A Man Called Ove

How to relate to someone who doesn’t want to live anymore:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is a fictional account of the life of Ove, an unassuming 59-year-old man who craves order and predictability. Past losses have shaken his equilibrium, making him averse to change. He needs routine. Knowing what to expect affords him a measure of strength. stability and security.

His mother died when he was very young. She worked in a chemical factory and smoked continuously. His father internalised his grief. Communication between the two became restrained.

Ove and his father never talked excessively, but they liked each other’s company. They sat in silence on either side of the kitchen table, and had ways of keeping busy.

Ove had just turned sixteen when his father died. He worked on the railways. He was hit by a hurtling carriage and died instantly. Ove finds himself alone. He says,

It’s a strange thing, becoming an orphan at sixteen. To lose your family long before you’ve had time to create your own to replace it. It’s a very specific sort of loneliness.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Ove is forced to quit school and take on his father’s job. He lives the life of a hermit having little cause to interact with others. Ove believes actions speak louder than words. He says,

“Men are what they are because of what they do. Not what they say.”

Ove works as a night cleaner on a long-distance train. Following his shift he catches sight of Sonja, with those red shoes and the gold brooch and all her burnished brown hair. He discovers she is training to be a teacher.

Over the next three months Ove travels with Sonja on the train and listens to her talk about the things she loves. Sonja likes the way he gives her his full attention. Sonja invites him out to dinner. Apparently the Swedes were doing it long before anyone else.

They marry. People think they are like night and day. Ove is under no illusions, he is definitely night. He could never work out why Sonja chose him.

She only loved abstract things like music and books and strange words. Ove was a man entirely filled with tangible things. He liked screwdrivers and oil filters. He went through life with his hands firmly shoved into his pockets. She danced.

Three years into the relationship Sonja announces that she is pregnant. They agree to purchase a row house and become best friends with their new neighbours, Anita and Rune who are also expecting a baby.

Ove and Sonja take a bus tour to Spain. On the way home, the bus crashes. Sonja miscarries and becomes paralysed from the waist down.

Ove can’t forgive himself. Just prior to the accident he stood up out of his seat. He chastises himself for not being there to protect them.

Their life is drastically altered. Sorrow and grief are their companions. Sonja copes better. She takes a job teaching troubled students and teaches them all to read Shakespeare. Ove has fallen out with the world. He writes scathing letters to ‘people in white shirts,’ people he sees as responsible for the situation he now finds himself in, people who could have done more for his wife.

But Ove never walks away from his responsibilities. He insists on rebuilding the house to make it wheelchair accessible. He builds a beautiful bookcase for Sonja’s books. He is there to carry her when the need arises.

Their marriage works despite their differences.

People said Ove saw the world as black and white. But Sonja was all colour. All the colour he had.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Sonja died on a Friday after a three-and-a-half year battle with cancer. They had been together nearly forty years. Ove is not equipped to to cope with the pain and loss of the only person who ever understood him.

He dislikes all of the empty places she has left behind in their silent little house.

Grief is a strange thing. It can change your perception of reality.It can imprison you in a world of nothingness.

Ove doesn’t know what happened to him after her funeral. The days and weeks floated together in such a way, and in such utter silence, that he could hardly describe what exactly he was doing…
It was as if he didn’t want other people to talk to him, he was afraid that their chattering voices would drive out the memory of her voice.

Six months after Sonja’s death, Ove’s boss at the housing office forces him to retire. He decides to end his life and join Sonja.

The story of Ove’s past explains a lot about his present state of mind. He knows that for him, loss and loneliness are inseparable. He has lost his partner and can see no reason to go on living.

Ove has carefully considered the options available to him to end his life. His meticulous planning has delivered five possible scenarios involving a rope, a car, a gun, a train, or a bottle of pills. A variety of interventions, some unexpected, some unimaginable, prevent him from achieving his goal. He is forced to conclude

It seems that someone, somewhere, knows the only way of stopping him is to put something in his way that makes him angry enough not to do it.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

His new neighbours, Patrick and Pavaneh, and their two young children are pivotal in providing Ove a reason to live. Their example helps to answer the difficult question:

How do you relate to someone who doesn’t want to live anymore?

(1) Be Informed:

Ask questions. Do some digging. Talk to the neighbours. Find out what has triggered their emotional retreat, their detachment from life. Ascertain whether they have any support and who is providing it.

Pavaneh, or The Foreign Pregnant Woman, as Ove thinks of her, learns of Sonja’s death. She understands the significant challenges faced by people who lose a partner and how it is only natural to want to leave this world to be with them.

She also factors in the impact of forced retirement – being denied the social contact; being deprived a sense of purpose.

