Thoughts on the German air tragedy, mental health and capability

I wasn’t going to write anything around the GermanWings tragedy, for a number of reasons, but I was encouraged to, so I have. If you haven’t yet read the statements from Time To Change and Mind about media coverage,  please do.

Against my better judgement, earlier today, I also read the comments below some pieces about it:

“People with histories of mental problems shouldn’t be allowed to be responsible for hundreds of lives!”

“You wouldn’t let a blind man drive a bus….”

Let’s deal with the “hundreds of lives” first. If you’re an imminent danger to anyone you shouldn’t be responsible for any lives, whether it’s five people’s or a hundred. No-one whose loved one has just been murdered says: “Ah well, at least he only killed the one and not a plane full of passengers, that’s something eh….!” In the statistically rare situation that someone with a mental health problem poses a danger to the public (as opposed to themselves) they shouldn’t be working, and they should be receiving support and treatment (Sidenote: Not cutting mental health and welfare services to the bone would really help here). 

Now, how do you define “mental problems?” “Seeing a therapist” covers anything from a psychotic breakdown to a few sessions of marriage guidance. (Sidenote: “Psychotic” doesn’t necessarily mean “violent,” either. It just means believing things that aren’t true or real). Taking medication is a similarly wide umbrella: Anti-depressants are prescribed at different rates for different reasons; a prescription on its own doesn’t say very much, and some people who’d probably benefit from them aren’t taking them. Or indeed, “a history”? Meaning what? Three months ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Twenty? And do you think everyone you ask about their history is going to disclose it to an employer, given the possible consequences? (Hint: No, they’re not. See also: weapons owners. You’re supposed to mention health problems, physical or mental, to the police when applying for a shotgun licence, who then inform your GP. People who save lives for a living can be a bit iffy towards people who kill things for a hobby, especially those with an iffy mental health history. Gasp, applicants might not always be entirely honest…)

And no, employing someone with depression in a public-facing job is not the same thing as employing a visually-impaired bus driver, for important reasons. A visual impairment is a fixed thing affecting one function of your body. Depression and anxiety are fluid and affect people in different ways, to different degrees and in different situations. Someone who is brilliant and capable in a job when they are well shouldn’t be categorically barred from it because they’re sometimes unwell. And although capacity can be controversial (I know this because I talk to companies about it in relation to dyspraxia and dyslexia, which includes discussions around dyslexic medical staff and fitness to practice) most fitness-to-practice situations take care of themselves perfectly nicely because most people, including those with disabilities, are perfectly good at assessing their own abilities, especially around life or death situations. We’re not being made to employ armies of dyspraxic plumbers, dyslexic proofreaders or autistic party planners by political correctness. Similarly, there’s no reason to think there are any more depressed people in aviation than any other industry. If anything, there are probably fewer. Episodes of debilitating self-doubt don’t exactly lend themselves to a career defying gravity.  In any event, broad, rigid rules don’t work well for complex conditions.

Pilots are already regularly, rigorously assessed for their mental and physical health, but no screening process can ever be infallible. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy. The kind that sticks even in the minds of those who consume a huge amount of terribly tragic news every day. It sticks in my mind because I have family in a small German town not dissimilar to the one where sixteen schoolchildren on the flight came from, and in 1999, age 15, I sat in the departure lounge at JFK surrounded by passengers from EgyptAir flight 990 which crashed into the ocean within an hour later killing everyone on board. My mum was holding onto me in tears the night the story broke earlier this week. Unfortunately, sometimes, rare, awful, heartbreakingly tragic things happen. They are awful partly because they’re exceptional. They don’t point to an epidemic.

