** Trigger warning – contains discussions about suicide and relays traumatic events **
The idea of life having chapters is a metaphor used by many. For our family, September 2011 was not simply the beginning of a new chapter but the abrupt and explosive start of a whole new life. We have often talked about this as a family and find that we all feel the same: Ian dying was the consistent factor that made our divergent lives collide and set us, as individuals and a collective, on a path we could never have imagined taking.
My sister Nem and I have co-written this blog. I have been anxious about the prospect of writing this episode, but I knew that it would ultimately be therapeutic. Having Nem’s input has not only given me a confidence to tell this part of the story that, even as I was writing it, I was unsure that I would have the courage to publish, but it has also added a perspective to Ian’s story which is very important. We write about the events of the exact same evening, the exact same bereavement, the exact same loss of an older brother. Our individual accounts obviously contain a catalogue of similarities, however, they also contain striking differences. What this highlights for me is that, even within the same family, as the members receive the same news and begin to try and process the same loss, their grief journeys may be totally unalike. Even within the nucleus of our family – me, Nem, our Mum and our Dad – our four experiences have been different. Contrasting, sometimes contradictory; the same yet different. I guess this is the nature of any bereavement, because the roots of the grief journey grow from the intricacies of one person’s unique relationship with the person they have lost. But perhaps it is particularly pertinent to us. There was so much secrecy around Ian’s illness, and the degrees of information we had amongst the four of us was wide-ranging. In hindsight, I had quietly known for some years that Ian’s suicide was a thing which I may have to face, so perhaps it was a reality that I had contemplated in a way Mum, Dad and Nem had not been able to. This has ultimately affected how we have individually experienced our grief in the long term, but also fundamentally affected our experiences of the night we found out.
I hope that, alongside highlighting this point about different experiences, this blog will give an insight into the experience of receiving devastating news and that it will tell the final part of Ian’s story in the way it deserves to be told.
I had taken a phone call from Ian at lunchtime on the Sunday September 11th. Nem was staying and we were at a local beach, Brean Down. It was very windy and I could not hear well but I could also detect that Ian was needing to chat. I made an excuse and went back to the car where I called him back. He was not in a great place, but I was not concerned for his welfare. He was fed up, pissed off, a bit angry, but he did not sound depressed. We talked for about 15 minutes and at the end of the conversation I asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his day. He said he thought he would go for a bike ride – something he loved to do. He had an internal interview at work the following morning about restructuring, so he was going to do some preparation for that. He was not worried about the prospect of the restructuring – in fact he was feeling positive about it. I told him that I would call him that evening, and that I loved him.
I never called him that evening as Nem and I went to the pub.
I have never been able to shake the guilt of this. I’m not sure that I ever will.
Having been through the death of 2 grandparents and mum’s diagnosis (and, mercifully, her recovery) from breast cancer, August 2011 saw the opportunity for a fresh and exciting start for Mum and Dad as they retired to Gloucestershire. The house move had gone through quickly and smoothly – much to my disgust as an 18-year-old thoroughly peeved at the idea of having to leave my home comforts in Norfolk much sooner than I was expecting. Little did I know that those worries and teenage strops would soon pale into insignificance.
Ian had been to visit us in the new house over the weekend of the August bank holiday, about 2 weeks after we had moved in. It was a normal and very lovely weekend: we had sausage and mash for dinner one night, went to the local high school summer fete, took the dog for walks. Ian and I also talked lots about meeting up when I moved to Winchester for University in a few weeks; for the first time in my life I was going to be living within a 20 minute train ride of one of my siblings. I was so excited about the prospect of spending more time together, doing something as simple as catching up over a drink at the pub – an activity that both our 16 year age difference and geographical distance had not previously allowed us to do.
Something that has haunted me since was whether Ian knew that it would be the last time he saw me, Mum and Dad. Did he know that we would never meet up in Winchester? Did he hug us that extra bit tighter before leaving? Did he drop any hints that, at the time, would have gone completely unnoticed?
