Years ago I was asked to do the funeral of a woman whom I hadn’t known but who’d lived in the parish where I was vicar. It was a sad story. The woman, who was in her seventies, had a particularly painful wasting disease. The pain became so great that one night she stepped out of bed, put on slippers and a dressing gown, let herself into the back garden, climbed the fence, walked into the local lake, and drowned herself.
I listened to her widower tell me the story, and at the funeral I talked about the things we knew and the things we didn’t know. I said we didn’t know what anguish was going through her mind, but we did know how deeply she was loved and will be missed. I said we didn’t know what could bring her to such despair, but we did know that her life was beautiful and that those who knew her loved her and would always cherish what she meant to them.
A week later I paid a visit to the widower to see how he was doing and show him I was thinking of him. I was fully prepared for him to say how beautiful the funeral was, and there was always a chance he might say how well I’d spoken.
He didn’t. He looked straight at me, head still and unblinking, and told me, “What you said was completely wrong. You said, ‘We don’t know what was going through her head when she got out of bed and walked down to the lake.’ That’s not true. I know exactly what she was thinking. She’d tried before, and afterwards she told me what it was like. I know what she was thinking. I told you that when you came to see me last time. But you weren’t listening, were you? Maybe you didn’t want to listen.” His tone was more weary than angry, as if I was just one of a series of people who hadn’t really listened, either to her or to him.
I learned something that day that’s stayed with me. If something is awful for somebody else—if I’m in a conversation with a person who is considering suicide, or doesn’t know how they can go on, or is living in the aftermath of a loved one taking their own life—my role is not to make things better.
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