**Trigger warning – contains discussions about suicide and relays traumatic events**
My previous blog left us in the initial week after Ian had died. The five months following brought a chain of events which were necessary from both a practical point of view, and in beginning to process the trauma of what had happened. The events punctuated this period of muddled days and weeks as we stumbled through.
Two of the first significant events happened on the same day, which was both fortunate and awful. On the same morning that we cleared Ian’s belongings from his house, we were finally allowed to read the note which he left. This was partly down to practicalities – the need to travel to Southampton meant we could collect the note from the police station where it was being held. Mum and I waited in the car while Dad went in to the building to speak to the PC who we had been liaising with – or at least trying to liaise with. I am sorry to say that our experience of dealing with this particular officer was not a positive one. He was dismissive, elusive and seemed to be significantly lacking in skills when communicating with distressed families. Dad emerged from the building and eventually, after some relentless and fairly desperate pursuit, we were able to read a photocopy of the note that Ian had left. I recall sitting in the car, my eyes almost moving too quickly through the words to take them in. I was so desperate to know the content of the note that I was almost sabotaging my reading of it.
I have had various conversations over the years with people bereaved by suicide who have had differing experiences of notes. Some whose loved one did not leave a note and they wished that they had; some whose loved one did not leave a note and they felt indifferent about it; some whose loved one did leave a note and they wished they had not; some whose loved one had left a note and it gave them a great deal of comfort. Clearly, the tone of the note will have a huge impact on how it is received and the legacy which it leaves. A note can offer enormous relief or present enormous complexity. It can evoke peace or it can evoke anger. I can only say that I am grateful to Ian for leaving the note which he did, which was full of love, and sadness, and explanation. There was no blame or anger towards any individual, group or organisation. He took total responsibility for where he found himself and he ensured that there was no uncertainty about his intention. It was like a hug goodbye from my beloved brother, and I continue to find comfort in reading it.
From here, the three of us went to Ian’s house to clear his room. I was very anxious about this, as we weren’t sure what we would find behind that door. The truth was that it was a terribly sad picture which we found in this small room, in the corner of a small house in a small city, and we braced ourselves with bin bags and boxes and packed everything away as quickly as we could. Obviously all evidence relating to the coroners enquiry had been kept by police, so we were not faced with any distressing items which told directly of what happened. We met a couple of Ian’s housemates. I felt desperately sorry that something so awful had happened in their house – in their home – and I wondered whether they would continue to live there; I am not sure how I would feel in those circumstances. One of Ian’s housemates in particular was very helpful, lifting heavier items down the stairs for us and trying as hard as he could to make this necessity as quick and painless as possible. I remember as we were pulling away from the house in the car, which was packed up with Ian’s things, a neighbour allowed our car to pass her, and she smiled and bowed her head as we went. At the time I felt a bit confused by it, but in hindsight I guess she could tell who we were and what we were doing. I had not considered until that point that Ian’s neighbours may have had to watch the events unfold as his body was discovered and emergency services did their work over the subsequent hours. It must have been a horrible day for them.
I want to mention that my sister Nem was not with us on this day, and this was because she had – unbelievably – just started university. I am still in awe of her for feeling able to take this step. It was less than two weeks after Ian had died that she moved out of home for the first time and started as a fresher at university. She had to meet new people, get her head round a completely new way of studying, find her way around a new city and settle in to a whole new life less than a fortnight after losing her big brother. In the days after Ian died we spoke about what she was going to do – I could not have even entertained doing something so enormous. But after some consideration, she emerged with a strong conviction that she needed to carry on with her plans. She saw no benefit in deferring, or in dropping out without even trying. To this day I am so proud of her for doing this, and slightly bemused as to how she found the strength. As my Dad said, “bravery runs in the family”, and my little sister has this quality in spades.
I had been to my doctor after one week of self-certificating to obtain a note, as I was nowhere close to being fit for work. My GP at this time was a fantastic man. He constantly ran late and would rush hurriedly into the waiting room, flustered and flushed, because he spent more time than was allotted with each patient, and this in turn served to ensure that his clinics were always fully booked with devotees. As I told him what had happened, his eyes became dotted with tears and he told me that he had lost his brother recently too. He asked me whether I had thought about viewing the body, and I immediately said I did not want to do this. In my mind I remembered the way Ian looked following his suicide attempt in 2004, and I did not need that visual again. My GP gently asked me to just think carefully about this decision, as he explained that in many cases – his own included – viewing the body could help with processing what has happened, especially in the case of a sudden death, and could leave loved ones with a sense of peace. I promised him I would at least think about it more. I honestly think that if we had not had that conversation I would not have thought twice about my initial decision. I may well have lived to regret not giving it more consideration.
