Time of Dread

Time of Dread

Jacky Sewell

“Time of Dread

by Jacky Sewell,

Youth Facilitator, Anglican Diocese of Auckland. 

Last September holidays, my car was smashed up in Waikumete Cemetery. A group of young people had just buried their 17-year-old friend who had hanged himself. After the burial, two of them hopped on the bonnet of their friend’s car and went hooning up the cemetery road, working out some of the intensity of their grief and emotion. My car was parked alongside the road, without me in it. Unable to see clearly, they went straight into the back of it. The two on the bonnet jumped clear at the last minute, avoiding being either crushed between the cars or being flung through the glass in front of them: they ran off, leaving their 17 year old friend to face the damage alone.After the initial shock, when his parents had been called and we’d checked him for physical injury, we discovered alcohol in his car and couldn’t discount that as part of the reason for his ‘groggy’ responses. The look of total reproach on his face when I told him I had called the police in order to have him checked for drunk driving left me with a profound sense of betrayal. He was breathalysed and found clear.

That day I juggled the various roles of perplexed car owner trying to sort out practical arrangements, sympathetic parent supporting a mother in her concern for her son, and youth worker, with immense compassion for a young man who knew he had done something really stupid, but coping with the extreme turmoil of grief and the desertion of his friends.

The cemetery staff said that was the sixth funeral that week of teenage young men who had taken their own lives during the school holidays.


The Horror Signs

Our churches and society are currently gripped by the appalling youth suicide statistics. We feel (rightly) that we must do something; we must educate our youth groups and teenagers to lessen the danger of it happening to them. So we talk about danger signs, we read books on assessing risk factors, we talk to youth groups about handling depression and how faith in Jesus Christ will give them the renewed hope and strength they need, we dedicate issues of our youth magazines to the topic.We may even talk about suicide itself, and encourage the young people to talk about their friends who have died or other experiences of death. We may hope that the stark realities of suicide may act as a deterrent to any young person present, struggling with their own inner turmoil. Some research on youth suicide throughout the Western world indicates that this may not be the case: that ‘education’ in the realities and risks leading up to suicide simply encourages young people to believe that this is a real option; a possible way out of their own situations. Copycat and cluster suicides are the subject of much concern and investigation: it is a delicate question whether we are exposing and educating young people into suicide itself.

“Don’t talk about it”

The other extreme is the blanket of denial and guilt which much of our society and the church have imposed for centuries upon families of people who have committed suicide. When my cousin hanged herself, it was two weeks after the funeral that the extended family was told that she had died. The combination of grief with shame was too great. Last year I spent time with a group of 13-year-olds whose friends had attempted suicide. These young people were dismissing their departed friends and their struggles as ‘attention seeking’. This same group informed me that the Bible told them that anyone who took their own life was damned to hell anyway, so why talk about compassion towards those who commit suicide.Somewhere between cover-up and over-exposure we need to find the most helpful way forward. We need to put measures in place that will deal with the realities and enable young people to talk about their fears, yet not unwittingly make suicide a viable option for any depressed teenager sitting in a youth group session.


Prime Directive

For teenagers whose lives have become too stressful to cope with alone, or who find themselves in the midst of a depression they do not understand, our prime response must be to provide quality relationships of trust; time to give to the individual; faith that there will be a tomorrow that is better than today and to let them know that we will not leave them unsupported. This is a ministry that can be shared by anyone of goodwill and generosity of spirit: friends, peers, and grandparents. We who are entrusted with youth leadership need to ensure that referral to a professional has already happened and that the friends and supporters are themselves supported, in what can be a very emotionally and spiritually draining time.


And in our youth groups?

I can think of no better place to start than in developing good, supportive, affirming relationships within the group itself. Teaching what it means to be the body of Christ ∆ working with the young people on how to be a good friend, how to listen carefully and constructively and how to get help if you’re worried. Things we should be doing anyway as we seek the spiritual and emotional health of our young people.NB It is a myth that Christian kids don’t or won’t commit suicide. They can and they do. I have buried them. Let’s be very careful about using Jesus to give false promises that ‘everything will be OK if you pray enough / give yourself to the Lord / receive the power of the Spirit’. Let’s remember that God has made us to be the hands and ears and eyes and actions of love, living out the renewal of hope and strength that Christ brings.


Footnote: Beautrais et al, The prevention, recognition and management of young people at risk of suicide: development of guidelines for schools, Ministry of Education: Wellington, 1997.