Suicide: the loved ones left behind

EVERY year, around 5,000 people in Britain commit suicide - one person every two hours. For men aged between 15 and 34, it is now the second most common cause of death, after car accidents. Under-reporting by coroners, concerned to protect the family, means the real figures are likely to be much higher. And they are growing all the time: suicide among men under the age of 25 has risen by 75 per cent since 1982. It has become such a pressing issue that last year's government White Paper, 'The health of the nation', set a target to reduce suicide numbers by 15 per cent by the year 2000.

But there is another side to the story: the spouses, parents, children, partners, siblings and friends left behind. Suicide of a loved one brings intense feelings of failure and guilt - that you could not alleviate their suffering, that you did not see 'the signs', that you were somehow responsible for their actions. At the same time, family members may feel very angry that the suicide victim never shared their despair, that they left others to cope with all these emotions, and with the social stigma.

Here, four people tell Elizabeth Udall how they were bereaved by suicide and how they coped with the aftermath.

THE BROTHER

David Gill, a taxi driver, is 54 and lives in Kent. He is divorced and has two grown-up children. In 1968 his mother, Louisa, committed suicide. Three years ago his sister, Brenda, also took her own life.

I was the eldest of seven children. We grew up in Southend, Essex, and were very close - even more so when my father died when I was 14.

By the time I got married, however, mum had become withdrawn and rarely went out. She had been prescribed drugs for depression.

There was going to be a big christening party for our new baby but mum didn't show up. I was furious. I went to see her the following day and we had a terrible row.

The next morning my younger sister, Marion, called to say mum had been taken to hospital following a suicide attempt. She had found her on the kitchen floor - she had gassed herself. I rang the hospital and they told me mum had been dead on arrival.

My reaction was a mixture of an immense sense of loss and anger. It was all right her popping her clogs, but she had left me with the responsibility of six brothers and sisters, three of them still at home.

I also felt guilty. I was very close to mum and I am convinced our argument was a contributory factor in her taking her life. But the anger wasn't going away. I had sacrificed my youth and late teens to help her bring the kids up and now, just when I was starting to be responsible for a family of my own, I had to think about it all over again.

People who had been our friends now crossed the street when they saw us and we were known as 'the nutty family'.

There seemed to be no counselling in those days, so we all just got on with it. None of us ever discussed it, and in retrospect I think that was very damaging. In the ensuing years the family disintegrated and my marriage collapsed.

My sister Brenda got married and had two kids, but then separated from her husband. Over time she became schizophrenic and I started to visit her more and more, listening to her, holding her hand. I always tried to leave her with pleasant thoughts. But I recognised the danger signals.

Then one night my girlfriend woke me up to tell me that she had just had a call. Brenda was dead. I knew immediately that she had killed herself.

Her daughter, who was about 13, had found the body. She had taken in the washing line, thrown it over the banisters and hanged herself. I am sure for Brenda the suicide was a pleasant release.

Some days I feel as if I am screaming inside but I wouldn't think of getting help. Talking just churns things up for me. You have to go on living, don't you? I have every intention of dying of old age. But, as much as I loved my mum, I can never forgive her. Because of the way she chose to die we have all endured years of humiliation. And all the happy times together as a family stopped. She didn't think of all the poor sods she would leave behind. It's just not fair.

THE SON

In 1980 Daniel Percival's mother, the writer and broadcaster Jacky Gillott, committed suicide. She was 40, he was 15. Daniel is now a producer and director for the BBC. His latest film follows the stories of three people bereaved by suicide.

My mother was a deeply unhappy woman. Despite her professional success she felt she had failed in her work. She also believed she had failed as a mother to me and my brother, Matthew, who is a year older than me.

My earliest memories are of my mother being angry and distressed, and then immensely apologetic. We began to suppress our own needs to avoid adding to her troubles.

On one occasion, as we drove along, she suddenly burst into tears and pulled over. 'Daniel, I've been thinking of killing myself,' she said. I was very scared - I knew how serious she was - and pleaded: 'Please don't do that. We love you.' But I felt it was a secret between us and did not share it with anyone.

One day I returned from school to a quiet house. My brother and dad were out, and mum was asleep upstairs - she was an insomniac and often tried to make up her sleep in the daytime. At about 6.30pm I took up her tea.

I have since been told that, after taking an overdose, she had tried to block the door. Letters were strewn all over the room, and she was probably suffocating on her own vomit. But I simply laid down her tea and left the room. I made myself some supper and watched television. When Matthew and my father arrived and dad went upstairs, I knew what he would find. I felt I was sitting on some dirty secret.

All my adult life I have felt responsible for allowing something so ghastly to happen. If my parent needed to leave me, I must have failed as a child. I wonder if I could have been more understanding; listened to her more.

After a while, I stopped mentioning how she had died because people would say, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' and look at you as if they had trodden in a dog turd. But two years ago when I did tell a friend, I started shaking - and it hit me that I had never grieved for my mother. I had not dared think of myself because as children we had learnt to be selfless around mother.

What I hate most is that she had this romantic notion of suicide. But suicide is a brutal, messy, ugly, hurtful thing to do. I do not deny anyone the right to end their own life and I still respect my mother's choice, but I feel immense anger at the self-obsession that led her to do it.

