“Every day I wake up asking myself the same question – WHY?”
Families and loved ones of those who choose to end their own lives are all faced with the unanswerable question why? Even in those families where the deceased may have left notes, or attempted suicide before it might be hard to understand why someone they love took his or her own life. Suicide is often felt by those left behind as a reflection on them, a sign of failure to keep their loved one alive, failure to help them and alongside this the hurtful feeling of rejection
Sometimes suicide happens with no obvious prior warning and comes as a complete shock to the family / loved ones. Sometimes the threat has been present for a while or there has been depression and attempts before the act has succeeded. “Our son was ill for quite a few years, he was suffering depression and was receiving medication, Recently he had been receiving treatment that seemed to be doing him some good and we felt that he just might be getting better .On the morning of his death he phoned me and he sounded very chirpy he said he was looking forward to coming home at the weekend. It was a total shock when the police came and told us that he had taken his life .He had hung himself .
“I feel like I failed him ……I should’ve known he was going to do it ……..I am tortured by the thought that he died alone, that he must have been so much more depressed, unhappy than we knew .I feel physical pain that my son went through it alone ……..I will never forgive myself.”
Many children and adults contemplate suicide at some time in their lives. Those that consider it do not always follow through. In my experience there are no set patterns, the reasons can be many, a broken relationship, low self-esteem, loneliness and no-one to tell, the sense of despair in the lonely hours or feeling that life is not ever going to be how you want it to be. Unable to see an alternative, life seeming bleak, a future too frightening to face .a call for help, where actions speak louder than words
“If they know I want to die because of this they’ll take notice, they’ll be sorry when I’m gone”
The need to know ones value but irrationally believing that there will be acknowledgement of how much the individual means once they are gone: irrational because of course they will not be there to experience it. Suicide may feel like the only option for the teen who believes themselves to be ugly or whose acne has caused them to feel life is not worth living .The child that is bullied may be seeking release from tormenting piers or the child that fears failure or believes that they are not ever going to achieve anything good in life, may seek an escape
“My daughter was a happy girl …….never a problem always funny and lively until she became the focus of a group at school who over a period of time destroyed herself esteem with their comments and verbal abuse / bullying . She became introvert and refused to go anywhere without us .She said she would be better off dead …….I never for one moment thought those words were so seriously felt. I said something like ……..don’t be silly ………this is a phase, they are jealous of you .I said all those things that I felt were true, helpful and encouraging. Sometimes I got angry with her ……..just before she died I went to her room and said ……..
” Is this it then ……you going to let those girls win stay in your room ……never go out ?”
I shouted at her to pull herself together. When I got back from a shopping trip the house was quiet and I thought thank goodness she’s gone out …….I even thought, perhaps my shouting had done it finally made her get it together . I didn’t go to her room until supper time …..I went to put her laundry away and I couldn’t open the door .She had pushed her bed against the door and earlier that day maybe not long after my shouting she hanged herself …….she didn’t leave a note” .
On reflection this mother felt she had failed her daughter: Why hadn’t she recognised the depth of her daughters despair and why hadn’t she known how serious it was? She suffered the torments of should haves, would haves, and could haves. Had she failed her child? Do we as a society fail those who choose to end their lives? Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see how we might have reacted differently, but I have no doubt that the person who is seriously intent on suicide will eventually succeed. So where does this leave those left to manage life without their loved one. Unlike other types of death it leaves most with overwhelming feelings of guilt, failure and unanswered and unanswerable questions .Asked by anyone how their loved one died there is often added anxiety of how the truth may be received .The word ‘suicide’ is an unforgiving word; the very mention of it may cause the enquirer discomfiture, the fear of probing further, it raises unsaid and unspoken thoughts. The bereaved know those thoughts. Is suicide a statement of reflection on family? Does a person’s choice to die reflect the family’s failure to help him or her through the trauma he or she experienced, and ultimately were unable to face? What is the stigma -My child committed suicide, did I fail him /her?
We can only work within our experience of the present, the mother whose child hanged herself because of bullying hadn’t failed her child at all. She had practised her parenting skills to the best of her ability; she had listened, talked, encouraged and tried to boost her child.