You shouldn’t be allowed to leave comments below newspaper articles unless you can do some basic critical thinking. That’s social exclusion I can get behind…


Review: Living with Bipolar

Channel’s 4 one-off documentary Living with Bipolar has had a pretty lukewarm response on social media. A number of people with bipolar found it offensive. I’m not bipolar, and I too found the arguments put forward early in the programme problematic. But I stuck with it, and on balance I’m glad…

The programme was a window into the lives of three very different people with Type 1 or Type 2 bipolar: Sian, a wife and mother who believes medication has saved her life but worries about her sons inhering “the bipolar gene”. Paul, an entrepreneur who, in the throes of mania, literally believes he’s divine and walks through the gardens of a stately home designing a golf course, and Ashley, a bedroom musician in his early thirties who can swing between mania and incapacitating depression several times a day. I was especially struck by Ashley’s story. He seemed to have been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome as a child but never to have received support. Adults with undiagnosed learning differences often show up in the mental health system but those who have been identified as children usually make more progress.

We were presented with extreme ends of the nature versus nurture debate. The presenter, psychotherapist Philippa Perry, believes most mental breakdown is caused by a traumatic environment. She poses the question: “How can these very different people all have a genetic condition?” Though I’m a huge fan of hers, it’s a bit of a puzzling argument, as you can make exactly the same one in reverse: “How can these very different people with very different backgrounds and circumstances all have been affected by something in their environment?” She is backed up by another psychotherapist, a softly-spoken lady in pastel colours, who says that masking difficult feelings with drugs is unhelpful. The programme’s participants repeatedly undermine the trauma theory. “Was there any childhood trauma or anything?” Philippa asks Paul and Sian. “No. Zero.” “He was a divine baby,” says Ashley’s mother. Philippa looks for more clues in their life histories. Paul’s an only child whose parents took years to conceive: might this exacerbate the feeling of “uniqueness” or being “different from the average” that occurs with mania or depression? Afterwards, a doctor with a wavy graph shows how bipolar is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Sian, who’s worried about her boys being bipolar, visits some pioneering research at Cardiff University. An expert explains that, while there is no “bipolar gene” as such, and the probability a child will inherit it is just 1 in 10, there is overwhelming evidence of a biological role in bipolar. Philippa is forced to reluctantly concede that the condition can’t be explained by environmental factors alone.

I felt that by the end, the programme had resolved a lot of its problems from the beginning. It actually did a decent job of showing the limitations of an entirely medical or entirely environmental explanation for mental illness and concluded that, essentially, you can’t ignore either. I can be pretty sure some of my own complications are the result of premature birth, and I can be equally sure aspects of my environment were both helpful and unhelpful in recognising and dealing with them.

What stuck in my mind as awkward about the programme was Philippa’s view that medical labels can be limiting and encourage helplessness. I hear this a lot in my work, not just in relation to mental illness but also learning differences like dyspraxia and dyslexia. In its less benevolent form, it’s expressed as “You’re just lazy”  “It’s just an excuse.” Labels don’t have to be limiting. They are not an excuse. They are way of freeing you to focus on what you’re good at and manage the things you’re less good at, rather than just scuttle around in circles trying to work out what the hell’s the matter with you all the time. A label doesn’t mean you stop learning or growing. I don’t know a single person who has received a diagnosis of a mental health problem or learning difference and thought “Hooray, now I can sit on my tush and do nothing.”  True, there may be some sense of helplessness at first, as there can be over any major life event – especially one that involves being bounced from bureaucratic pillar to post while you look for the right help. For sure, someone may feel confused, uncertain, or look back over their life with regret and sometimes anger. But lazy? Not a chance. I have learned more about myself, the world and other people since being diagnosed with dyspraxia ten years ago than I knew in the 21 years before that. My life hasn’t been a picnic, but I’ve no doubt I am infinitely better off with a label than without. I heartily agree with Philippa that “A label isn’t the end of self discovery; it’s just the beginning.” I just wish she knew that most people who are labelled agree with her…

Men-tal health

If you heard yesterday’s news that suicides in men are at their highest since 2001, you should read my friend Black Dog Runner’s super post on Depression and Masculinity from a while back.