How does it feel to discover that a loved one has ended their life? What do you do with that information in the first few minutes and hours when life changes so fundamentally? What are the first thoughts which fleet through or embed in your mind after hearing such news? I will take a deep breath and try to tell you. Please stay with me, friends – this is how I remember events, although I know that trauma and time lapse may have warped my memories.
It was Monday 12th September, 2011.
My sister had stayed for the weekend, and I had said goodbye to her in the morning and then I had gone to work. I had been to an epilepsy review for one of the men I cared for in the morning and I’d had a meeting with my team of senior support workers in the afternoon. My boss was on annual leave. I was going to be getting a new boss imminently, so I was trying to make sure things were ready for the new person. I finished work at 4 and collected my son, 2 years and 3 months, from nursery. He had his tea, a bath and he went to bed, and then we ate. We had stir fry. I called Ian’s mobile, which went straight to answerphone. I thought this was odd but I left a message and asked him to call me back. I remember all of these details, very clearly.
After dinner, I was in the kitchen and my husband Joe was in the living room. His mobile rang, and I heard him say “Hi Steve”. I thought, ‘why is my dad calling Joe’s mobile rather than our landline, or my mobile?’ Then Joe came into the kitchen with a look on his face that and I have never forgotten. It was a mixture of shock and terror which I had never seen before, nor – thankfully – since. My memories of the next couple of minutes are blurred, but I think that Joe handed me the phone without saying anything apart from “It’s your dad”. I knew that something was wrong, of course, and I thought fleetingly that perhaps it was something to do with mum’s cancer.
I said “Hi Dad”, like I had done a million times before.
Dad said, “It’s Ian.”
And, it’s a cliche, but it felt that the world stopped spinning for a second. Everything seemed to slow down and reverberate in my ears and in the room around me. A coldness crept over my shoulders and stomach and made its way to my legs.
I said, “He’s done it, hasn’t he?”
“Yes”, Dad said.
I recall, somewhere in between speaking and shouting, the word “No” leaving my mouth. I also recall sinking to the floor, in my small kitchen in Glastonbury, where the smell of stir fry from my previous life was still in the air. I do not remember many more details of the conversation, but Dad must have briefly explained how they had come to find out, and given me the information that the police officers had about the circumstances. We finished the phone call when there was nothing more to say, which happened quite quickly. Joe was by my side throughout. I remember him saying I should get off the floor, and me telling him that I couldn’t.
The next few hours are like an air pocket in my head. I felt very little, apart from confused and shocked to my soul. I had a million questions, I wanted answers right there and then, I felt outraged. I recall one of my main concerns being where Ian was – not in a spiritual sense, but in a very physical sense. I felt an instinctive and guttural feeling that he should not be on his own. Who was looking after him? Was someone sitting with him? Did they understand how important he was? I needed to know where his body was, which reveals how at this point in time, in my mind Ian was still very much living. I had not begun to process that he was not alive, so the idea of him being alone after such a horrendous day for him seemed awful. Illogical isn’t it?
I sent Joe down to the corner shop for a bottle of wine and a packet of cigarettes. We had already decided that we would wait until the following day to go up to my parent’s house. So for the next few hours I sat next to my husband and quietly verbalised the random thoughts which appeared. We made a few phone calls. I recall these phone calls as being quite unemotional and really just the giving of information – “I won’t be back at work for a while because my brother has taken his own life”. Even as I said the words, they did not reflect reality for me. We sat in the garden and smoked. I went and peeped at my sleeping baby in his cot. I think I might have spoken to Mum and Dad a couple more times, but I’m not really sure. It was a completely surreal few hours.
When I finally went to bed, I slept. I hadn’t expected to, but I did. I woke very early, before dawn, and went and sat in the garden, wondering what on earth should happen now in this horrible, unwelcome new world.
My memory of 12th September is a mixture of vivid recollections and complete gaps in my memory. Anyone who has been through a trauma will know that the body and mind go through their own set of unique coping mechanisms; fight-or-flight reactions that enable us to survive the most distressing situations.
