First-Hand: I still grieve for my mother's suicide: When a mother kills herself, as it seems the Countess of Caithness did, the pain for her children can be unbearable. Jenny Danks tells her own story

Catherine Milner
Sunday 16 January 1994 01:02

I WAS at school the day she died. I was 16. I was called to headmistress's office, and she said 'You've got to go home immediately.' I wasn't told why.

I remember thinking 'Oh, something awful's happened.' The deputy headmistress drove me home, and on the way I saw a dead crow in the road. As soon as I saw it I knew. 'Oh God, Mother's dead,' I thought.

My aunt was in the kitchen with a neighbour when I got there. She said 'Go to Father'. In I went and my father and brother were there. When my father told me what had happened I tried to scream, and I know this sounds awful, but they tried to put their hands over my mouth. There must have been a doctor there because I can remember they gave me some tranquillisers, which I think is completely the wrong thing to do, but it wasn't their fault, it was just ignorance.

I got the message then - don't make a fuss. But for God's sake, I thought, my mother - the person I adored most in the whole world - had just died, and these people were saying you must be quiet, which was just extraordinary. People should be allowed to do as they do in some Eastern cultures, rip their clothes and go to pieces.

I don't remember if she was still in the house. My father had tried to hide the tablets from her but she'd found them in some old raincoat apparently. My memories of this period are very strange - vivid pictures with the rest blanked out. The one thing I remember is my aunt saying the next day 'Would you like to go and have your hair cut?' I looked at her and just thought 'You're mad] How can you say that? Here I am, my world has just fallen apart - how can I possibly go and sit in the hairdresser's? How could that possibly make any difference?'

I don't know why my mother killed herself - I don't think I ever tried to find out. She had tried a couple of times before though. I know that my mother gave up a lot of things when she got married. She was a very sociable person, but when she married my father, she was forced to join this very small religious group which he was very committed to. I've always felt she was very cut off from the life she'd had, and was very lonely. She was an extremely funny and delightful woman. She loved to entertain people, and was a good mimic and singer. All my mother's energy went into the family, and when we started growing up, I think she might have thought 'Well, what have I got?'

I was amazed to find this mother who'd been so communicative, so jolly and so close to had suddenly become very withdrawn. It coincided with that time in my life when I was trying to pull away from my parents, so I was irritated by the fact my mother wasn't what she'd been. I wanted her to be supportive and there, and I didn't understand why she'd changed and was terribly scared. The terribly sad thing is that my father didn't talk to me or my brother about it. He was going through hell at the time, but I think parents don't talk to their kids enough about their worries.

We'd been an incredibly close family, we spent all our time together. When my mother died that just went 'bang', and we didn't cope with what had happened. This was 1967, so there wasn't much in the way of counselling around. I have no memory of anybody saying 'Do you want to talk about it?' I just went back to school. None of my friends mentioned it; none of the staff mentioned it. People didn't come to the house any more and I felt acutely isolated. The other thing that was particularly horrid was that because we didn't talk about it, I didn't actually know the details of what had happened until I read it in the local paper.

Over the years, I almost pretended I'd never had a mother. I didn't talk about her or acknowledge the fact that I missed her. For ages, I'd see something in a shop and I'd go in and buy it for her, and then suddenly remember 'But, she's dead.' I remember secretly crying, but I'd always conceal the hankies, and make sure to wash them in case my father saw them.

Our salvation was this wonderful family we knew who asked us to come and live with them. I don't know what we'd have done if that hadn't happened. My father and I were just living on our own - it was ghastly. He had become extremely ill - no doubt as a result of his grief - and had got double pneumonia and pleurisy. I just threw myself into my A-levels.

I'm not sure you do ever recover. I think you learn to live with it. My mother's suicide was 27 years ago, and I still grieve terribly sometimes. I feel ashamed of crying about it as much as I did then. But I think if you grieve at the time you get rid of a lot more.

There's a terrible sense of abandonment and rejection when a parent commits suicide. It has given me a sense of insecurity. I have a feeling that things won't last, and that happiness won't last. There was a time when if I was in a relationship that was OK, I would leave it, simply because I was so afraid it would end. 'I'm never going to be left, I'm never going to feel this pain again,' I thought.

I married young, at 21. Ten years later we got a divorce. I was absolutely terrified of having children: I had this picture that mothers can't cope and then die. I don't feel like that any more, but it's a bit late now] My aunt, my mother's sister, committed suicide about eight years after my mother had done. They were very important to each other, even though they didn't get on terribly well. She wasn't very depressive although in the last couple of years she became very quiet, like my mother had done.

I knew I was unhappy, but I didn't know what was wrong. I tried to take an overdose myself, after my divorce, but it was fairly half-hearted and I survived. I was working like a lunatic as a form of therapy, and hadn't told anybody at work about my background. I'd get back from work and feel desperately miserable, but I still didn't acknowledge that my mother's death was causing my misery.

I've done quite a lot of different kinds of therapy. I went to a Jungian analyst who said that my attempt to kill myself was an attempt to get close to my mother - doing what she had done. I've done personal development workshops, which are tremendously good, and I've been to a couple of counsellors. I went to psychics a couple of times. They both had an immediate sense of my mother being there. One told me to go to her grave, and take her some yellow flowers. I wandered around and cried - it was very therapeutic. One of the psychics told me my mother had been ready to go; she was a free spirit but felt trapped. It was the only way out for her. This corresponded exactly with what I've always felt about her suicide. I've never taken drugs or anti-depressants. I am absolutely terrified of what they did to my mother. I'm writing a fictional novel at the moment about a girl whose mother commits suicide.

I still talk to my mother and write her letters. I rang up Cruse, the bereavement counsellors, and said can you counsel me? They said they couldn't deal with something whose relative died so long ago, which was sad. Lots of things have opened up my grief in very recent years, especially last year, when I reached the age my mother was when she died. I had this enormous fear that I wouldn't survive beyond 42.

I think I give the impression of being quite a happy person - which I am. At least, I have the capacity for great happiness as well as great sadness. My present relationship gives me an enormous sense of safety. I also go to a counsellor every week. She's a woman - I could only talk to a woman. I always talked to my mother much more than my father. We were like sisters. We had a wonderful, wonderful relationship, and so I've always associated closeness with women. I think I don't entirely trust men. I don't want to say that, but I think it's true. Because there's also a part of me that blames my father; none of these things are rational feelings, but there are times when I think 'Why didn't he do more?'

Actually, I understand why. I think he did everything he could have done. He was very supportive to my mother. This is the thing about suicide - you think, I could have done something, you could have done more. There's tremendous guilt always. It's misplaced though, because I think if someone really, really wants to die then they will, and they should probably be allowed to.

(Photographs omitted)

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