So. Here we are again.
The seventh anniversary of the suicide of my big brother, Ian.
I am, as I have been every other year since 2011, compelled to write. This is partly due to the therapeutic value of writing, and partly because I cannot bear to let an anniversary go past without metaphorically shouting Ian’s name so that he is not forgotten.
I have been thinking a lot recently about Ian’s funeral. Quite unpredictably, it was an amazing day.
The morning came. It was incidentally the day after my 33rd birthday, which passed with me barely noticing, and I woke to a stunning late September morning – a proper Indian summer’s day; baking hot, dark blue skies, no clouds. I was instantly sick to my stomach; anxious, scared, traumatised, shocked, grief-ridden. I did not want to look anyone in the face but at the same time was desperate to see some of My People, especially my childhood bestest friend in the whole wide world, who had also grown up with Ian in the background of her days, and who was flying from Denmark to support me.
The day divided naturally into four parts, beginning with a service at the crematorium for family only, which in our minds was more of a formality than anything else. Then came the focus of the day – a memorial service to celebrate Ian’s life, held in a church a few miles away. Over 300 people came to say goodbye to him and to show what he meant to them; the church was full. Walking past the congregation with my sister on one arm and my husband on the other, I felt a vastness of support the like of which I had never felt before, nor have I felt since. Old friends, new friends, colleagues, relatives, people we had not seen for decades and others who we had never met. The funeral was filled with Ian-ness; music which was important to him, photographs of formative times, and hilarious and heart-breaking stories of him and what he meant to others. Ian’s friends wrote an amazing tribute to him, and my parents, sister and I all wrote and read out a section of his eulogy. As I stood at the front of the church and looked up at the faces who joined us, I felt a closeness to Ian which I have not been able to cultivate since. Faces from all the times and places of Ian’s too-short life; understandings and insights of different parts of his character from different corners of the room which went way beyond our own relationships with him. It was as though Ian was magnified in that room through the presence of all of His People.
After the wake, it did not feel right for the day to end and for the Ian-ness to fade, so we carried on for the evening, decamping to the nearest pub – a place where Ian and I and our groups of friends had spent many, many happy hours as teenagers. The late September sunshine set while glasses were raised, drinks were sunk, tears were shed, bear-hugs were given and stories were shared. It marked the end of a truly amazing and memorable day, and I felt completely enveloped by my own, and Ian’s, people. Among the days and weeks of despair and greyness which surrounded it, Ian’s funeral day really was a shining light.
The following day, as my husband drove us away from my childhood town, I felt terrified. It was a fear that I had not experienced before that day. The funeral was over. Ian’s friends and colleagues and our wider family would now begin the process of returning to ‘normal’. For us however, our new, unwelcome reality had barely just started. Would people forget us? Would it be assumed that it was time for us to get over it? Would people stop talking and thinking about Ian? I sobbed and sobbed as we drove away from the support which had wrapped itself around us the previous day.
As I look back to that remarkable, affirming, tragic day, I see a traumatised, rabbit-in-headlights girl standing in the church, caught in the impossible shock of what had happened and dealing with it minute by minute. I could not possibly have predicted the turbulence of the next seven years. I had no idea what awaited us, and this hindsight now illuminates the vulnerability and merciful naïvety of that girl who clutched the papers on which were written her words to share with the mourners. I have thought at length about the words which I spoke at Ian’s funeral. Were they helpful… or were they a simplistic approach to the complexity of a situation that, even at that point, I was unaware of. I have wondered if I still believe my own words now… I have wondered if any of my words were true even then… I have wondered what I would say differently now, if asked to write the same speech.
I have not come to any concrete conclusions, but the guilt which I was trying to address in myself and others through my eulogy haunts me with particular pointedness around the anniversary. In early September, I start to think to myself that I had no idea what was about to happen this time seven years ago… could I have stopped it…? I should have told more people what was happening… What if I had driven to his house after the last conversation that we had…? I should have gone with him to the doctor like he asked me to… Could he have been saved from himself if he had received more professional support and permitted more openness…? What if this had all begun when I was aged 34 instead of aged 24; I have no doubt my approach would have been different and I would not have colluded with the secrecy…
…And so on.
I am lucky that these feelings of guilt are not and have never been all-consuming or overwhelming, and that they just understandably rear their horrible head from time to time. I think that, essentially, I do still believe my words. I do believe that, for some, mental illness will be terminal and that, sadly, this can never be eradicated. I do believe that Ian’s mind was so unwell that it killed his body. And I do believe that I did all I could and all he allowed me to do – rightly or wrongly and with my many mistakes acknowledged – to help him. For this reason, and to remember my precious, hilarious brother, who has been achingly absent for seven years today, below are those words once more…
Till next time, please talk to one another. I know that talking did not ultimately save my brother but I also know that it helped him hugely while he was alive. It did alleviate his loneliness and his sadness and I know it made him feel loved. Because he was loved – by many, many people, but just not by himself.
Funeral tribute to Ian
I’d like to talk to you about how ill my brother was, because I’m very aware that many of you won’t have had any idea that he was ill at all.
The Ian you knew was a sociable, fun-loving chap with a great sense of humour, many interests and hobbies, a huge number of friends and a family who thought the world of him. How can this possibly be the same person who was in such depths of despair that he ended his own life?
The truth is that Ian had been depressed for about 8 years. At times he was incredibly vulnerable and low. Yet he was able to put on a mask – a brave and cheerful face that hid his illness from the wider world, even from his close friends and family.
During some of his lowest times, it was the mask that enabled him to function and carry on with most aspects of his life – his job, band practices, cycling – and to present as if nothing at all was wrong. But beneath the brave and cheerful face lay a profound and recurring depression.
Many of you will be thinking – “I should have noticed; I should have known”. Please be assured, it was such an efficient mask that there was no way any of you could have known unless Ian had actually talked to you about his illness.
I am also aware that some of you may be feeling angry with Ian for causing you so much pain, for not reaching out more readily to ask for help. I can promise you that while he kept his illness very private, he was also doing everything he thought possible to help lift him out of his depression. He engaged in hobbies and interests, he spoke in depth to a small number of friends and family about how he could feel better, he sought professional help and was recently placed under the care of a community mental health team.
Ian simply did not want to be ill any longer. He was so exhausted by his depression that he could bear it no more.
Finally, to the few of you who were aware of Ian’s depression – I know that you may be feeling that you didn’t do enough with the knowledge or that you did not act on it often enough.
“I should have phoned him more”… “I should have seen him more regularly”.
But there is an important fact that should reassure all of us who might have thought like this:- just as you can’t cure a physical illness by showing kindness and lending a listening ear, you couldn’t have defeated his depression that way either.
Ian and I had some very frank and challenging conversations over the years, and one of these has echoed in my mind since he died, and has also given me a huge amount of comfort and reassurance. I was asking him to focus on all the positive things in his life. I said – “Ian, you have 2 living parents who love you unconditionally, 2 sisters who think the world of you, a huge number of brilliant friends, a fulfilling job, a roof over your head, food on the table and money in your bank account.”
He replied, “I know all that and I appreciate every part of it. But it’s not enough.”
Nothing that any one of us could have done would have been enough. Ian was depressed, and ultimately it defeated all the kind words, kind actions and love in his life.
As a family we feel it’s vital to acknowledge Ian’s depression, especially as mental health issues are still such a taboo subject in society. We want to encourage openness and realism about the situation, rather than shroud it in secrecy and shame.
All of us here today also remember the funny, affable, likeable character that he was, and my sister Naomi wants to now remind us of some happier memories of the Ian we all knew.