As a woman and happy f-word user, my inherent empathy and compassion for anyone with mental health problems is always slightly tempered with frustration and anger at the way men are so conditioned into entitlement and denial. Men more readily get depressed about work and finances because they’re still more readily expected to be breadwinners and providers. Depressed men can pay for sex and dress it up as virility/fulfilment/self-discovery rather than being too ill to get into or stay in relationships. Poor self-care associated with depression – bad grooming, bad timekeeping, hoarding, not dressing appropriately for the situation or season – is more of a harmless quirk than a worry if you’re clever, middle-class and male. I’ve waited desperately for NHS counselling, and witnessed men who could well afford to jump the queue insist they don’t need it, despite living on American time in squalor. And yet, some of the most empathetic, special, self-aware, intelligent, internally-beautiful people I have ever known have been men with histories of depression. Every man who speaks out about mental health against the thousand-year-old tide of culturally-ingrained twattery and nonsense is a gift to themselves and others. Thank you. You are lovely. Please keep doing what you do.

Edited to add: Mind have produced this excellent video with a group of men discussing mental health and suicide.

Depression and Relationships: Myths and Facts

To mark the inescapable buy-some-pink-tat-to-prove-your-love-day, I wanted to share some personal thoughts on how depression, anxiety and a history of it on both sides can affect getting into and staying in relationships. Then I decided talking you through my relationship history at this juncture was actually slightly less appealing than running through Leicester Square naked wearing an Ed Miliband mask, and instead, I asked people with depression and/or anxiety on Twitter what they felt were the biggest prevailing myths about mental health and relationships. Here are some of the responses:

  • “The myth that love conquers all. But people believe that about relationships where people don’t have depression. Suspect depression just magnifies the things people deal with in relationships anyway.”
  • ‘…Now you have a boyfriend you won’t need antidepressants any more…’  Love doesn’t fix everything!”  (Can you imagine saying to someone with diabetes: “Now you have a boyfriend you won’t need insulin any more!”)
  • “The myth that support should come from your family, or significant other. Sometimes support has to come from somewhere else.”  (The person who tweeted this shared a very positive experience of finding support elsewhere after her family disagreed with her treatment. But it also got me thinking about instances where “finding support from somewhere else” can be problematic….)
  • “The myth that you can’t live without your partner. People think that if you have a partner you completely rely on them to look after yourself. If anything, you push them away! Mine helped to build me up to be reliant on myself not him. Best thing he could have done for me.” 
  • “There’s the myth (and this goes for friendships too) that we can expect our partners to fix us. We can’t. We can’t. It’s an internal issue. What they can do is support and not judge.” 
  • “An important fact is that they can massively help you deal with it by understanding it’s not your fault.”
  • “For ‘don’t judge’ I’d also read: ” ‘Tell me when my judgement is off.’ “
  • “Depression is not a free letter.”
  • “Sometimes I think the biggest myth is that it’s different from other relationships. In all relationships, you deal with the darkness in one another.” (I can see where this is coming from, but I think it’s the intensity of the darkness and the extent of the irrationality that is different. The ‘darkness’ of the occasional bad day at work is not the same as the darkness of barely having slept for a month. Or suddenly crying in the middle of the day because you’ve remembered some tiny remark you made to someone 15 years ago which might have been misinterpreted…)

There are many, many “What To Say/Not To Say to Someone with Depression” guides around. You’ll find a couple of good ones at my links page. 

For what it’s worth, the relationship myth that’s probably caused me more distress than any is the myth that “chemistry” is the be-and-end-all of them. When you’re young – especially if you’re in some sense not quite a regular Joe or Jenny and mutual attraction doesn’t happen much – someone well-meaning will probably try and soothe you with a nice, American teen movie-ish speech about “chemistry” and how, one day, out of nowhere, you’ll meet someone (maybe not who you think…), you’ll both fancy each other rotten and everything will just fall wonderfully into place from then on. “It’s all about ‘chemistry’! It’ll happen one day, just hang in there..!” Cut to fifteen years later, and you realise how many other things – the stage you’re at in life, how you live your life and what you want from it –  all matter as much as good chat. If a relationship is a house, chemistry is the front door. Every house needs a front door but you can’t build a house with just a front door (although it’s easy to think you can if you aren’t taught to think beyond someone being happy to spend an evening with you…). Rather than being told about “chemistry” when I was 16, I’d much rather someone had talked to me about the reality of meeting some wonderful people with some horrendously incompatible lives. Chemistry can be there in spades but it isn’t always helpful and can in fact be just as painfully useless as someone not giving you a second thought.

