Published October 20, 2017
On October 20, 2016—a year ago today from this article’s publication date—Finnbogi Fannar Jónasson Kjeld, a much-loved member of the staff at downtown nightlife institution Kaffibarinn, took his own life. It was a tragic event that sent shockwaves through the lives of his family and friends, and the bar’s close-knit community.
After Finnbogi’s memorial service, Kaffibarinn held a party in his honour. His father—former policeman and airport security worker Jónas Helgason—was in attendance. “The staff and regulars all chipped in to help,” Jónas says, fondly. “It was very fitting, I thought. People would come over and tell me stories about Finnbogi. It was like a window into his life. It’s stayed with me. There was an amazing feeling of love and care.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Jónas became something of a regular, often dropping by for coffee and conversation. “Kaffibarinn became a place of remembrance for me,” he says. “It was maybe an attempt to capture Finnbogi’s spirit, which was looming large there at the time. It was an enormous help. No parent should have to bury their child, and for me personally, I know that something broke inside me that day. But certainly part of the healing process was going to Kaffibarinn. I’ve formed friendships out of tragedy, and I can’t thank those people enough for how they held the memory of my son aloft, and opened their arms to me and my family.”
A few months after Finnbogi’s death, Jónas was talking to the bar’s manager, Guðný Jónsdóttir, and it came up that she was seeking new doormen. “I said, ‘I could do that’,” Jónas recalls. “I’d worked previously as a doorman way back in 1982—it was my first gig. Guðný took me up on it. Then, there I was one Friday night wearing a Kaffibarinn doorman jacket and welcoming people inside. And the rest is history.”
Jónas has been a friendly and reassuring presence on the door of Kaffibarinn ever since. He’s grown fond of the community surrounding the bar. “My three favourite things about this place are the staff, the regulars and the DJs,” he says. “It’s a melting pot of people, sounds and laughter. The music is excellent. I’m happy that even as the resident old codger I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate new music.”
Breaking the taboo
Jónas has also taken up raising awareness of issues surrounding suicide, and the flaws in the health system regarding mental illness. “If I do nothing else in the rest of my life but raise awareness of young male suicides, it would be time well spent,” he explains. “I’m doing my very best. I think Iceland is rich in resources, and we should, as a whole, do a lot more to take care of those who need help. Mental illness has been taboo, and it shouldn’t be.”
“There’s an average of 52 suicides a year in Iceland,” Jónas continues, “and there’s hardly any money spent on preventative counselling. The psychiatric ward closes at five o’clock, so if you need help outside of business hours, you’re in trouble. And the emergency room is not somewhere you go if you’re suffering from anxiety or depression. If only they’d change the opening hours.”
Action not rhetoric
Despite the recent rise in the polls for left wing parties that traditionally prioritise health care funding more than those on the right, Jónas doesn’t have high hopes for a political solution. “We need action,” he says. “We need doers, not rhetoric. Icelanders are tired of being told we’re rich, we’re intelligent, well-educated, or whatever. Let’s get a proper infrastructure, let’s have proper healthcare, and make sure that everyone is taken care of. It’s the reason I joined the police force, and the reason I work as a doorman—I care about people. When the proverbial shit hits the fan, I tend to run towards it and do my best to avoid more danger.”
Jónas hopes that the recent controversial suicides that occurred inside hospitals will draw attention to the need for change. “That should never happen,” he says. “It should be a safe environment. I’m hoping that any number of politicians will take this to heart. We’re losing 52 individuals a year, and that’s not right. It shouldn’t be acceptable. There’s something wrong with a society that says that it is.”
In the meantime, Jónas is enjoying his work as a doorman, and rarely encounters any trouble from customers. His other son works at Kaffibarinn as a DJ, and there are portraits of Finnbogi in pride of place in the bar. “A perk of the job is that when I welcome someone to Kaffibarinn, I take those two steps up and open the door, and see Finnbogi’s smiling and happy face there,” finishes Jónas. “It’s as heartwarming now as it was then. I have a lot of time and a lot of love for this place.”
If you are suffering from depression or experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can contact the Red Cross helpline for confidential advice, 24 hours a day, on 1717, or via webchat.