Age, mental health and isolation

In recent days I heard the tragic news that an elderly gentleman in my parish, someone I had the privilege to know, had killed himself.

Having lost his wife some years before and with little family to speak of, when I visited with him he would confide in me that he felt he had nothing left to live for.

While he had a clear Christian faith and understanding of life, he now considered himself nothing more than a burden on the taxpayer, he felt he had lasted too long, outlived those he loved, and, quoting St Paul, he said it would be best to “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).

In some ways, I sympathised with the predicament as he saw it. Modern medical science has run faster than our morality or the pace of our culture can maintain. Neither have we always handled deftly the unexpected outcomes of fundamentally good developments like longer life.

Such conversations are not that uncommon for me with very elderly people. But I never anticipated or expected that he was quietly making a plan to die. Given that many people knew him and cared for him, I don’t think anyone else saw it coming either.

I hope this doesn’t feel like I am betraying his confidence in saying this after his death, but when I sat and listened to him, my over-riding impression was that this man felt unbelievably isolated and alone.

He lived with others. There were people around him all the time. He was always happy to strike up a conversation. But nevertheless he felt alone.

Sensing his loneliness, I tried to engage him; the occasional visit, a chat in the churchyard and also writing letters or cards to know he wasn’t forgotten. I tried to invite him to attend various services or events St Mary’s hosted; mostly without success.

One thing I said to him several times was that I believe that we live and breathe and have our being by God’s design. “For such a time as this” are we called (Esther 4:14). So if we are here by God’s design, even if we would rather not be, it must mean the Lord has purposes for each of our lives. What is it he would have us contribute?

I do wish he could have seen that he had a contribution to make; that he wasn’t useless or a burden, and that there were many things that were worth living for.

I know too that, while suicide is not a mental health problem in itself, it is strongly linked with mental distress and 75% of the suicides in the UK last year were men. It seems that we blokes are particularly bad at expressing how we feel or seeking help when we are hurting.

As Easter approaches, I also know that while the night can feel very dark indeed, the sun will come in the morning. The Christian faith is hope made real, hope made flesh.

If you feel that you’ve nothing to live for, or that you are lonely, or that there is no purpose or joy for you in life, please don’t suffer in silence and don’t seek your death. Please come and talk to me or talk to someone you know who will listen carefully to you, phone the Samaritans on 116 123 for free or visit the Samaritans website. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I truly believe God loves you and he has good things for you.

Rev David Green

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