Thanks very much to everyone who replied to my tweet! Feel free to add any more in the comments…

This Mess Can: on running for Mind

“How do you know that you’re right if you’re not nervous any more?” Bling, The Killers 

“…It was this spirit of optimism that inspired that first run. If my heart could survive the pummelling it had taken, my legs must surely have more to give.” Running Like A GirlAlexandra Heminsley

A friend from my very earliest blogging days who’d been riddled with all kinds of anxiety ever since she could remember said her engagement was the first time in her life she felt no self-doubt. She wrote a beautifully honest blog post the day before the wedding, quoting a lyric from Bling by The Killers:“How do you know that you’re right if you’re not nervous any more?”  I read it at the time, some eight years ago now, thinking: “Could that feeling ever happen to me? Will I ever have that kind of absolute clarity and certainty about anything?  One day, could I ever just do something without overthinking it? Will I ever be able to live in the moment, not thinking about tomorrow, next week, next year or even the next hour?” 

It happened one day. That glorious, seemingly immortal, unstoppable, unforgettable “to-hell-with-thinking-just-bloody-well-do-it” optimism. But there are certain times when unchecked happiness is more than likely to lead to unhappiness all round and I knew ultimately that this was very much one of them. After a fleeting window, my head won out. I let go of the optimism, resigned myself to never knowing it again and tried to be glad ever to have known it at all. Temporary optimism was better than none. It was more than some of the people I’ve met through work had ever known…

During my acute slump at the end of last year, I felt the worst mentally I had done since a breakdown at 19. Shocked after a second suicide, confused and anxious about many things – personal and professional – there were songs in my head I hadn’t listened to or thought about in eleven years. My mum couldn’t cope with the thought of me being that unwell again and didn’t know what to do. She sympathised, lashed out and panicked in cycles for a few days. I did much the same in return. Then, one evening as I sat slumped in a dark room facing the wrong way, she said, calmly: “You can get through this. You just need to find something positive in it.” I knew she was right. I had to. Or at least, had to try to. I can’t live with my parents forever, or be broken forever. This was do or die. Possibly literally.

And then she said: “You should run for Mind. It’ll be a nice memorial gesture to the two of them, and something for you to focus on. And such a great achievement.”

I knew of a few other writer friends-of-friends-of-friends who’d done it (like Kat Brown, whose HuffPo article on depression is on my links page and who blogged about running for a while), but never quite felt the urge to do the same. I’d run a bit before, but spirit-boosting 4Ks around the block were the most I’d ever aspired to. I thought a race would be too competitive; full of Type-A dragons and beautiful-but-boring boys. Besides, my gait and technique were iffy and had started to cause me pain so I’d stopped altogether. But as soon as my mum said those words, something rose up within me. I knew I had to. That unstoppable feeling…the one I’d thought was lost…was back.

I haven’t been so determined to do something for years, and this time, there’s nothing and no-one to stop me. I’ve looked through a soup of apps, plans and guides and tips and forums. I’ve already raised well over the minimum amount I needed to in order to run the London 10K, thanks to some lovely people. My running style has got better. I’ve started reading Alexandra Heminsley’s joyous memoir Running Like A Girl, which is like having a brilliant big sister to guide me through training – as well as open up to me about clothing mishaps, depression, apathy, broken hearts and shopping woes. When the snags cross my mind (my sleep has been awful for the best part of three months, I’m vegetarian and currently on iron tablets, I’m dyspraxic and unfamiliar crowded events make me feel idiotic, last autumn I couldn’t walk for two months after injuring my foot wearing flat sandals), it doesn’t make me think “Maybe I can’t do this…maybe I shouldn’t do this…” but “How will I get through it?”

