- St Giles Online
I saw a recent documentary film on television about a young man called Evelyn. Fourteen years ago I conducted his funeral, though I had never met him. I knew his mother a little, and his mother’s twin sister (one was called Alpha and the other Beta), but most of all I knew their mother, a remarkable lady who lived in the village in Sussex where I was the Vicar. I took that lady’s funeral service as well, a few year’s after that of Evelyn.
So it was that I got to meet Evelyn’s siblings, Orlando, Gwennie and Robin and since then, at other family gatherings, I have met with them and learned a little more of the circumstances of Evelyn’s life. Ten years after his death the family held a commemorative gathering for the young man’s friends. We gathered in the garden of the family home in Forest Hill because it was there, on a certain fateful day, that Evelyn hung himself on an apple tree. He was in his late adolescence.
What I did not know so much then and what I have since learned from watching the film, was just how much Evelyn’s two brothers and sister had been struggling over a period of about 14 years to come to terms with his loss and the manner of it. These years had passed but even so it had became clear to them that they could still not talk about him freely, could barely mention his name, could not share his life among themselves. They decided, therefore, that they would go on a six week walk retracing upland sites in the Western Isles and Highlands of Scotland, the Lake District and the South Downs where they had all been together before in happier times in order to see whether the journey would bring about some healing; and because Orlando is a documentary film maker they would make a film about their walk so as to share their struggle with others. The film ‘Evelyn’ is the result. At various times they walked with their mother, their father and some of Evelyn’s best friends.
Theirs was a brave journey and braver still to put it on film. Mostly we just see them walking along, talking, being quiet, hugging, crying, talking some more. They felt remorse, some guilt (‘we could have done more,’ ‘if only I had answered that phone call’), some mutual antagonisms, and occasionally anger. Suddenly, in his late teens and three years before his death, their sunny, bright, optimistic brother became moody, sullen and sometimes aggressive. Doctors were consulted, and then clinical psychiatrists, and finally Evelyn was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In addition, then, to the common battery of feelings that sudden death brings on, there came an immense confusion and mystification. Their beautiful, funny brother had somehow been ‘taken’ from them by this behaviour-altering disease and was never the same again. His life had became intolerable for him, so they said, by way of rationalizing his loss and this most extreme of acts - to take away one’s own life.
At his funeral, to which a couple of hundred young people came from his school and never having encountered suicide myself before, I preached from the 7th verse of Psalm 124: ‘Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped,’ desperately trying to find an image that might capture Evelyn’s mental turmoil and suggest that he may at last have found a resolution. But this did not mean that the two brothers and sisters could have any resolution for themselves, nor many others; his ‘release’ became, for them, their ‘snare,’ and it was to somehow release this snare that Orlando, Gwennie and Robin set out on their journey. Their honesty with each other is powerful.
The glass of grief is shattered in many and various ways by death and loss. I recall the grown up son of a woman so elated by his mother’s death that he wore a white suit to her funeral with a flower in his button hole as if it were a wedding, happy that she had lived long and died well, contented and at peace; and another, so bereft by his wife’s lose that when the coffin was lowered into the grave and we mourners were standing around, he threw himself down on the casket and clung to it, as if he too were to be buried with her. I often saw him afterwards lurking around the churchyard like a ghost from a Dickens’ novel.
But to take one’s own life: this shatters the glass of grief in a very particular way - its shards cut the hand that tries to clear it away. I have no reason to doubt that his whole family continued to love him through those final few years and did all they could for him, but it did not feel like that to them, and this comes through so strongly in the film. Slowly, agonisingly, it was if they had to ask themselves to forgive themselves, though exactly what it was they needed forgiving could hardly be expressed. Some things, it seems, cannot be averted; we might blame ourselves, but even so they cannot be averted. A compulsion lay in Evelyn; if not then, then one day he would have had his wish to break his snare.
In 2017 6,213 people took their own lives in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Of these men are three times more likely to take lives than women. In that year 177 young people between the ages of 15 - 19 committed suicide. What’s more, it is reckoned that 25% of all young people will have experienced strong suicidal tendencies at least once. In one way Evelyn is simply part of a larger statistic, but Orlando, Gwennie and Robin show us that a personal litany of confusion and pain lies behind each number. If these articulate, creative, and emotionally aware adults can find it so hard, then so will we all.
Which leaves, perhaps, one final question: did the journey they made together work? Did it bring any resolution and healing? It’s hard to say. It seemed to bring them closer to one another in a new way through the shared recollection of their brother, and this must surely be a good thing. They lost their fear of talking about him, for they met people en route who, seeing the camera, asked what they were about, and then they found themselves telling these complete strangers about Evelyn. They found the courage to say his name. The confusion still remained for them, but they were better able to live with it. They were able to ‘move on’ (as we like to say) without leaving Evelyn behind. It was not a case of abandoning him in order to ‘save’ themselves. They could now be more themselves with him than without him.
Whether, in a broader sense, they had been able to make sense of this loss, though, was unclear, though there is no reason why they should have done this. Which of us can? Why the minds of some become prey to disease and not others is an intractable human predicament. I do not see how it can be out down to the will of God on the grounds of ‘what is / must be.’ Yet the two brothers and their sister have touched upon the most profound of human experiences, of mortality and human worth, and by the end it was as if they could look their brother Evelyn in the face again, and that surely was worth six weeks of their lives.