Priest in the night

Published on: 1 September 2017

Dialling 999 here gets you in touch with our police, ambulance or fire services. There is a very different approach in Sweden. Phone their national emergency number 112 at night-time and you are also given the option to speak to a priest on duty from the Church of Sweden. Canon pastor of the cathedral of Stockholm, Ulf Lindgren, has spent many nights on the helpline.

The helpline is open from 9pm to 6am, every night, and my shift is four hours. On the helpline, I can’t change the life of the caller, not cure them – but I can listen to them. I listen to their story and stay with them in their anxiety. To a person with a mental health problem, I often say how brave it was of them to grab the phone and talk about their vulnerability with a stranger. That changes their perspective on themselves from a victim to a person with options.

When an emergency suicidal call is coming I hear it on the breathing – because the caller can’t breathe properly. You can’t talk to them, because they are in a state of shock. So, I ask them three questions: do you have a pet, do you do any sport, what food do you like? Strange questions! But they work.

The goal is to activate the bodily memories through the senses; the hand touching the dog, the tongue touched by food or muscles moved by action. When these memories reach the brain, they calm it down and already after a couple of minutes you can start talking to the caller and ask them to move from the rails or to put the knife away.

I also have elderly men calling, the biggest suicidal group in Sweden. They tell me that they are sitting with the gun or the rope or will drown themselves. Also to them I have three questions.

First, I ask how they will kill themselves; to take away the romantic flavour and put words on the often rather messy details. Then I ask who will discover them. Many have thought about these questions already and have answers. So, my third question is crucial: “Who will cry for you tomorrow when you are dead?” Because this is the core of the problem – their solitude.

The question helps them to scan their everyday life and often they say with some astonishment: the postman, the lady in the newspaper shop. They discover that they are not alone after all.

Why do I leave my bed and listen to people’s problems? I get my inspiration from the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. When Christ suffered in agony, the disciples failed him and fell asleep.

Tonight, I have a chance to do better.

When the callers, drowning in anxiety, talk to me, I try to see Christ in them, and stay with them without having the power to change their life. In this we both remember God’s promise to be with us and in us until the end of time – whatever happens.

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