Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Time To Talk: A service at St Martin in the Fields Church

Maxine Frances Roper: "The key is to dwell on things the right way, by speaking out where you can and increasing understanding of them through visible gestures"

This is a guest blog from Maxine Frances Roper, a writer, speaker and journalist. She runs Understanding, a blog focused on suicide bereavement and prevention, and also trains businesses in dyspraxia awareness. Read more about Maxine here.

I came to Time To Talk because of the suicides of two unconnected friends in a short time. I’d heard about similar public memorials after the first friend’s death in 2011 but never gone to any. Having spoken at his funeral among friends seemed enough; the idea of talking to strangers with little in common except something horrible didn’t really appeal. Besides, church wasn’t exactly the natural space to honour a converted Buddhist who learned his sense of humour from Kenneth Williams and Viz. 

The second time, I felt differently. The second suicide hit me very hard, from the sheer incredulity of being affected by the same thing twice less than four years on, dealing with the same questions and the same still-raw feelings all over again, with many difficult new ones on top. Unlike the last time, I didn’t go to the funeral, there wasn’t a big group of mutual friends for comfort, and I felt far less that I knew him or understood what I was to him. I learned about disenfranchised grief, and how public rituals can often be helpful to it. The beauty, vastness and stillness of a church holds a certain attraction in reflective moments, even if as a non-believer it’s a bit like borrowing the house of someone you find frustrating. I wasn’t sure what I wanted or what to expect from the service but thought it would be interesting and worthwhile - probably a similar mindset to what brought me to both my late friends in the first place… 

St Martin in the Fields
The church was filling fast as I arrived, early and alone. A subdued hum of conversation hung in the air. Everyone else seemed to have come with someone. Perhaps I should have invited a friend, but it’d seemed too much to ask. I saw a woman on her own near the back and sat next to her on the end of a pew. She was looking straight ahead while I fidgeted around trying to get comfortable and take in the stunning curved-stone surroundings. I wondered what her story was, trying to catch her eye, then gave up, realising I was trying to make my face say more than it possibly could.

Though the blend of readings and songs resembled a typical church service, there were few religious references. The order of service was split into three parts ‘Lost’ ‘The Valley’ and ‘Found’ poetic markers of the three stages of grief. The service opened with the St Martin’s Voices rendition of Purcell’s Chancony in G Minor, and closed with the hymn ‘Lord of All Hopefulness.’ Musician Ryan Keen had broken off a world tour with Ed Sheeran to perform. I welled up at his acoustic ‘Aiming For The Sun,’ unsure whether the stirring music was making me cry or just giving me proper permission. Readings and testimonies came from both bereaved families and suicide survivors, including from James Withey, who spoke movingly about his stay at the Maytree, a sanctuary for people at risk of suicide, writer Clara Humpston, and Shirley Smith, whose sons founded the suicide prevention charity If U Care Share in memory of their brother Daniel. Other readings included ‘The Healing Of Sorrow’ by Norman Vincent Peale, and ‘Snowdrops’ by Louise Gluck.

After the service a reception was held in the Crypt. As I stood at the edge of the room scanning it for approachable faces, someone from the Grassroots team introduced herself and a friend. As she told me what had brought her here was the suicides of friends, I felt the most profound empathy and relief. Not only that someone understood what friend bereavement feels like, but had felt moved enough by it to work for a suicide prevention organisation. We chatted and shared a laugh over the seemingly-inappropriateness of discussing work at this kind of event  - though I suspect both my friends would have approved.

People who go through difficult life events often say they don’t want to be defined by them, or dwell on them. It’s against my nature not to dwell on things. The key is to dwell on things the right way, by speaking out where you can and increasing understanding of them through visible gestures. In his book The Happy Depressive, Alastair Campbell observes that the only way to overcome grief is by learning from the experience, and sharing what we’ve learned. At Time To Talk, I understood that more profoundly than ever. As bereaved father David Mosse said at the opening of the service: “Talking about it is hard. Not talking is even harder.”