I don’t know how. But I will…

(The London 10K is at the end of May. You can sponsor me by clicking the graphic on the right sidebar, or here)

10 ways to help someone affected by suicide (and 11 not to)

Within the last four years, two people I knew have taken their own lives. The kindness and thoughtfulness that has come my way both times has been wonderful: from close friends to people I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years, and people on the other side of the world I know through work and have never met in person. I count myself lucky to have seen such sympathetic and compassionate responses from so many. Sadly, despite the brilliant work of mental health campaigners and increased public understanding in recent years, stigmatising attitudes to mental health, suicide in particular, are still very common, and can cause great distress to those affected. I’ve read and heard of people bereaved by suicide facing huge ignorance from others, and – occasionally – been on the receiving end of it from people I thought would know better.

Based on my and others’ experiences, I’ve put together this list of the types of responses which have been most helpful, and those which – while probably well-meant – have been less. You might be reading this because someone you know has recently been affected by a suicide and you’re not sure how to respond. Or because you’ve been affected yourself and want to see if it reflects your own story. If you have relevant experiences and would like to add your own, please do comment. You’re more than welcome.

I fully recognise that no-one’s perfect, including me. I hope the take-home message is that simple compassion – both for the person who has died and anyone they meant something to – is the best thing you can offer at any time…

10 Ways to be Helpful… 

  • Saying you don’t know what to say Some people think this is the wrong thing to say, but it’s fine. For someone in shock, the feeling’s probably mutual. It means you understand the magnitude. And it’s better than “I know how you feel” if you don’t.
  • Getting in touch straight away Even if just to say the above. A sympathetic card or message can be incredibly touching, even  – or perhaps especially – from someone you don’t often hear from.
  • Understanding some basics about depression  An estimated 90% of people who take their lives suffer from depression. Depression is an illness, and still widely misunderstood.  It can sometimes be a reaction to something in a person’s environment, like trauma or deprivation (Reactive depression). Sometimes, it’s linked to another condition, like anxiety, chronic pain, epilepsy or a learning difference (Secondary depression). And sometimes it has no obvious “reason” at all. (Clinical depression)Depression affects those of all backgrounds, and, although some lifestyle factors can help people manage it more easily, love, faith, exercise, hobbies and money aren’t a cure. Asking “Why was he depressed?” makes as much sense as“Why did he have cancer?” “He had a great job and a loving family, how could he get conjunctivitis!?” or “Why’s she bothered about being raped – she’s loaded!” Depression can distort a person’s view of their situation in a similar way an eating disorder distorts a person’s view of their body. Someone with depression can believe their life is hopeless even though they are very fortunate, just as someone with anorexia can be emaciated and believe they’re overweight. You don’t have to be a great expert on mental health, but this simple knowledge will go a long way.
  • Simple, specific gestures Helping with daily admin, chores or responsibilities, cooking for someone, buying them something to eat, or even just a cup of tea are bound to be very much appreciated.
  • Letting them know feeling needy is allowed Even people who normally manage quite well in their own company can be quite clingy after a sudden, violent death. They need to know this is normal and OK. Be prepared for someone to want to talk/speculate/ask questions, particularly if you’re breaking the news or passing on any details. Wanting to talk isn’t also always necessarily about wanting answers, or thinking it’ll lead to some great big truth. Often it’s just comforting. I found chatting informally to a group of my friend’s mutual friends more helpful than an organised support group of strangers. Others may feel differently. Abrupt swings between wanting to be with others and be alone are also common.
  • Recognising everyone grieves differently In particular, one of the biggest distinctions in today’s world – which can lead to conflict and misunderstandings – is in how people deal with grief online. Those who’ve used the internet at home since they were young are often more relaxed about sharing personal thoughts via email/blogs/social media, while those who mainly use these professionally, and are used to tightly-controlled working environments may be warier. The only time you should – carefully – intervene in someone’s response is if their behaviour is seriously harmful to them or others, e.g they blame themselves, blurt out harmful secrets/threats/allegations, impinge on other people’s privacy, or won’t acknowledge what’s happened at all.
  • Encouraging them to take it slowly Sometimes grief or shock makes people’s mind race. They may be overwhelmed by practicalities, such as coping with paperwork or arranging the funeral. Or, they may create distractions for themselves to lessen the pain and end up being swamped. Encourage them to slow down and not take on too much at once.
  • Recognising that a suicide hits people in certain situations particularly hard As well as the very obvious (partners and first-degree relatives), this includes anyone else affected who is living in difficult circumstances, e.g far away from close friends or family, single, unhappy or insecure at work, on a low income, new to a job or area, or who’s been bereaved before, especially in a similar way. Equally, don’t think someone more fortunate or settled can’t be sad either. Being well-off doesn’t compensate for grief – or mental illness.
  • Recognising grief is a process Sadness and sensitivity aren’t confined to the aftermath of a suicide but can reappear at any time, particularly around anniversaries and after news reports of death. Bereavement might also affect someone’s responses to death in future – for example, they may be more affected by scenes of violence and mourning after a news event than want to discuss politics or “the bigger picture.” And never think it’s “too late” to talk about someone’s loss. They won’t have forgotten it. Indeed, some people find it easier and preferable to talk after a certain amount of time has passed.
  • If you can, donating to or volunteering for a mental health charity There are some suggestions on the About and Helpful Places pages of this site, or there may be an online fundraising page in memory of the person who died. Fundraising pages are a great way to donate to charity, as the money goes straight to the charity, saving them time and money. Most let you donate anonymously.

