By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
An 84 year-old Australian man has been awarded a medal of bravery for his work dissuading people from jumping to their deaths from the cliffs above Sydney Harbor.
The Associated Press is reporting that Don Ritchie and his wife Moya bought their home 40 years ago because of the terrific view it afforded of the harbor and the tall sandstone cliffs known as “the Gap.”
But as beautiful as it is, the jagged embankment claims an average of 50 lives per year to suicide. Too many of these tragic events were unfolding right before the couple’s eyes as they sat enjoying the view from their living room window.
“You can’t just sit there and watch them,” Ritchie told the AP. “You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”
Almost from the day they moved in, the retired salesman began to watch for people who lingered too long on the cliffs. Once spotted, he would walk over and talk to them, often inviting them home for a cup of tea. According to official estimates, more than 160 people changed their minds about committing suicide as a result of Ritchie’s intervention.
He’s now known as the “Angel of the Gap,” a title he quickly dismisses. “I’m just trying to save a life,” he says. “I used to sell kitchen scales and bacon cutters, then I was state manager of a life insurance company. At the Gap, I’m trying to sell people life.”
He recalls one woman whose life was spared after he spotted her sitting on the edge of the cliff from his bedroom window one morning.
“I quickly got dressed and went over,” he told the AP. “She had already put her handbag and shoes outside the fence, which is pretty common. They very often leave something behind – sometimes it’s a note, but generally a piece of clothing.
“I said to her: ‘Why don’t you come over and have a cup of tea?’ She came with me, and Moya made her breakfast. When she got home, she rang to say she was feeling much better. Two or three months later, she walked up the garden path with a magnum of French champagne.”
When he was a younger man, he would often scale the fence and sometimes physically drag people to safety. Once, a woman nearly dragged him over the cliff with her.
He sadly recalls the tragic death of a 19 year old boy from his own neighborhood who used to play with the Ritchie’s grandchildren. Unfortunately, when teh boy was spotted on the cliffs and Ritchie tried to talk him back, his efforts failed. The boy jumped and as he fell, his hat blew off and landed in Ritchie’s hand.
“You can’t do much about it,” he says about those whose lives he is unable to save.
Dawn O’Neil, chief executive of Lifeline Australia, a counseling service for the suicidal and depressed, told the AP that the intervention of someone like Ritchie can be crucial when people are considering suicide.
“We know from research around the world that most people who are suicidal are ambivalent about dying,” she says. “Most don’t want to die; they just want to end their pain. So there’s a hesitation, and anyone or anything that can distract them, or assist them to get help, can save their lives.”
After all of these years devoted to this quiet and selfless mission, Australia recently recognized his work by awarding him an Order of Australia, the country’s second-highest honor.
Those who have been touched by his work are particularly grateful for the recognition Ritchie is getting. Dianne Gaddin, whose daughter, Tracy, committed suicide in 2005, believes Ritchie may have been there for her daughter when she tried to commit suicide on previous occasions.
“Maybe he changed her mind those times,” she says. “It takes an enormous amount of courage just to go up to a person who is going to jump. Don has a charisma about him. He makes people feel safe, secure, and calm. I really think he is one special man.”
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1. What commandment is violated by the commission of suicide?
2. Scripture records several suicides, the most famous of which are the death of Saul (1 Samuel 31: 1-6) and Judas Iscariat (Matt. 27: 5-7). What guidance does the Bible give us about suicide? (See 1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
3. Why is suicide morally wrong? (See Nos. 2280-2281 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
4. What conditions or situations can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide? (See No. 2282 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
5. Should we despair for the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own life? (See No. 2283 in The Catechism of the Catholic Church)
6. The Catechism teaches that suicide is gravely contrary to the “just love of self.” What do you think this means? Are you engaging in any behaviors that are destructive to your mental, emotional or physical good health? Consider how these behaviors are harming both yourself and your loved ones. What steps can you take to begin to change these behaviors?