My poor husband Joe’s 40th birthday fell twelve days after Ian died. All the plans we had made for celebrations with family and friends were cancelled. On the day itself we went round to Joe’s sister’s house – she cooked us dinner and we stayed the night. And then, on his first day of being 40, my wonderful husband drove me 150 miles to view Ian’s body at the undertakers. I had thought a lot about what my GP had said, and I had spoken to various friends and family members about it. Mum and Dad had gone to see Ian themselves and found it a positive thing to do. So I steeled myself and hoped that it would be a helpful step, not a distressing one. I can’t say that it was an easy thing to do, but it definitely helped me to process what had happened. Once you have seen your loved one in their coffin, there is little room for denial or disbelief. It’s a cliché, but Ian did look peaceful and I have carried that final image with me since, often trying to use it to replace distressing images when they have arisen over the years. I am forever thankful to my GP for prompting me to think in more detail about this aspect of the loss.
I was signed off work for about another month following the funeral.* I know that some people function much better if they throw themselves back into work and routine following a bereavement, but I was definitely not one of those people. My brain felt like a huge mess of wet cotton wool and I couldn’t think straight for a long while. My job at the time was as a deputy manager in a home for nine people with learning disabilities. I knew that I was incapable of doing my job at this stage. Unfortunately, I began to feel pressured by work to return, with my boss even remarking that she didn’t think that I wanted to lose my job. This terrified me and ultimately I returned to work before I was ready. I expressed my fears about making a mistake, letting down colleagues or service users, or just generally being a waste of space. I was assured that I would come back on a phased return and that I would be purely office-based for at least six weeks. Of course, in reality this did not happen. I tried really hard, but I recall opening my emails about a month after I had returned, and knowing instantly that I could not complete any of the tasks which awaited me that day. I pretty much turned round and walked straight back out and took myself to the doctor, who signed me off again. I really should have listened to my gut feelings about not being ready to go back to work, and I would urge anyone else in my situation to do the same.
After the funeral, we knew at some stage we would need to decide what to do with Ian’s ashes. I have since reflected on the fact that dealing with ashes is a task that people often refer to whimsically, almost flippantly ; “We went and scattered her ashes in her favourite spot on the hills, it was lovely”, etc. etc. I had never been involved with any ashes up until this point; I had no idea what to expect but did not feel the slightest bit worried about it. As far as I was concerned, the emotionally difficult part would have been the funeral, and we had passed that particular landmark. As a family, we chose to have Ian’s ashes interred in the graveyard of the church where we held his funeral. I barely gave it much thought to be honest, thinking that it would be something of a formality – just a necessary task to complete. In reality, I found it horrific.
It was a wet, windy day in November as we stood around a tiny hole in the ground where my brother was going to be placed. I had assumed that the ashes would be in an urn and that the urn would be placed in the ground. I was not prepared to see the ashes and to watch them being poured into the hole. For some reason I found this incredibly upsetting. I did not want to see the ashes of my brother – how could this pile of grey dust be all that was left of him? I found it truly traumatising, probably in part because I had been so unprepared to find it challenging. As I remember us all huddled together on that grey, cold day, it feels like it was almost the lowest point in all the low points of those months. Since that day I have felt confused about whether other people find seeing the ashes hard, as no one before or since has ever expressed this to me as a notably difficult part of bereavement.
We got through Christmas that year, my son keeping us all going and forcing a few smiles. It was such a blessing that he was there, even though at times it was – and has remained so on many occasions – hard to be the parent that I wanted to be. After Christmas came January, and Ian’s birthday. Mum, Dad and Nem came down to my house and I made pie and mash for tea – one of Ian’s favourite dinners. The first year after the death of a loved on contains so many ‘firsts’ which you have to brace yourself for. We did this as a strong family unit and I have been and always will be grateful to have such amazing support around me.
Later in January came the final event concerned with Ian’s death, which was the inquest. We did not know exactly what to expect, but we did receive all the paperwork which was going to be discussed in advance of the day. This included reports from the police and the paramedic, who was first on the scene. Very difficult reading, but having this information did at least give a very clear picture of exactly what had happened on September 12th 2011. I think I can safely say that we all felt hugely anxious as we waited to go into the Coroner’s Office. The less-than-helpful police officer who we had dealt with throughout the process was waiting with us. He commented, “I have never been to one of these before”, almost like it was something to do with his professional development or something a bit different to do in a day’s work. I am not a violent person but on that morning I could quite happily have smacked him in the face for his lack of sensitivity and total inability to read the situation. The coroner himself had a very gentle approach, and this was a relief as it would have been horrible if everyone we had dealt with had lacked the emotional intelligence needed. The verdict in Ian’s case was an easy one to reach due to the method of his suicide, the note that he left and the evidence from police, paramedics and Ian’s employer, who was also present. There was no doubt this was an intentional act. The police officer surpassed himself at the end of the hearing when, out of a plastic evidence bag he produced the clothes that Ian had been wearing and an item which had been used by Ian in completing his suicide, and asking if we wanted to keep them. It beggars belief that he did this. I am still lost for words about it really.
