Thursday, June 17, 2010

“You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”

In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice. "Why don't you come and have a cup of tea?" the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their salvation.

For almost 50 years, Don Ritchie has lived across the street from Australia's most notorious suicide spot, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, the man widely regarded as a guardian angel has shepherded countless people away from the edge.

What some consider grim, Ritchie considers a gift. How wonderful, the former life insurance salesman says, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.

"You can't just sit there and watch them," says Ritchie, now 84, perched on his beloved green leather chair, from which he keeps a watchful eye on the cliff outside. "You gotta try and save them. It's pretty simple."

Since the 1800s, Australians have flocked to The Gap to end their lives, with little more than a 3-foot (1 meter) fence separating them from the edge. Local officials say around one person a week commits suicide there, and in January, the Woollahra Council applied for 2.1 million Australian dollars ($1.7 million) in federal funding to build a higher fence and overhaul security.


But he remains available to lend an ear, though he never tries to counsel, advise or pry. He just gives them a warm smile, asks if they'd like to talk and invites them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they join him.

"I'm offering them an alternative, really," Ritchie says. "I always act in a friendly manner. I smile."

A smile cannot, of course, save everyone; the motivations behind suicide are too varied. But simple kindness can be surprisingly effective. Mental health professionals tell the story of a note left behind by a man who jumped off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way to the bridge, the man wrote, I will not jump.

By offering compassion, Ritchie helps those who are suicidal think beyond the terrible present moment, says psychiatrist Gordon Parker, executive director of the Black Dog Institute, a mood disorder research center that has supported the council's efforts to improve safety at The Gap.

"They often don't want to die, it's more that they want the pain to go away," Parker says. "So anyone that offers kindness or hope has the capacity to help a number of people."
Obviously I could quote the entire article but please do go read it for yourself. I only know that the man's note who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge brought tears to my eyes. How much does it affect someone when we are too preoccupied to even notice that another human being is near us and give them a smile? We see that sometimes there is much more at stake than we could ever know.

Via The Anchoress.


  1. What an admirable man! Thanks!

  2. Did the woman who wrote "Major Pettigrew" know about this guy? Odd coincidence!

  3. I didn't even catch that connection, CF, but good point! :-)