Discovering the intensity of life

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

There was a good deal to discover about being important. Some of the discovery was about the depths of human emotion. For all the agonies of growing up, the discovery of the raw and primitive nature of emotion had to fight through powerful defences. The physical reality of living is I suppose, too much to live with day by day – we are shaken into recognition by, often, a death or a birth. The intense power of sexual feeling is marked by jokes, shyness, (can turn to madness and violence of course) and when we hear of a rape or a child molestation, we are shocked into glimpsing the undefended primitive physicality of things.

For me, my friend’s death at college was such a glimpse. Faced with this actuality, the feelings I was immediately conscious of were of unreality. I can remember when the news was broken to me, I had an immediate sense that I was choosing to react in a way that seemed what was expected. The only model of how to respond to shocking news was what I had seen on TV shows  or in my family, and it was as if I could only copy these seen reactions whilst having no idea what to feel. I rushed round to tell my girlfriend almost because I thought that was what I ought to do – I had to do something and this was the thought as I went. The true position as I look back was that I was not in control at all but acting on instinct. It was the thoughts that were not real, not the actions.

Over the next few days, I learned a good deal. Coming up against suicide both had a glamour and the opposite – a sort of grey and banal physicality. I now have a sense of them as linked together with a sense of unreality. There was a kind of glow from other people’s attention, a sort of importance from having been close to a life and death event; and then a kind of dismal practical banality. There was the discovery of the careful planning of the suicide; the purchase of the plastic bag and the rope. There was evidence of my friendship being useless and irrelevant. Each of the latter discoveries brought with them a shock, a draining of blood from the face, a stiffness around the jaw and the heart.

This physical experience was reflected on the day of the memorial service in the glamour of the college, the imaginative expression of music in the service and the drear emptiness in the reality. The memorial service itself was filled with the music that my friend loved – it is still important to me now, 40+ years later.

The performances were hallowed by the atmosphere of an Oxford college chapel, anointed by a history going back to the Renaissance, shadowed by this as the home of the parents’ dreams for their boy. Afterwards, there was the scattering of the ashes in the college grounds. If I picture the scene, I can still feel the physical shock of seeing those pathetic ashes, the sole physical remains of this gifted living friend sicked out of the urn into the breeze in the college garden.


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