'Their death was like a knife in my guts'

When both your parents take their own lives, your grief is more than doubled. How do you cope with the anger?

"On the day the Gulf war ended, 28 February, 1991, my mother killed herself. She put two plastic bags over her head. She had always been terrified of suffocation, and yet that was the way she chose to die."

At 76, Jo New's mother had been ill and depressed and, over the last five years, they had had many rows. "I think she resented the fact that I was busy living my own life, bringing up my two kids. I think she would have liked me to have had more time for her ... only it wouldn't have stopped her killing herself. Nothing I said or did would have made any difference to that. I actually felt a huge relief. I thought, 'Thank God she's dead, because I don't have to go through this any more; I don't have to watch her suffering.' It was awful to see her suffer."

The next six months were spent numbly trying to help her father come to terms with the shock of what had happened. "Then, suddenly, the shock got to me. It was a weekend, I think. I can't even remember a lot about it, except that something upset me and I flew into a rage and spent two days in tears. It was the first time I had cried. I felt totally out of balance. The acupuncturist I went to was very helpful and listened, then she put me in touch with a therapist. I also started doing yoga. The yoga restored my balance, and the therapist had to listen to me being angry and crying."

Two years later, on the anniversary of her mother's funeral, Jo's father gassed himself in his car. At 76, he felt he had nothing left to live for. "He'd had a busy job, always travelled a lot," says Jo, a cheerful woman with pink cheeks and ready smile, "and when, at 60, he retired, he missed that terribly. He aged almost the week he stopped work. Most of his retirement was spent looking after my mother, who was becoming physically ill and whose depression was getting worse.

"After she died, we got the occasional spark out of him, but how we dreaded it when he came round for meals! The children particularly hated it, but, bless them, they stayed in and did their best to cheer him up. He felt so isolated, you see. Most of his friends had died or drifted away. And suicide really does isolate you. There's so much shame and guilt attached. So he just tended to push people away."

Then, after his death, she, too, found it hard to face people, even those she knew well. Even some of her oldest friends found it hard to talk about her parents. "If I said something like, 'Do you remember when ...?' they'd shy away. Some people find the word 'suicide' incredibly difficult, and I now realise it is because, deep down, they think it is wrong. They think, 'God gave you life, you shouldn't take it away, it's self-murder.' Which it is. Others say, 'Of course people have the right to take their own lives', but I can tell you it's a very different matter when they happen to know that person. They are then forced to realise they didn't know that person after all. I mean, how can someone accept you had the energy or the strength - no, courage is the right word - to take your own life?"

Before he died, her father wrote her a letter. "I didn't even have to open it. I knew. I dashed round to his house straight away and found him in the garage. He looked so comfortable, dignified almost. I remember thinking it was nice he chose that way because he loved his car.

"I wasn't in the least surprised. He repeatedly told me he was thinking of ending his life. Suicide was always an option for him. When he was eight years old, a woman had walked into the sea and, later, he had seen the body on the beach. Whether or not it was as a result of this experience, I don't know, but he always felt suicide was a perfectly reasonable option. If you've had enough of your life, you can always end it. He really was that matter-of-fact about it."

Jo had been a Samaritan for eight years and thought she could handle all of this. "I'd listened to people on the phone saying they felt suicidal, but of course it was totally different listening to someone you love. At first he'd just say things like, 'Oh, I don't suppose I'll be around for much longer', and I thought, 'So you're going to do it, too', and I didn't ask, I didn't want to hear...

"He made one attempt - I think it failed because he wasn't ready to die. But, increasingly, he needed to talk - and the only person he would talk to was me. At first, he spoke of his feelings and about people he met. I must say, for a bloke, he was a talker; men don't usually talk about their feelings, do they? Later, he wanted to sort out things like bank accounts so that I could deal with his funeral. He was trying to make it as easy as possible ... and I sort of cringed.

"I didn't want to know how he was going to do it, I couldn't handle that, and I certainly couldn't handle knowing when - but later on, he couldn't hold back on how despairing he felt. It was terrible listening to him. I knew he would do it, I just knew."

She decided she would cope with his possible death very differently from the way she had coped with her mother's: "There was so much anger between her and me." This time, she would prepare herself. "So I shut myself in my office for two days and made myself really face the pain. Eventually I thought, 'Just suppose he had cancer, I would be able to cope because I could say all the things I wanted to say and then let go. It won't make his death any easier, but at least I will have said goodbye.'

"As a result I was able to say to him, 'OK, tell me what you're feeling and what your fears are.' I didn't do it brilliantly - I found it very sad, and I cried - but I actually did manage to ask those questions and listen to his answers. Before, when he had said, 'I am so despairing', I would just switch off because I couldn't bear it.

Now that I was able to listen to how he felt, I was able to tell him how I felt: like, I hate what you're doing but, if you really have to do this, then I will accept it, it is your life - but I can't endure the thought that you will kill yourself."

Her husband, Ivor, was, she says, extremely supportive. "Yet all this time I was pushing him away, I don't know why." And did he understand? "Sort of. Only because he knew my parents and what they were like."

Her parents' deaths were, she says, "like a knife in my guts. It was a huge rejection that neither of them thought my children were worth living for. Or that I, their only child, was worth living for. The kids were very angry. So was my husband. Not just because of the effect on me, but on our marriage, all of us, and I suddenly realised I was livid."

Three years on, she has come to terms with the fact that her parents chose to die and that it was their right to do so. "That's when the healing begins. I suppose it was easier to forgive my father because I was closer to him and knew more about his feelings. It was much harder to forgive my mother because of the anger that existed between us. But, yes, I've forgiven her too - I actually loved her very much. I now know that anyone who is that depressed, that intent on dying, cannot think beyond their own pain."

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