“My ex-partner threatened to kill himself several times and there were two attempts. The first time I raced up the motorway to be with him he had overdosed but called paramedics himself. Afterwards we got back together and things did improve but deep down I knew I’d only got back with him because I felt responsible. I began to feel very depressed and after a visit to my gp was on medication. I became more down he became aggressive and at that point I wanted to leave. He said if I left he’d kill us both and on one occasion tried to drive the car off the road, after this I left him .I was called at work they said he’d tried to cut his wrists . Again I went to see him …..I felt so guilty because this time I wished he’d died .I tried to keep friends with him but he seemed unpredictable sometimes rational and accepting of our separation and of friendship, at others he’d threaten me or talk of ways he could kill himself. I was so depressed by it all that I had to give up work my life was collapsing. I felt trapped by him no escape ……every night I’d pray he would do it. Then he did. He took an overdose and drowned himself. At first I was so relieved and glad a weight lifted but now I feel responsible, guilty and I’m tormented by thoughts about it and a note he left saying he didn’t want to live without me and he was sorry. To be honest I feel relieved but don’t like myself for feeling it and I know those who know him blame me”
For some people, the relief of no longer living with the threat of another person’s suicide is enormous. These feelings mixed with grief for loss of the person, are complicated, confusing, difficult to talk about and express. .
“My daughter was a cutter she began self-harm about five years ago, at around 13 years old .I took her to see so many specialists sometimes it felt like things were better but then it would go downhill again. It was like riding an emotional rollercoaster. Our family lived on the edge never knowing what next .I tried so hard to keep her going but she seemed unreachable the last six months of her life were hell for all of us and when she took her life I felt thank God it’s over . I remember standing by her coffin at the chapel of rest and looking at her …….she looked peaceful at last. I miss her so much it’s incredibly painful but I am relieved that for all of us it’s over;”
It’s so isolating to feel relief and grief together.” In my experience the separation of the positive and negative aspects of life and death for those living on after suicide need to be expressed and accepted. I wrote in chapter 1 about our need when talking with the bereaved to make better, to offer positive thoughts and words and to disregard the negative. It is tempting to tell the bereaved loved ones of a suicide, that they have no blame and to hush their words with kind soothing remarks and actions But, in my experience this serves only to push inwards the unspoken words and thoughts and isolates them further.
“I feel, I know I am to blame, I know everyone thinks I could have done more although they don’t say it. I sometimes feel I want to wear a board saying …..My partner suicide it’s my fault ………that’s what I thin k they are thinking. “Some days I feel so angry with her for doing this. I think she was selfish …..We needed her how could our mother not want to live for us?” “My partner was diagnosed with terminal illness …….she was afraid of dying slowly and I know this was her way of controlling it. I know she didn’t want us to suffer it with her .I feel she did it for us , I understand it but I wish she had shared it with us I wish we had known how she felt and I think about her dying alone and it tortures me”.
I feel so very ashamed; I can’t grieve my son’s death because in choosing to kill himself he killed an innocent driver too. I cannot allow myself to grieve for him .I miss him so much ………Why did he do this? Why didn’t he tell me, Why didn’t he talk to me. I could have helped him. I would have been there more. I should have known. Why?” “I am haunted by his last moments …how much did he suffer. When I think about it, Oh my God its torture.”
Suicide, death by choice, has so many stigmas attached to it. It is this combination of stigmas and the sense of being judged that makes the bereaved feel isolated. There is fear of being labelled and being the focus of misinformed often cruel and judgemental gossip. The pain felt by the bereaved and their grief alongside those unanswered questions can be overwhelming .Sometimes the belief that they are to blame and the overwhelming guilt because of it .Did he/she really mean to do this? Could it have been a mistake?
“I don’t know whether I believe in God but it troubles me because someone said that suicide is a crime in God’s eyes and suicides cannot be buried on consecrated ground The minister at our church was very kind and supportive but I worry about my child …….it sounds bizarre to say that because I don’t know if there is a God or not.” “Someone said that it was disgusting that my husband killed himself. I feel so ashamed I don’t want people to know.”
Sadly suicide is so often seen as a reflection on a family and their life together, and this can add to the stigma .Most coroners are cautious to record death by suicide. Families are often fearful of such public statement. They may believe, if death is recorded as suicide then they will have to live with the unanswered questions and uncertainty forever.
“If the cause of death is publically recorded as suicide I will have to live with that forever.”
Once recorded the families are left with no alternative but to face the truth. There is no more of the grey area, where it may be said their loved one died by accident. The desire for death, rejection of life stares them brutally in the face and brings with it in so many cases, the suspicion of personal rejection. (Since this book was published in 2004 there has been much debate about death by choice and you will find more on this subject on the website along with details of agencies offering support.)
(c) Alex James Living With Bereavement 2004