It’s the questions that haunt you.
Long after the initial shock has subsided, and the funeral flowers have faded, the unanswered and unanswerable questions that a suicide leaves in its wake echo over and over again in your head no matter how hard you try to shut them out.
Why didn’t she call us?
Why didn’t she ask for help?
How did we not know?
What was she thinking?
How could she do this to the people she loved?
How could she do this to us?
Why? Why? Why?
If, as someone described it, suicide is “grief with the volume turned up” then the suicide of a child cranks it up to 11 and beyond. The sudden death of any loved one hits you with a sledgehammer to the stomach that makes you weak at the knees and sucks the air from your lungs; the intense shock of a suicide shakes you to the core, paralysing you with fear and anxiety as you feel your whole world give way beneath your feet. Disbelief quickly dissolves into anguished, primal howls of despair and floods of tears that you think will never end.
And almost immediately, you start asking the questions, seeking answers to the unexplainable, desperately looking for something or someone to blame. Something to be the focus of all your anger, frustration and raw anguish. Anything but having to accept the unacceptable: that your child alone did this to herself. There is no cancer or other hideous terminal disease to blame. No drunk driver, no gunman, no freak airplane crash. At some point you have to accept the cold, harsh reality that your child deliberately took her own life.
You start to question whether you really knew your child at all and even whether love – the deep unconditional love that only a parent knows – can ever be enough when it couldn’t protect them when they needed it most. You search in vain back and forth through your lives in search of anything – family history, a bad childhood experience, an unintended slight, substance abuse – that will somehow explain how this could possibly have happened.
You worry about the impact on your surviving children and family and want to wrap them them in cotton wool to protect them from a world that suddenly seems frightening and fragile. There’s a feeling of helplessness because you cannot fix it for them and there is nothing you can do to make it easier except to reassure them that it was not their fault and there was nothing they could have done or said to prevent it.
My wife and I have been as honest with our teenaged children as possible about the death of their sister, Jessica. We have not been ashamed to share our tears and pain, and made sure they were involved in the funeral arrangements and able to make their own personal goodbyes. We are trying to use this awful experience to stress to them about how important it is that they are not afraid to express their feelings or worries, however bad they may seem, and – given the demons of alcoholism and depression that seem to stalk both sides of our family – that they should never be afraid to ask for help. That goes for us grownups too.
When a suicide is totally unexpected and comes with no note, neither a fatalistic past pattern of failed suicide attempts, nor the revolving doors of rehab or mental institutions, the questions are harder and the answers even more elusive. A coroner’s report can confirm the how and when of a suicide death but it can never explain the why, never fully bring closure.
People I have spoken to who have survived suicide attempts or come within a hair’s breadth of acting on one, tell me that in that moment, it seems the most logical – even selfless – thing in the world to do; a genuine belief that killing oneself is the best option and that everyone will be better off without you. I have suffered from depression but even in my darkest days the thought of suicide has never crossed my mind. I’ve always known my moods were transitory and that there was still much to live for. I cannot imagine the place in which Jessica found herself, somewhere so dark and painful that she could see no escape. Or worse, no future, even though she was deeply loved by so many.
The questions will never go away but as I come to accept that there can never be any answers, they will neither echo as loudly nor as frequently and the physical pain of grief, that daily nauseous knot in the stomach, will gradually ease. Why and how my daughter took her life at just 25 will eventually matter less than the simple fact that she is gone. What will remain is the emptiness and the longing for a part of my life that will never be replaced.
In the meantime, we work through our grief the best we can, drifting through the ordinary and familiar that have now become surreal and painful reminders of what we have lost.
The words of the author C.S. Lewis, writing after the death of his wife, resonated deeply with me in the weeks after Jessica’s death. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
“At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty.”
But while life will never be the same, I know from the experience of losing my brother at 19 and then my father a few years later – both as sudden and as unexpected as my daughter’s, but not suicidal – that life will go on and there are unborn joys and happy memories yet to be made before death comes calling again, as it inevitably must. I think about the happiness that my children and nieces have brought to our family – all but one unborn when my brother died and how such joy seemed unimaginable in the depths of that despair.
It is the continuum of life and our natural survival instinct that gives me hope that while I may never get over this, I will get through it. It’s not about “being strong” or “brave”, it’s about acknowledging the pain and allowing the grieving process to take its course, not to numb it – as I know I did in the past – with alcohol or drugs, or bury it beneath work.
Tim Lawrence, who writes courageously and unflinchingly about grief and loss in his blog The Adversity Within, puts it like this: “Every time this [grief] happens, I don’t fight it. I stand in it. I accept these feelings as part of my journey; as testaments to the grief and love I will feel in some form for the rest of my life. Then, and only then, do I rise up. By refusing to flee from grief I move forward, into the beauty and uncertainty of the future, and choose life.”
You don’t need to pray for me or worry about what to say to me when we meet. I may not believe in your God, heaven and the life hereafter, but I have great faith in the restorative power of a spontaneous hug, the kindness of strangers and the simple, silent act of you being with me, rather than have you search in vain for “the right words”. Sometimes there just aren’t any, and that’s OK.
As I write this, two months since that awful, grey Sunday when the rain poured so hard it felt like the world was crying, I have bad days and not so bad days. On the not so bad days, I try to be as productive as possible because on the bad days, the overwhelming weight of sadness is as exhausting and debilitating as the worst migraine and I just lie down and sleep for an hour or two.
There are days when I feel fearless, grateful for the gift of being alive, and able to cope with anything. After all, what could possibly be worse or more difficult to face than your child’s suicide? Then there are days when the world seems so trivial and irrelevant that the slightest little thing can set me off.
Talking to people helps. So does writing. Laughter too. A bike ride, a swim or taking the dog for a long walk usually lifts the spirits for a while. Other times I escape into a novel or a movie. Work is a distraction but at the moment focusing for any length of time is hard – and that’s with ADHD medication!
Grief, as this anonymous piece I read on Facebook aptly describes, comes in waves:
“When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
“In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything … and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
“Somewhere down the line – and it’s different for everybody – you find that the waves are only 80 or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming for the most part – an anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas – and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.”
For now, I am treading water, buffeted nauseously up one wave and down another. But I am not drowning and slowly I can begin to reach out for the lights on the distant shore.
In loving memory of Jessica Gibbons
(August 24, 1990 – April 3, 2016)