(2) Be Alert:

Be on the lookout for anything that would suggest the person is putting together or enacting a plan to end their life.

Pavaneh needs Ove’s help. Her husband, Patrick, whom Ove refers to as The Lanky One, has fallen off a ladder he borrowed earlier. She hears the motor running but the car is locked in the garage. She bangs on the door, hoping that she is not too late. The noise arouses Ove who flings open the door catching Pavaneh on the nose. She smells the exhaust fumes and sees the plastic pipe lying on the floor of the garage.

There were other signs as well. The hook in the living room ceiling and the gun leaning against the wall in the hallway.

(3) Be Persistent:

The situation calls for doggedness. Give the person no respite. Don’t hesitate to turn up unannounced. Interupt their plans. Make demands. Get in their face. ‘Annoy the hell out of them’ if need be.

Pavaneh looks for opportunities to engage with Ove. She isn’t backward in asking him for help. When her husband fell off the ladder and was taken to hospital in an ambulance she convinced Ove that he should drive her and the girls to see Patrick. She is able to look beyond Ove’s gruff demeanor and recognise his ‘big’ heart. She even entrusts the girls to his care when she checks on her husband. Unfortunately this didn’t work out so well. Ove has a falling out with the hospital clown and punches him on the nose. The three-year-old thinks this is hilarious.

(4) Be Creative:

Look for ways to engage their time and abilities. Harness their stengths in a positive way. Give them a reason to believe in themselves. Encourage activities that focus their energies on improving the life experience of others.

Pavaneh has Anita talk to Ove about her radiator which is not producing any heat. Ove is a practical man and good with his hands. He knows how to bleed radiators. Pavaneh never allows him time to consider his options. She demands his help. Pavanah knows that Ove will always act in ways that he hopes will please Sonja.

That is why she has success getting Ove to reluctantly reach out to a stray cat that is hanging around his shed. The cat looks poorly due to the cold and the aggressive behaviour of the neighbour’s dog. When Ove finally relents to Pavaneh’s persuasive rant, he looks at the cat and says,

“I’m not running a cat repair company. You’re only here because I couldn’t talk any sense into that pregnant woman.”

(5) Be Grateful:

Never take people for granted, particularly obsessive, opinionated, and obstinate old men. Show respect. Acknowledge their best efforts. Favour them with little acts of kindness.

Pavaneh bakes Ove some biscuits. Ove wonders whether they are worth having. He mistakenly thinks they are Arabian biscuits. Pavaneh corrects him. She says,

“Persian, not Arabian. I’m from Iran – you know, where they speak Farsi?”

Pavaneh hands Ove a picture her three-year-old has drawn for him. Most of the drawing is in black and white. There is Pavaneh’s family and the cat and another friend. Ove is the figure in the middle. He is drawn in a veritable explosion of colour. A riot of yellow and red and blue and green and orange and purple. Pavaneh explains,

“You’re the funniest thing she knows. That’s why she always draws you in colour.”

Ove takes the picture inside and attaches it to his refrigerator door.

(6) Be Welcoming:

Be prepared to make room in your life for the lost and lonely, the despairing and disconnected. Be willing to fill the gaps in their life. Include them in your daily routines. Invite them to share in your family celebrations.

Pavaneh asks Ove to her seven-year-old daughter’s birthday. Ove shared some time with her recently when he discovered her interest in houses. Ove knows a lot about houses. She says she is hoping for an iPad for her birthday.

Ove presents her with a package on her birthday. She hardly dares believe that she is holding an iPad box in her hands. Ove leans toward her.

“That’s how I always felt every time I bought a new car,” he says in a low voice.

She looks round to make sure no one can see; then she smiles and gives him a hug.

“Thanks, Granddad,” she whispers and runs into her room.

(7) Be Humble:

It is so easy to relate to people in a brash and insensitive manner. Sometimes, unknowingly, our careless words and unrealistic expectations cause a deep hurt. People who have experienced a significant loss and are searching for a way forward need our understanding and support. Our focus must be on building trust.

Pavaneh tells Ove she works in Real Estate but is currently on paternity leave. She admits to Ove she doesn’t have a car licence. Ove is incredulous. Cars are his passion. Pavaneh asks Ove if he will teach her to drive. Pavaneh is asking Ove to put aside any plans he has to end his life and commit himself to the goal of making her a competent driver. Pavaneh deserves a great deal of credit for this carefully thought out intervention.

The good news is that when the end came Ove died of natural causes. The doctor said his heart was ‘too big’.

There is a choice:

“Either we choose to die or we live.”

Like Ove, we all need to find a reason to live.

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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