Here is what I remember from that day:
I remember driving back from my sister’s house during the day-time, having spent a lovely long weekend with her, my brother-in-law and my nephew who was 2 at the time.
I remember getting lost on the way back due to having not driven the route to mum and dad’s new house before.
I remember watching The Great British Bake Off in my pyjamas when the doorbell rang at around 8.15pm that evening.
I remember grumpily guessing that it would be new neighbours ringing to welcome mum and dad, and so went upstairs as didn’t want to be seen without make up on (a worry that was about to become the very least of my concerns).
I remember mum answering the front door.
I remember hearing a voice – “Are you Mrs Carter, Ian’s mother?”.
I remember going to the top of the stairs to see two police officers in the doorway.
I remember shouting for dad, who was in the study.
I remember thinking it must have been a car crash. No other possibility entered my head.
I remember there being a male and a female police officer.
I remember that they were sympathetic.
I remember them saying that Ian had been found in his bedroom.
I remember falling to my knees on the living room floor.
I remember mum making cup after cup of coffee, perhaps to keep busy or have something tangible to do in this intangible situation.
I remember knowing that Louise’s husband was supposed to be at a band rehearsal that evening and so advised dad to call his mobile to ensure Louise wasn’t by herself when she found out.
I remember phoning 2 of my best friends.
Here is what I don’t remember from that time period:
I don’t remember how long the police were with us for – it could have been 10 minutes, it could have been 2 hours.
I don’t remember how they broke the news to us, what exactly they said to tell us what we needed, but would never ever want, to know.
I don’t remember what we spoke to the police about.
I don’t remember what exact details, if any, we got told that evening and what we found out in the following days and weeks.
I don’t remember what we spoke to each other about after they had gone.
I don’t remember what I said to my friends on the phone.
As you can see, it is frustratingly the important details that I can’t recall. I could probably give you an exact figure of how many cups of coffee mum made but yet I can’t tell you for how long the police were with us. This (I believe) is my only real experience of repressed memories, where the mind cannot recall events due to the trauma caused at the time.
One of the factors which it took me a very long time to process was that we could not be told exactly what time Ian had died, as there was no way of knowing. Those issues which were left as question marks were horrendous. The problem with unanswered questions is that when you don’t know the facts, your brain tends to fill in the blanks itself with all sorts of horrible possibilities. All we knew was that Ian’s housemate had seen him at around 11.30pm when he asked her for cigarette papers, and that the emergency services forced entry to his bedroom to find his body at around lunchtime the following day, after he had not turned up for work. I could not bear the thought of him being alone and in such distress for, potentially, the whole night. Over the years I have managed to stop myself focussing on these details, although around the anniversary of his death I cannot stop these questions creeping back in.
It was just 2 weeks after coming to visit us for that lovely weekend that Ian took his own life. Alone in his rented bedroom in a shared flat in Southampton. It is an image that I try, but fail, to eradicate from my thoughts. We know that he was thinking of us – his note mentioned myself, Louise, Mum and Dad among a few specific friends. This is a great comfort but never takes away the crippling sadness of the events that unfolded in that room between 11th and 12th September 2011.
The coroner ruled that Ian died sometime in the early hours of Monday 12th September 2011. Something that has always been especially hard for us all to come to terms with is that we learnt of Ian’s death in the evening of September 12th, meaning that a full day passed where Ian had died and none of us knew. There we were, eating lunch, going to work, doing the gardening, unpacking boxes in the new house, completely unaware of what was unfolding a few hundred miles away and what was about to hit us.
We drove up the motorway first thing the next morning and I recall crying for the first time. I often find it odd that the first time I visited Mum and Dad’s new house – something which should have been so exciting and happy – happened in these circumstances. All I remember was hugging Mum and New very tightly and going into the house, but getting no further than the kitchen, where we sat for seemingly hours over the next few days; ruminating, wondering, talking, sitting in silence. When we first arrived, Dad was over at my 96 year old Granny’s nursing home, somehow finding the words to give her the news.