And 11 Ways Not to Be…

  • Assuming too much Respond according to how someone actually feels, not how you think they should feel.
  • Blanking someone A work acquaintance once told me that when her husband died, some people literally crossed the street to get away from her. It’s understandable to hang back a bit if you find it difficult to express yourself or aren’t in a situation where it’s easy to talk. But grief is an irrational, sensitive time and rumblings of: “Is X being off with me?” can creep in. Do let them know they’re in your thoughts and that you’ll be around in the future.
  • Being judgemental/unkind about the person who’s died, especially someone you never knew Keep your negative opinions and/or assumptions to yourself. Comments like “That’s so selfish!”  “What did s/he have to be depressed about?” “I’ve got no sympathy for people who do that! can be very hurtful – even to those who are angry and incredulous about it themselves. People who kill themselves will almost certainly have hidden complexities and your impression of them and their lives is almost certainly based on limited information. They were a real person, who mattered to someone who is real to you; not a TV character or a distant celebrity whose life is yours to pick apart and comment on.  You don’t have to butter someone up, or pretend that because they died they were heroic (which few people are, and suicide isn’t) or flawless (which no-one is), but running them down in front of people they mattered to is not on. Sometimes people do this out of frustration, or well-meaningly to try to ease someone’s grief. Whatever your intent, it’ll only make them feel worse. Quite simply, if you have nothing nice to say about someone, don’t say anything. On a similar note, try and resist publicly moaning that a railway suicide has inconvenienced your day. Being depressed, or bereaved by suicide, is loads more inconvenient than a delayed train. Trust me; I’ve experienced all three.
  • Saying anything that could make a grieving person feel ashamed, guilty or to blame To avoid implying blame inadvertently, it’s best not to delve too deeply into people’s arguments or disagreements with the person who died, or try and talk someone out of something with: “Imagine what X would say…”  (People’s capacity for misplaced anger can be quite astonishing: I’ve even heard of someone being blamed for her boyfriend’s suicide by his ex-wife who left him…)
  • Nit-picking People in grief or shock probably aren’t at their most articulate and may say things that are raw and disjointed. Splitting hairs over their word-choices, trying to give perspective: “Well at least you’re not in a war zone…” or being dismissive: “She had good points? Yeah, I bet Myra Hindley did too!” are not helpful. Perspective doesn’t take the pain away, and respect for the dead and grieving isn’t intellectually beneath you. You’re not in a student debating chamber; you don’t need to score points.
  • Wild, spontaneous gestures, or emotional blackmail In a Richard Curtis film, travelling hundreds of miles across the country and turning up at someone’s door uninvited is charming, cute and makes someone want to marry you. In real life, it tends to have the opposite effect. Don’t see this as an opportunity to get into/back into somebody’s pants, or convert them to your religion or politics. Similarly, don’t pressure someone into big life decisions too soon. They’re probably barely up to deciding on a pizza topping, let alone a round-the-world trip, house move or career change.
  • Making too many promises you can’t keep The slightest change of plan can be quite a stress at a time like this. Obviously some problems are unforeseeable and any reasonable person will understand, but before you suggest any kind of outing or gesture, try and make sure it’s viable and can be easily rearranged if you have to. This is also why very simple gestures are often better than big whacky ones (see above).