I have had therapy, yet still find it hard to believe I am needed in my relationships with women. I try to take on all their pain, and worry that those I become close to will kill themselves. At my mother's funeral I remember thinking: 'Thank God you've gone. You wound me up so much.' But I felt immensely guilty about that. I would rather have grown up with a difficult parent than a dead one. I'd give anything to have her alive today.

Daniel Percival's film 'Picture This: You're Better Off Without Me' is shown on BBC 2 on 25 October.

THE WIFE

Jennifer Marling (not her real name) lives alone in Northern Ireland and works as an auxiliary in a psychiatric hospital. Now in her forties, she has three grown-up children. Her husband, William, committed suicide on Christmas Day 1992.

William had physically abused me for most of our married life. When I decided I was going to leave him he took an overdose, so I stayed. After that the abuse was just verbal, usually after he had taken a drink. Sometimes I wished him dead, but still lived in fear of finding him like I had after his overdose.

It was approaching Christmas and our three children were all going to be around. We should have been so happy. But then William started having a go at me. He had drunk almost a whole bottle of vodka. He accused me of having an affair with someone at work. He took a knife from the kitchen drawer and said: 'I'm going out and I'm taking you with me.'

He had me up against the back door. My mum had died the previous September and he said: 'You lost your mother and she loved you. I still have mine and she doesn't' It sounds bizarre, but I really felt for him then. After a while he seemed to lose his anger and went to bed. When I returned from walking the dog the next morning, William told me to leave him alone.

I made a few trips with presents to my son Tony's house, all the time trying to persuade William to come with me. The last time I came back I opened my presents, but William didn't bother. That really annoyed me so I threw his gifts into the bedroom and said: 'Get up and see what it's like to open your Christmas boxes on your own.' Then he opened one of the gifts I had bought him and there were tears in his eyes. He grabbed me and said: 'Promise me you'll go to Tony's for your dinner.'

At Tony's I couldn't stop crying, so he took me back home at 4.30. The TV was on with the sound down and all the lights were off except the one in the cubby hole in the hall. William was hanging there. The note he left just said: 'Sorry. Look after the children. Love Willie.' I always took all the tablets in the house with me. I never thought he'd use a rope.

I was back at work within five weeks. A psychiatrist said it would help to write a letter to William. I wrote 120 pages. Then I started going to a group set up by Cruse for people bereaved by suicide.

I felt I was being whispered about for a long time. People said he was cruel and wanted to hurt me. I suppose I believed that for a while. But someone might be a bugger all their life and you still love them. William was in turmoil. I think he felt the best thing was to leave me in peace.

Last year I put up the Christmas tree and took it down again immediately. But this year it will stay up. The grandchildren would only wonder where it was.

Cruse Bereavement Care can be contacted on 081-332 7227 (help line) or 081-940 4818 (information).

THE MOTHER

Denise Watson's son Matthew was 31 when he committed suicide four years ago. She is 60, lives alone in Bristol and works for Compassionate Friends, an organisation run by bereaved parents for bereaved parents.

Matt was tremendously gifted - he won an open scholarship to Oxford. But after graduating he seemed unable to find a direction or to build satisfactory relationships. This culminated in him joining a religious order, for want of a better name.

I had no contact with him for three years, and when he eventually got out he saw a psychiatrtst for six months. But within months he was tense and withdrawn again. He worked sporadically, but a lot of the time he was at home. It was like walking on eggshells whenever we were together. So I just tried to be there for him - make his meals and hope that, if he did want to talk, I would be around.

I know now that Matt must have been contemplating suicide. Three weeks before he killed himself, he gave his father a photograph he particularly liked and sent flowers to his workplace thanking his colleagues for all they had done for him. The day it happened, there was this tremendous sense of calm. He went out for a walk - and fell to his death in the Avon gorge.

For three days I lay on my bed not knowing if it was day or night. But that numbness enabled me to plan Matt's funeral. I went to see him in the funeral parlour, too, and that helped me to come to terms with what had happened.

It was about three months later, when my wits started to return, that I desperately needed help. I wanted to talk to other parents who had experienced the loss of their child in circumstances as near as possible to those of Matt's death - and that is where the Compassionate Friends came in.

Fifteen years ago they set up a sub-group within the organisation called Shadow of Suicide. I talked to other mums going through the same feelings of guilt. Why hadn't we known, why couldn't we have talked our children round, why hadn't they confided in us? We were convinced at that point that, if only they had talked to us, we could have turned their lives around.

I made friends with three of the nine women in the group. We rang each other on bad days - luckily we never had bad days together - and they often came round for lunch.

The Compassionate Friends are now liaising with Professor H G Morgan, a leading authority on suicide prevention. He believes that by providing what he calls a 'psychological autopsy' of each situation - a mini-biography written by the parents, which cites what they consider to be key factors in the run-up to their child's suicide - he will be able to build up a picture that may enable other parents to see the warning signs.

Eventually strength does come to you, and if you can add the strength of others, you can get through it.

The Compassionate Friends and Support in Bereavement for Brothers and Sisters can be reached on 0272 539639.

(Photographs omitted)

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