When is the right time to intervene?

Kay Warren cofounded Saddleback Church with her husband Rick Warren in Lake Forest, California. In her recent book, Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough Kay talks about her contact with her new neighbour. The relationship was to end suddenly and tragically. The honest and factual account allows us to come to our own conclusions about what level of support vulnerable people need. The challenge remains, how do we reach out to people considering taking their own life?

There are seven observations I would like to make that help clarify what an effective intervention might look like.

(1) Sometimes we are privy to the suffering in another person’s life

Kay makes a critical observation when she says,

“The people in your life today are there for a reason.”

Relationships are important in bringing stability and purpose to our lives. It was never intended that we journey through life alone dependent on our own devices. We all encounter situations that wound our spirit and leave us bereft of ideas. We need people around us we can turn to.

Kay talks about her initial contact with her new neighbour. She says, “The wife was bubbly and fun and warm, and I invited her over a few times just to hang out. When we sat in my kitchen and chatted and watched my kids play, I could tell there was a well of sadness inside her, but I didn’t know what it was. I could see the pain in her eyes when she looked at my kids even though she seemed to care about them.”

(2) Sometimes we are so pre-occupied living our own life we don’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation

Being aware of someone else’s pain is a position of trust. It invites responsible action. Often we reason that others are resilient and able to sort out their own problems. We convince ourselves that the situation doesn’t demand our involvement or interference.

Kay recalled, “One day I was standing in my little boy’s bedroom and I could hear my neighbour sobbing in her bedroom, which was close to our house. My heart hurt for her. I thought I have to go talk to her this week. I just have to. Obviously, she is in a lot of pain. But I was really busy.”

 (3) Sometimes our best efforts miss the mark

The neighbour informed Kay that her marriage was in trouble and there was talk of a divorce. She said contemplating a failed marriage was breaking her heart.

Kay’s response was to invite the woman to church and to offer her a series of tapes on marriage. Although a sign of care and concern, it was an arm’s length response and failed to take into consideration the feelings of hurt and rejection experienced by the woman. It also reinforced, in part, the deep sense of abandonment she felt.

(4) Sometimes the time and emotional commitment needed causes us to pull back

While this is not always a conscious decision, inactivity does suggest our hesitancy to get involved. The person’s struggles aren’t a priority. We may have our concerns and regret the hurt they may be feeling but it doesn’t command our full attention.

Kay admitted to having ‘tunnel vision.’ She said her focus was on her own family and the leadership responsibilities she carried in the life of the church.

(5) Sometimes we miss the signs that invite or encourage our intervention

Kay had seen the pain in her neighbour’s eyes. She had listened to her admission that her marriage was over. She had heard her tears.

What might Kay have said or done to support the woman during this troubling and distressing time?

She might have asked whether they were receiving counselling.

She might have enquired about what family support the woman could rely on.

She might have probed further to better understand how the woman was coping.

(6) Sometimes we are left to grieve missed opportunities and what might have been

Kay writes, “Then one Saturday I was cleaning the house and doing all the Saturday chores. I was running between the house and the garage, back and forth, back and forth, all morning long. Somehow that morning, with all those trips back and forth to my garage, I didn’t see that she had left an envelope on my porch. When I opened it up, I saw the marriage tapes I had given her along with a suicide note. It said, “When you read this, I will be dead. I can’t go through another divorce. Please bury me in my wedding dress. Thank you for being my friend.”

Kay immediately tried to make contact with her neighbour and left messages pleading with her to reconsider. She notified the husband who didn’t recognise it for what it was and was dismissive. An hour later he rang back to say his wife had shot herself and had been admitted to intensive care. Kay made it to the hospital and was able to hold her hand and pray for her before she was taken off life support.

We grieve the loss of life to suicide. We weep for those who felt alone and abandoned, weary of life and fearful of tomorrow. We join with Kay in praying, “God, forgive me.” We are all guilty of not being there for those we care about.

(7) Sometimes the magnitude of the loss shapes our resolve

Kay acknowledges that although we hope for a positive result our invention may not change anything. She says,

“Please understand; I don’t know that anything I might have said would have made any difference in the outcome for my neighbour. The truth is that when people finally decide to end their lives, many times they go through with it.”

But Kay determined that in the future she wouldn’t hold back but would give herself to people in need. She would be an interventionist and endeavour to support them through their tough times.

Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn't Enough

Today Kay is a respected advocate for those infected with and affected by HIV and AIDS, as well as orphaned and vulnerable children.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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