There’s a knock on the door and it’s your ashen-faced neighbour come to tell you her son has just been found hanging in his bedroom. Your brother calls to inform you that his daughter has taken her life. You are shocked and speechless. And then what do you do? (Photo: Philip McTaggart and Fr Aidan Troy at Belfast book launch, 1 Dec 2009/John Harrison)
Aiden Troy knows those helpless moments well. A few years ago, he got those messages — and saw some of the evidence –14 times in two months. As a Catholic parish priest in Belfast, he was often one of the first to be called by family or friends of the deceased. Sometimes police would call him first and ask him to break the news to the family and help in any way he could. In a very short time, he became more familiar than he ever expected with tragedies people usually think only happen to others.
“It is nearly impossible if you have not been there to describe what those first few moments following discovery are like. They are frightening to behold … There is no instruction book that can tell us how to cope with a suicide,” Troy says. But after years of dealing with suicide and suicide support groups, he decided to write “some tentative suggestions and observations born of my experience, in the hope that they may be helpful in a pastoral context.” He wrote it not only for other priests and not only for other Catholics, but for “a wide range of people who come into contact with suicide … the immediate family, neighbours and community … medical and hospital personnel, ambulance and police services, suicide support groups and clergy, undertakers and morgue personnel.”
“Out of the Shadow: Responding to Suicide”was launched last week in Belfast. It was introduced by Philip McTaggart, whose own son’s suicide prompted him to establish the support group PIPS — Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm. What Troy calls his “very small book on a very huge topic” progresses step-by-step through the initial shock, the funeral and the challenge of living for weeks, months and years with such a loss. It offers no complex theories or easy answers, only humble reflections on dealing with suicide and helping those left to grieve. Most of all, it brings a once taboo topic “out of the shadow,” as the title puts it.
Some readers may remember Troy from a tense Catholic-Protestant confrontation in Belfast that he described in his first book Holy Cross: A Personal Experience. When he came to work in Paris last year, he told me he was writing a second book that was quite different from that one. I ended up helping him edit it, so by now I’ve been through the book several times. Repeated readings don’t make this “huge topic” any easier, but they drive home the need to talk about it and help those whose lives are shattered by it.