Giving suicide grief centre stage

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On 10 September Suicide Prevention Day is celebrated. It is a serious day, addressing the huge and often unrecognised suffering of people who take their own lives, and the devastation that their death causes among their friends and families. In Melbourne, Rebecca Lister's play, 2.20 AM, is being performed throughout the week leading up to the celebration.

Rebecca Lister's play, 2.20 AMFor many, 2.20am is an ominous time. Many will identify with one of the characters in the play who says, 'I jolt awake at 2:20am every morning, heart thumping, pulse racing ...' At that hour, no hopeful thoughts disturb our anxiety. If we dread the middle of the night we might be tempted to mark this play down as gloomy and to be avoided. That would be a mistake.

The grief that accompanies suicide makes it difficult for people whose relative or friend has killed themselves to talk about it. If they do reach out, they often find others avoiding the conversation and are forced back into silence. The topic becomes threatening; the silence breeds fear and isolation in the people who grieve. Lister's play is hopeful then, because it breaks the silence.

The play began in work with people who have survived suicide and who are helped to move beyond the isolation and stigma that accompanies it by speaking about it in an encouraging environment. Lister is a playwright and social worker who has offered creative writing programs with the Jesuit Social Services program Support after Suicide. Her programs introduce participants to many forms of writing and invite them to write in their chosen style.

At the end of the program they may decide to publish or act out their writing. Most touch directly or obliquely on their experience of suicide. The project encourages shared conversation about a topic that had been clothed in silence. The conversations warm the often frozen art of making connections.

That experience provided the material for the play itself: the rhythm of programs for survivors of suicide, the silences that imprison them and the words that they find, and the joy in the midst of sorrow found in the company they share. It presents a group of three people and their facilitator who have formed a creative writing group. All have grieved relatives or friends who killed themselves.

The action begins with the group coming together and ends with them ready to perform their play. The stages are represented by the seasons, beginning and ending with summer, and are punctuated by the five stages of the life of the group: forming a group out of grieving and hesitant individuals, norming (or establishing the agreed guidelines), storming (the messy processes of self-revelation and finding words for experience), performing (presenting the results of their writing), and morning (going out from the group into everyday life).


"In the sharing, experiences that have distressed and isolated us engender hope."


Although the subject matter is serious, the play itself is neither morbid nor didactic. As in any good conversation it includes moments of self-discovery and alternates between humour, pathos, irreverence, flashes of anger and grief, and moments of irrelevance, but leaves the participants wanting more. Because its trajectory is from isolation and silence to companionable conversation and concerted action, it is involving and not depressing.

The play in turn helps those who watch it to break down taboos that might make them shrink from people whose relatives and friends have taken their own lives. It also models a way of responding reasonably and with open hearts to suicide.

This is a play that builds laughter out of the inadequate materials of pain and loss. Although that seems odd, it is part of the rhythm of life and of good drama. One of Anton Chekhov's most common stage instructions was 'laughing through tears'. In ordinary life, too, we are all familiar with the good humour that comes from conversations with the theme, 'If you think you've got it bad, listen to this.'

In the sharing, experiences that have distressed and isolated us engender hope. This play shows that if only we can find someone to talk with, that can happen even at 2.20am.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, suicide, Jesuit Social Services



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In my own family, I lost someone I'd never met to suicide. I saw the repercussions in my mother's life. And my own. Moving through stages of grief in a group setting may be very helpful.

Pam | 28 August 2018  

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