One final event was around the corner which, even at this point in mid-January, we were unaware was coming. You may recall if you read Blog number 4 in this series that I mentioned our family was hit with numerous tragedies between January 2010 and February 2012. On Valentine’s Day 2012, my Uncle – Mum’s brother – died of cancer, just three weeks after diagnosis. If you have followed my series of blogs you might also piece together that this meant, in the space of two years, my poor mother had lost her dad, her mum, her son, and now her brother. Three of these deaths were unexpected and sudden. And so, we had another family funeral to attend; the first one since Ian’s, five months prior. Another ‘first’ in a year of ‘firsts’. It was an impossibly hard day, and I recall Nem and I just clinging to one another and trying our best to support our cousins and aunt as best we could – I’m not sure how successful a job we did really. Uncle David and Ian were very similar in lots of ways, they shared the same sense of humour and it was always amusing when they were in a room together. Uncle David had been knocked for six by Ian’s death as he had so successfully masked his depression and given no clue as to this side of him. I remember Uncle David saying to me at Ian’s funeral that we should soon try to get together somewhere other than a wake. That was the last time I saw him, and little did I know how loaded this comment would eventually be. We could not believe that he had gone so quickly after his diagnosis, and after Ian. My mum’s side of the family had been through an unbelievable time.
This is the final part of Ian’s story that I want to record in writing. In saying this, I do not mean that it is the end of the story, or the end of what I have to say. The fallout from Ian’s life and death goes on; every blog I have ever written and will ever write is part of the legacy of suicide. I don’t think I would ever have begun writing if Ian had not died, but having started I find that however much I write there is always more to say. In terms of a chronological account, however, this is where I want to leave it. This is partly because after we had completed all these rituals associated with saying goodbye to Ian, as a family we then had to somehow begin to adapt to life. The rituals had passed by, simultaneous and conflicting, with both a punctuated set of jolts and in an indistinct haze. The comparative busy-ness and task-oriented nature of the initial period after the death meant that once the undertakings were done, life felt without direction – a sudden vortex of What The Hell Do We Do Now? We knew we had to carry on and that this was life now, but we had no clue where to begin. It was a case of muddling through the days, then weeks, then months without any significant events to work towards. It was a case of this being our new norm, and for a very long time, it was a huge fug of bewilderment. The chronology of events within this fug from February 2012 onwards is actually quite hard to recall.
When Ian died, Life 1 ended and Life 2 began. It really does feel that clear cut. If I look back at photographs from the summer weeks before September 12th 2011 I see relaxed, naïve smiles, blissfully ignorant to what was around the bend. Life 2 has been made up of brick walls and breakthroughs, surging sobs and speculative smiles. It is unpredictable, erratic. The issues and thoughts go on and on and I get so bored of them. There has not – as yet – been an end to the sadness. As time has passed I have of course felt happiness – huge swathes of joy at times, which have got larger and longer at various points – but the sadness is always there in some way. Sometimes it is a niggle in the back of my head, an irritating twitch behind my eyes which will not stop. Other times it begins in the pit of my stomach and rises all the way up through every vital organ like cement filling a hole. Sometimes it feels that only a millisecond has passed since September 12th 2011, other times I feel I have lived a lifetime in those years. Sometimes when I wake up I still cannot believe that Ian has gone – it feels impossible that I have not heard his voice for seven and a half years. Other times he feels like a distant stranger – I can barely remember how it was to have a brother. This is the nature of bereavement by suicide. It is complex and confusing but, just occasionally, there is a feeling that life has somehow been enriched from the horrendous loss. This is the reality of what happens, in life Beyond the Black Dog.
My hopes were varied when I began this mini-series of what has eventually turned into six blogs. I hoped that I would be able to do justice to the story of Ian’s life and the impact of his depression in a way that he would have approved of. I hoped that by telling his story it might challenge some taboos, start some conversations, or just highlight the topic of mental illness and suicide. I hoped that it might give some comfort to anyone who is facing what we faced, and I hoped that it might fill in some gaps for people who knew Ian, but who had been left with questions after he died.
Finally, I hoped that the process of writing it might in itself help me to place events more firmly in the past.
Only time will tell if it has done this.
As ever, thank you for reading.
* I have not mentioned the funeral in any detail in this blog, as I have previously written a blog on the subject – see A Eulogy to a Funeral if you want to read more.