buried those men. More recently at funerals of those who have suicided, I have been quite direct in my address. With the family’s permission I have mentioned what happened, and have talked about ‘being okay’ and that God is still with us and the person who has died. There is no need for the family to suffer any form of stigmatism.

The world is better off with you

Our minds get deceived. People do care about us and those left behind will never ultimately know why a person took their life, even if there is a note. Our loved ones may struggle to know why their love was not enough and why they didn’t see your distress or were unable to help. They may live with their own feelings of failing you. I have had the experience of standing beside a coffin, preaching to a packed whisper-quiet congregation, as they try to make sense of what has happened and what more they could have done. My belief is that the world is better off with each of us, not without us, and that those who love us will miss us.

What might be some of the reasons for ‘Why?’ Is it because we lost our job and have spiralled into a despair, feeling that we have failed our family or gone further into debt? Or because we’ve been through a relationship breakdown, have lost a loved one or simply feel overwhelmed by life? When our thoughts turn so inward, we can’t imagine that those left behind will miss us not for what we’ve achieved, but for who we are – for our presence in their lives. Our life matters to those around us, even when purpose and meaning seem so out of reach. That’s why spirituality should encourage imagination and it can do this by encompassing art, music, questioning, as well as deep study and liturgy.

People do care about us, but some of the people who ask, ‘are you OK?’, may be seeking to control us or have power over us. If we are spiraling downwards, it is important to know who wants us for who we are, not for what they want us to be. Others will offer to pray for you; prayer is not magic, but it is their way of expressing that they want to stay connected. When we are down and find it hard to accept that others care, it is important not to allow thoughts of ‘I am alone’ to be anything more that – thoughts. We must not let our thoughts grow. Difficult as it is, the best thing we can do in those times is to reach out to those who care for us.


Gary Harch is a Residentiary Canon at St John's Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. He recently retired from full time ministry, after last serving as the Parish priest at St Mary's Kangaroo Point. He has a Bachelor of Surveying and a Bachelor of Arts, with special interests in stained-glass windows, environmental theology and good governance. Gary has recently recovered from prostate cancer surgery, a known increased risk factor for suicide in men.


Image credits

Signs opposite 7-11 Gas Station, Salem, Oregon, USA. Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

Alone to be Alone. Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixibay.


If this article has raised any issues for you and you need information or support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back on 1300 659 467.

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