The Art of Listening


A recent thought provoking conversation with a palliative care volunteer validated so much of what we talk about regarding suicide prevention. Before you get too lost in wondering what the link between these two topics is, read on.

“We’re trained to Listen. Even if we’ve heard the story a dozen times before, we listen as if it’s the first time”. Putting this into the context of this lady now caring for an elderly relative, it would be so easy to say “yes! You’ve told me before!”, but who does that benefit? A moment of frustration leads to the sorrow of a loved one who doesn’t remember already regaling you with the story in question. Instead, a simple “oh! Tell me more!” validates that person’s story, their life, and their wellbeing in that moment of time. This is the Art of Listening. 

Kirstine clearly remembers a moment when her father was in palliative care, and his pain relief was causing hallucinations. “Look at the birds on the bed!”, he said, as Kirstine examined the end of the bed for the invisible avian visitors. “They’re lovely, Dad, what sort are they?”. “They need to get outside”, Dad continued, becoming agitated. Another relative in the room suggested Kirstine shouldn’t encourage the situation, but she saw no harm in it, and telling her father that were were no birds would have upset him. He was concerned for their wellbeing, as much as Kirstine was concerned for his. “Do you want me to let them out, Dad?”. He nodded. Kirstine opened a window briefly, and made the motions of helping the birds to freedom. Dad relaxed visibly then. The birds were safe and free.

Recently, Paul called Kirstine into a conversation with Ms Z (who asked not to be identified). She thought she had heard of us on radio or television. Ms Z was emotional, and Paul felt that she needed another female to speak with, though he stayed in the conversation too.

Estranged from her family after losing a loved one, Ms Z has struggled as a lone female. Told that she could not attend her father’s funeral, and having been so close to him, Ms Z was open in speaking about her isolation, her visits with her psychologist, and her struggle in being given a “diagnosis”. Ms Z felt that with her state of mind being “named”, this restricted her behaviour to within those boundaries. She considers herself as grieving the loss of a parental figure who always protected her from the rest of her family. Without that protection, she is struggling to define herself as an individual separate to her family.

We stood and listened as Ms Z spoke from the heart, the light rain fell over us, and Kirstine held her as she sobbed uncontrollably at the world – her loss, her grief, her anger, her loneliness. It was a hugely emotional moment for all of us.

Later, Ms Z came to spend time with the children, showing them how to crochet, and leaving us with a beautifully crafted piece to remember her by. When we left the next day, she had already been to say her goodbyes. Ms Z is confident that she will get better, as dark and scary as the world is for her at the moment. We look forward to one day reading her story, her way of reconciling the conflicting emotions she experienced as she comes to terms with her life.

Kirstine also spoke with a man, Mr M, who commented on her Nissan shirt as a way of initiating conversation. He had seen the Legend in the campground, and was curious but also eager to share his own story.

After ending a toxic relationship, Mr M had consumed a large amount of alcohol before encountering a rather amazing Victoria Police officer (VCP – Very Caring Police officer). This officer stopped him trying to step in front of vehicles, as he attempted to take his own life. To retell his story, we are paraphrasing, but the outcome is the same.

VCP – “You have two options, Mr M, we’ll take you home, or you we’ll arrest you and lock you up for the night”.

Mr M – “I have a third option. You give me your gun, and I take care of myself here and now”

VCP – “That’s not a good choice Mr M. How do I explain how you got my sidearm?”

Mr M – “you can tell them I hit you over the head, took it, and turned it on myself”

VCP – (a big fellow apparently, so option three was not plausible!) “That’s a lot of extra paperwork for me Mr M, and won’t really work. What if I gave you a fourth option?”

Mr M – “what’s that?”

VCP – “we take you to hospital and get you some help”

Mr M took up the fourth option, and got the help he needed in hospital. Years later, Mr M is still here, and telling his story and encouraging others to speak up and connect with people.

When is the last time you actually LISTENED to someone struggling with a problem?

Did you know that if someone opens up to you about their mental health, they genuinely DON’T EXPECT YOU TO FIX IT?

Did you know that when people talk about suicide, if they feel that their story will be heard, often already have a plan? Did you know that by telling you, they want help to stop feeling that way?

ASK them how long they’ve felt that they needed to end their life. ASK them how they planned to do it. ASK when they were planning on enacting their plans. Don’t tell them that they are being selfish, or will get over it.

This may seem scary to you, but simply by LISTENING and offering to support them as best you can, you could be saving someone’s life.

The current generation is forgetting how to interact on a personal level, not a virtual one. Previous generations are still working through the taboo of speaking about suicide. Be the change we need to see in the world! Discover the Art of Listening.

Remember, if you are concerned for your own wellbeing, or that of someone you know, you can contact Lifeline 24/7 for support. They are always ready to Listen.

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