DILEMMAS: My husband has killed himself: how do I cope?
Six years ago Monique's husband of 20 years left home without a kiss or a note and killed himself - having been nothing more than rather bad-tempered for the previous six months - leaving her and her teenage daughter baffled and bereft. Monique still feels like a zombie, asking herself "why" all the time. How can she cope?
No, Monique's husband's other life was an internal life, a life of depression. For the last six months of his life he'd been unusually irritable. Not worth thinking about very much, perhaps, at the time, but a sign that he was struggling with something inside that he simply couldn't let out.
Why couldn't he have shared it with Monique? One of the symptoms of depression can be the destructive and lop-sided clarity it gives you. Yes, of course it's like a black cloud, a leaden fog that renders you incapable of feeling or joy, but there can also be an absolute certainty in depression, indeed a real feeling or knowledge that life is not worth living.
"Aha!" says the depressed person. "I've finally found the meaning of life! That it is non-stop suffering and agony. That any moment I had in the past when I thought it might be filled with hope and love was simply an illusion." They are also struck with the certainty that there is no cure and that no one could ever understand how they feel. It is in this mood that the suicidal person attaches the hose to the exhaust or chucks back the pill from the bottle. And it is as real a feeling for him as it is for the person on LSD who is convinced he can fly or for a schizophrenic who believes he is Jesus Christ.
Sometimes suicide might become confused with nobility. Perhaps Monique's husband's suicide also stemmed from a conviction, Captain Oates style, that his family would be better off without him. Perhaps it was a supreme sacrifice, an act, in a way, of love, to protect his innocent family from the rage, misery, violence and confusion that he felt. Perhaps he killed himself not because he loved his family too little but because he loved them too much. The thought that "they'll be better off without me" might have been real.
Monique may feel, at some point in the future, furious that he could have done something so irreversible without at least discussing it with her first. After all, most big steps, like moving house, moving jobs and so on, are at least talked over with other members of the family before a decision is reached. If he'd been so convinced, then why hadn't he at least mentioned it to her so she could have put another side to the argument? Depression's not like that. Depression is also incredibly painful, more painful, many would say, than any physical illness.
And this is another reason that he might have taken his own life; not because he wanted to kill himself so much as because he wanted to kill the depression. Suicides may want to kill their disease rather than kill themselves, but they are forced to throw out the baby with the bath water.
By concluding that her husband's death was a terrible accident of mental chemistry rather than having any rational causes, Monique may be able, slowly, to come to terms with this tragedy.
What readers say:
MONIQUE'S HUSBAND must have been severely depressed, but more than that, his actions speak of depression as a true illness and not a reaction to something seriously wrong in his life.
His death makes no sense, in the same way that being struck down by any other illness or killed through no fault of his own in an accident makes no sense. The best way to understand the death, because it is the most truthful way to understand it, is as a blow from outside that struck him down by cruel bad luck. This can only be a small help, for such deaths, in the prime of life, are amongst the most difficult to come to terms with. With time, it is at least possible to do so.
The difference is this; Monique finishes her letter by asking: "How could he have done this to us?" He didn't, a dreadful illness did it, just as certainly as if it had been cancer or a stroke that killed him. His memory is not to be blamed or questioned, only mourned.
I READ Monique's dilemma and my heart stopped. I was there 30 years ago. I had two small children, too small to know details at the time, so we have never talked about it. Monique's daughter knows, it is out in the open, it would be good if they could talk about it.
The difference from other sudden deaths is that natural causes are blameless; an accident or murder gives one a target for blame, but suicide is the awkward one - who do you blame? Well, yourself mostly. But that won't do; you have to learn not to. The only way to do that is to put the act into perspective.
In Monique's case blame him, the perpetrator of this terrible event, tell him what he did to you and your daughter. Write it, think it and say it to him in private. But feel sad and grieve for him as a victim, too, because he alone knew why he had to take his life.
Then live your life.
I AM a happily married mother of two lovely children. We have a nice home, few financial problems and many close friends. Yet I suffer from periodic bouts of acute depression. I am engulfed by feelings of black despair and plan my suicide meticulously. My family know nothing of this - just that I am sometimes quiet and withdrawn; and I have never attempted to kill myself, mainly because I can't bear to imagine my husband and children in Monique's position. Yet, at the worst times, consciousness itself becomes so painful to me that it subsumes my reason and compassion. Perhaps this explains why Monique has been stiff. I do not confide in others (a: in order to protect them from the worst of it; b: because I fear for my sanity; and c: because I don't feel that anyone can help). I'm sure her husband would be very sorry indeed if he knew the legacy he left her; but I don't doubt that he could have acted otherwise.
TWELVE YEARS ago my first husband committed suicide in the same way Monique's did. He walked out without saying goodbye, leaving me to bring up five children. Eighteen months after that, my mother also committed suicide.
To say that life was hell is a complete understatement, but I was absolutely determined that, come what may, the damage to the children must be minimised. Of course, they bear some mental scars - so will I for the rest of my life - but the one big decision which enabled me to deal with the past and go forward from there was that I must forgive.
No one commits suicide in such circumstances unless they are mentally ill and so cannot be held responsible for their actions. My first husband loved me and the children. So did my mother. But they were both ill.
I have told my children these simple truths. If we didn't all forgive, our lives would be filled with bitterness and none of us could ever be happy again.
Four years after my first husband's death, I met and married a wonderful man, with whom I am happier than I ever thought possible (and infinitely happier than during my first marriage, which was another complete surprise, as I thought I could never love or be loved again).
MONIQUE MUST try to understand that it was not that he would not tell her of his pain, but that he could not do so. Men who were young in the Fifties and early Sixties had years of training in the suppression of their emotions and the construction of a social shell of normality. In the grip of a profound depressive illness, it was literally impossible for him to talk to you about it.
There is nobody to blame; the tragic illness that took his life is no different in that sense from an attack of pneumonia.
Monique must cope by remembering him as the man she loved and who died of illness tragically young and, especially, as the father of her daughter. And, in remembrance of the brave fight he fought for six months, she must make sure that she learns to recognise the signs of depression, lest she finds herself one day looking into the abyss.
Dr HARRY YOXALL
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