“Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word,” advised Don Ritchie.
Ritchie is credited for saving the lives of hundreds of would-be jumpers at a dangerous seaside cliff in Australia, simply by inviting them into his home nearby for tea and conversation.
When he died in 2012 at the age of 85, family said that he’d saved some 500 people from suicide, though the official count is 160. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia, and was named Australia’s Local Hero for 2011.
Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for Ritchie was the gifts, Christmas cards and letters he received from those he’d saved, sometimes a decade or two after the attempted suicide.
“Those who knew him knew he was a very strong person and a very capable person,” Ritchie’s daughter Sue said at the time of his death. “It was just something that he saw and that he had to do something about.”
For more than 50 years, he lived near the cliffs at Watsons Bay in eastern Sydney, a place known locally as the Gap.
Earlier in his life, this navy veteran would try to restrain despondent people, while his wife, Moya, called police. But as he aged, he would begin taking a gentler approach.
He became known as “the angel of the Gap.”
“I met him 40 years ago,” Fr. Tony Doherty from Rose Bay parish told 702 ABC radio in Sydney. “It was at Watsons Bay, I was driving home at about 1 a.m. There were a group of guys at the Gap. I edged my way in tentatively … Here’s a figure who was was lying down on his stomach, talking to a terrified little Vietnamese chap, who was just over the edge and threatening to jump. I watched this figure gradually encourage him to come back to the safety of the cliff … He has this wonderful soft, appealing voice that encouraged this little fellow not to jump.”
“He was a unique man,” recalled Diane Gaddin, a suicide prevention advocate who had a daughter who died at the Gap. “He is a beacon and inspiration to not only us in Australia but the world because it takes courage, bravery, tenacity … standing on the cliff edge and encouraging someone not to take the final step. … He was a gentle, persuasive man who offered them hope with warm, embracing words.”
Not every intervention of Ritchie’s turned out so well. Unfortunately, he saw several people jump, including a quiet young man who “just kept looking straight ahead,” Ritchie told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2009.
“I was talking to him for about half an hour thinking I was making headway,” he recounted. “I said ‘why don’t you come over for a cup of tea, or a beer, if you’d like one?‘ He said ‘No’ and stepped straight off the side his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”
Yet Ritchie never gave up. “Never be afraid to speak to those who you feel are in need,” he said in 2011. “Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.”
How did he get people to turn around and try once again to have hope? For Ritchie, the formula was simple. In his own words, his advice was: “Smile. Be friendly and say can I help you in some way.”
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