The following days were a blur of drinking tea, picking at food, making phone calls, walking in the hills, and trying to piece events together. It was like being a team of detectives, as we tried to corroborate accounts and complete a picture which in reality was always going to remain incomplete.
I recall that for what felt like an eternity we were not allowed access to the note which Ian left. This was agonising. Dad made multiple phone calls each day to tackle the endless list of issues which needed addressing. The note was obviously a absolute fundamental part of how we could begin to understand the events and would decide so much about our grief. Was Ian angry, or resigned, did he give any further clues, was there anything which could offer us any comfort or would reading the note just throw up more questions? The fact that we were not allowed the read the note for well over a week was impossibly difficult.
My other clear memory of these days was trying to let other people know. It proved difficult to contact some of Ian’s friends who needed to be told, and we were anxious about the news not seeping into social media before all the key people had been told. An added complication was that Mum and Dad still did not have internet in their new home, and as it was before the world of unlimited data we had to use the computers in the local library for certain tasks. I remember feeling really anxious that Ian’s close friends did not find out by accident. I broke the news to a couple of Ian’s friends myself on the phone, and I have always thought that I must have made a complete mess of it. I do feel bad about this, but I know that I just did what I was capable of at that point.
I feel it is important to acknowledge that Stanley, my little boy, helped more than he will ever know in those first few days, which stretched into weeks and months. The routine of needing to care for a very dependent child was – and still is – a lifeline for us all. We found that we had to smile at him, we had to play with him, we had to remain as constant as possible for him. And on a practical level, we had to eat because he had to eat, we had to get out of bed because he got out of bed. We had to carry on living because of his little life. Thank goodness for him.
The days that followed were a complete blur. We suddenly were a family of 4, and there was an Ian-shaped hole that was gaping and painful and raw. I remember lots of sitting around the kitchen table, trying to fathom what was going on around us, learning snippets of Ian’s past that Louise had been shouldering so miraculously, asking and answering questions, going through dates and events in Ian’s life like a timeline. I remember wondering how on earth anyone could be so sad and distressed and distraught that they would inflict this ending on themselves. I remember looking through photos, studying Ian’s face and trying to come to terms with the fact that we would never see it again.
Dad was stoic and practical, on the phone to the coroner’s office and funeral directors and various family members. Louise was exhausted and utterly devastated. Mum and I were in complete shock, having been almost completely sheltered from any knowledge of Ian’s ongoing depression. Joe, my brother-in-law, was more of a support to us all in those few days than I imagine he ever realised. He was there, unconditionally, practically and emotionally.
Once we started to get the news to friends and family, in poured the tributes. Cards, letters, Facebook messages, photos of Ian. If only, if only he could have read himself what everyone was saying about him. How genuinely and painfully fond of him everyone was. How much he was loved.
At this point we had no idea as to the journey we had started on; to the unique grief bought about by suicide, to the different ways in which we would all begin to deal with our collective and individual loss, to the relationships we would lose and gain as a result of Ian’s death, to the reality of losing a loved one to suicide. We knew we had a whole load of practicalities – the funeral, the inquest, and the interment of Ian’s ashes still to come – Louise will cover these in her final blog of this series. But the reality of dealing with those practicalities is something that you only really come to terms with once they have passed. They become like mini milestones – and not the good kind – and once they have passed you can find yourself feeling desperately unsure of what next to work towards.
Nem and Louise’s voices
Ultimately, looking back at these initial days, the word that we have all used is blurred – and this is a fundamental part of a shock reaction. Recall is not consistent, and that is frustrating at times. Perhaps in hindsight there would have been some merit in keeping a journal, but at the time it was very much a case of prioritising the most important aspects of getting through the day, with all other tasks falling away.
Anyone who has ever had to find out devastating news, particularly the death of a close relative, may relate to some of what we have written. No two situations are ever the same but, as we have discovered since losing Ian, grief and trauma can unite people and help to encourage empathy with those who have experienced similar loss. We all try to not think of the events leading up to and immediately after 12th September 2011, but we as a family we also know that it’s important to recognise and talk about them as part of the grieving process.
As always, thank you for reading.
Louise and Nem x