  • “You meet so many damaged people. You should find some happier friends!” There can be a fair comment in this. Some people do seem to surround themselves with vulnerable people to distract them from their own pain, or out of guilt for their own advantages, which is not always healthy or helpful. But it’s not a useful discussion to have at this point. Although I’ve written about mental health, the great majority of the depression sufferers I know are people I didn’t meet through mental health writing, but through other work, at university, through “regular” blogging, and the same way anyone meets anyone. People with depression don’t walk around with neon flashing badges, and you couldn’t prevent yourself from meeting them if you tried. Would you tell someone not to make friends with people in the military, frequent flyers or fans of extreme sport in case they die?
  • Making grief into a contest or confrontation “Some of us don’t have time to be upset.” “I knew X longer than anyone/I’ve been through worse than anyone else…” “I didn’t get like this when X died and he was Y” and so on. Offloading onto a grieving person everything you don’t like about them, and everything they’ve ever said or done to annoy you, is also a bad idea.
  • Immediately asking someone whose opposite-sex friend has died whether they were together, ever fancied each other, etc etc When someone tells you a friend has died, accept their description “friend”. Don’t make them feel obliged to tell you whether they were romantically involved, explain why they weren’t, or relive any past involvement. Unless they tell you, it’s not your business. And they’re more likely to open up about this sort of thing if you give them time than steam in with questions. Oh, and drop the careful euphemisms. “Were you two…close?” “Did you have an intimate relationship?” Oh, please. We know what you mean. You may as well just say: “Did you used to shag?” and be done with it…
  • Telling someone not to speculate Look; someone has died very suddenly and violently. Let those who are left behind speculate if they damn well want to, thank you very much. Now, of course, there is healthy speculation and there is unhealthy speculation. Unhealthy speculation is blaming yourself, saying that if only you hadn’t worked late that day and been home an hour earlier none of this would have happened, etc etc. Or bandying around harmful allegations and accusations in public. Like suggesting that someone took his own life because his parents were mean to him, his brothers were richer than him, his wife didn’t understand him, or he was secretly infatuated with an old classmate. And doing nothing else but speculate is obviously unsustainable, emotionally and financially. Those are the sorts of things you should – compassionately – intervene in. But a certain amount of going over and wondering about things (especially if you weren’t their next of kin and had even fewer of whatever few details there are to know), is normal and natural. Telling someone who’s lost a loved one or friend to suicide: “It’s no good speculating” is like telling someone to ignore having a nail file pushed into their eye socket. It’s just not realistic. It will make the person want to sneak into your room at night and stick an upturned plug right by your bed so you step on it. A much more constructive approach (based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques) is to help them reign in the speculation so that it doesn’t get in the way of too much else. A good way to do this is by encouraging them to timetable it, giving themselves permission to mull over stuff at set times of the day/week/month/whatever interval works for them. But DO NOT just ban or discourage speculation altogether.

A final point, specifically for the bereaved (and believe me, I know it’s easier said, but I’ll say it anyway…): Feeling that someone isn’t being as available or sympathetic as you’d like is horrible – but there’s no point in putting your life on hold hoping for them to be, or trying to badger or wish them into being. If you’re in this situation, step back and find support from a trained professional. Good luck.