This coming Sunday, 10 September, is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s a topic dear to my heart. Both my parents died by suicide, and so I wanted to share some thoughts on how to live well – and what not to do – if you, or someone you know, has been affected by the suicide of someone in your life. Please share this blog as much you can. It could save someone’s life.
My parents’ deaths, in March and then December 2002, live with me every day. Mum first: (I suspect) undiagnosed and untreated depression. She was of a generation that simply didn’t talk about these things. They just “got on with them” – even if that meant, ultimately, getting on with the business of your own death. Dad next: a broken heart; a tendency to introversion meaning he didn’t take up people’s offers of support; a deep sense of guilt that he didn’t see what was going to happen, that he didn’t stop it, a ceaseless round of “If only….” in his head.
Suicide is devastating. Its effects ripple across family generations and it’s tempting to feel that what has gone before, to others, must inevitably come next, to you and yours.
I didn’t want that to be my story. I decided very soon after their deaths that I wouldn’t be defined by it and that I wanted to thrive during the remainder of my life, not simply survive it.
When I reflect on the things I’ve done over the last quarter century to make this happen, I’d say it’s about:
- Whatever you do, not blaming yourself. Suicide is act of desperation. There is no rational logic to it. Survivors talk of believing the world will be better off without them. It is not. People often take their own lives without any warning signs. But even if there were signs, it’s not your fault.
- Practising forgiveness of you and them. It’s not easy, but it’s vital. Say “I forgive you” – whether to yourself in the mirror, or to them out loud. It’s helpful.
- Talking to people. Get a counsellor (but make sure the chemistry is there and that you trust them). Talk to your friends. Your partner, if you have one. Your colleagues, even (when you know and trust them). Share it all – your upset; your anger (because there will be anger for a while); your disbelief; your devastation.
- Asking for help. Sometimes it’s about very practical things, and sometimes about the need to talk (see above). People want to help you – remember that. And accepting help is a sign of strength (we often think it’s a sign of weakness – it’s anything but).
- Getting out there and doing things. It’s natural and easy to want to hide away, and to think it’s somehow wrong to be doing things that are fun, that make you laugh. Even a walk in nature is helpful. Or being with people. You don’t have to be the entertainment – the people who get you, will get that sometimes you want to simply “be”.
- Believing that it will get better. It will never be the same again. The person you loved isn’t there, and can’t be brought back. You will always feel pain, yes – but it won’t be as piercing years down the line as at the beginning. I sometimes think I have discovered things about myself – my resilience and growth – that I might not otherwise have uncovered. And I think it’s helped me develop an empathy that has helped me to help other people over the years.
- Focusing on the things you have, that you’re grateful for. I wish I’d discovered this much, much sooner – but writing a gratitude list of all your “big ticket” items e.g. your health; your friends; your family etc, and then every day writing down three things that have happened to you that day that you’re grateful for help to increase your happiness, little by little, over time.
- Writing stuff down. When you put it down on paper, you can give yourself free rein – you can give a “voice” to all the things you might not be ready, willing or able to, even with the people around you whom you trust. Twenty minutes of writing a day – for as little or as long as you need it – can be enormously restorative.
- Having a really, really good cry. It’s helpful. Don’t try and maintain a stiff upper lip.
- Not being afraid to treat yourself. Sometimes, sitting on the sofa with a box set, huge bar of chocolate and a few glasses of wine is just the thing. But not too much of any of them (as someone who’s done too much of all three).
- Remembering that you are not cursed. A horrible, heart-breaking thing has happened. I know too many people who believe it means they are essentially unlovable. You are not. You are lovable. You are loved. We need to open our hearts to being loved by those around us, whether romantically or platonically. Love – from my friends, family, even the failed romances I had before I met my husband – makes the world go round.
So what not to do? The opposite of everything above, of course, but three stand out things for me are:
- Refusing to entertain the ghouls. I’ll never forget – less than a month after my mum’s death – meeting our driving instructor in the street (mum had been going for lessons not long before she died; I’d passed my test several years earlier). The conversation went like this:
o Him “Oh, I haven’t seen your mum for a while”
o Me “My mum died last month”
o Him “Oh, what happened?”
o Me (slightly fazed) “She took her own life”
o Him (breezily) “And how did she do it?”
I was so shocked I actually told him. Now, I never tell people the “how”. Nobody needs to know. That desire is driven by a thirst for the macabre; by nosiness; by a total lack of concern for the person affected. I have been asked since. I simply answer “It’s not something you need to know”. Pleasant and neutral is the way to go (even when you don’t feel it – you never will when some numpty asks you that type of thing).
- Not allowing yourself to behave badly. People will let you away with a lot – for a while - if you’ve been bereaved by suicide. Don’t do it. Tell people how you’re feeling. Say when you’re angry. Don’t on any account allow it to be used as an excuse for behaving badly, in any context. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour and eventually the currency that your bereavement has brought you will run out, leaving you stranded.
- Not getting – or staying – in relationships that are bad for you. These might be platonic, or they might be romantic. However if those relationships aren’t what they should be – nurturing; accepting; supportive; enjoyable – get out of them. You don’t need to fall out with people. Simply create distance, don’t see people as often, or indulge them (that doesn’t work if it’s a romantic relationship – you’ll need to be more direct).
When you’ve been bereaved by suicide it’s easy to feel that you’ve been left behind because you weren’t worth staying for. People who die by suicide are just as frightened of dying as the rest of us are – they simply can’t bear the pain of being alive. It’s not that you, or anyone else, aren’t enough. So while you are here, value and love yourself enough to surround yourself with people who reflect that.
There’s a beautiful talk on www.TED.com by Brene Brown about the nature of shame and self acceptance. And I wanted to end by mentioning this because in amongst all the tips and hints she gives, the one that I love – and that lives with me - is the simple act of saying to myself “I am enough”. And so are you.
If you have read to the end of this blog, thank you very much. I hope it helps you and someone you know. Have a wonderful weekend.
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