Four years

It is often said the first two years of grief are the worst. This is very much my experience.

I’ve just turned 31 and at this point, don’t know whether many of the things society associates with being in your 30s will ever happen to me. I effectively lost a huge chunk of 2011 and ’12 to grief and related problems, and have never quite yet recovered from that. The amount of rejection I’ve had in my work often seems to have become inversely proportional to my ability to deal with it.

But, four years on from the death of my first friend to suicide, I take some comfort that this anniversary has got a bit easier each year. When a second friend died by suicide late last year the sheer unfathomable awfulness of that (and being under-employed, and variously messed about with professionally) forced me into being more proactive than the last time. Hence this blog; hence all the running, and a really great counsellor; much better than any of the previous.

This year is the first that I’ve started to develop a sense of the first friend belonging “to another time.” People and things that were a huge part of my life before 2011 are less relevant now. Things that seemed as remote as old age a year ago are now a daily reality. I’ve wondered lately with a wobbly smile what the daft bugger would have made of me becoming a runner, and tweeting/blogging about it. Though he was always the greatest cheerleader for my writing, and a wonderfully kind, compassionate man in many respects, he loathed exercise and could be pretty cantankerous about people posting things on social media that didn’t interest him, or that he couldn’t relate to. I like to think that on balance he would have been pleased, especially with me doing it for mental health causes. (And I like to think I’m a pretty considerate runner-tweeter – I turn off all those settings on apps which auto-spew tonnes of data no-one gives a hoot about). 

I am currently – tensely – waiting on some very important (writing) news which I don’t want to share in case I jinx it. But such good news would barely even have been a possibility three years ago. The writer Julian Barnes, who has written about grief, describes year five as a turning point. And I can, just about, see how he might be right…


Spring memories: A reminder of why I’m running for Mind

If you follow me on Twitter you may’ve noticed a few oblique angsty tweets over the last six weeks or so in anticipation of something a bit difficult. This week is that something…

I’ve always had a great long-term memory. It baffles people sometimes, especially given how ropey my short-term one can be. My recall of names, birthdays, phone numbers, pin numbers, anecdotes and dates of meetings from ridiculously long ago would probably make me a decent candidate for MI5 if I wasn’t an over-open-hearted writer with an East German parent.

An impeccable long-term memory can make an untimely death feel especially raw, unfair and all the horrible, difficult things that it is. I’ve already lived with one set of bereavement anniversaries for the last four years. This year, there’s a particularly difficult double anniversary. Now, not only have I known two friends separately take their own lives, but I also saw them both in person within a week of one another, in April the same year.

I remember the time distinctly, vividly and very happily. 2011: year of the Royal wedding, and the Spring heatwave, and My Brilliant Career. The warm weather we’ve been having recently, and Royal Baby Watch (yes, the unborn baby someone has found “20 facts” about),  have been making this month a bit of a Groundhog Day experience, with added grief and weirdness (and minus the brilliant career bit. I’d very much like a rerun of that, please, thanks…).

People react to difficult anniversaries in different ways. Some try to ignore them as much as possible and push on with life; others need rituals and a sense of occasion to find their peace. Trying to ignore the significance of this week would be like trying to ignore my own head exploding. At the same time, I wanted to do something I could justify to myself as somehow useful, bearing in mind I can’t really afford a day off and am in the midst of a confidence crisis with writing. The only work I’m getting at the moment is speaking gigs, and the only enjoyment I’m getting at the moment is training for the London 10K at the end of May (and swapping cheesy running playlist suggestions with Friends Who Run on Twitter…).

It’s strange to be floundering at something so profoundly natural to me and conquering things which so profoundly aren’t. The reason I signed up for the run in the first place, other than as a fundraiser and a double memorial gesture, was because pretty much my entire self-worth for my entire life has come from writing and I wanted to show people I could do something else. Now no-one’s paying me to write and all anyone wants to talk to me about is my running. Be careful what you wish for…

But, since I’m so utterly consumed with running and little else at the moment I’ve decided to mark the anniversary by spending tomorrow in London, walking and cycling along the 10K route to familiarise myself with it, work out where I’m supposed to be going, and mentally prepare for next month. Somewhere along the way, I’ll be dropping into a very shiny bar, having a drink of something so strong and overpriced it could apply for its own postcode, and raising my glass to absent friends. And to K., the brilliant counsellor I’ve been working with over the last few months, who I truly cannot thank enough.

I’ve been planning all of this for weeks, and somehow I’ve still ended up faffing around on the laptop at midnight the night before asking myself ridiculous questions like a chick-lit heroine cramming for an exam (“How do you actually use a Santander cycle? “Can I drink in St James’s wearing Converse shoes or shall I wear my diamante flats again? Is it acceptable to still own a pair of flat shoes from 2011? Hell, is it acceptable to own virtually no shoes that aren’t flats?”). It was much the same this time four years ago, when I was up late pondering the following day’s meetings. Some things never change. Much as I want this to be a serene occasion, it wouldn’t feel right without just a bit of faff. What my friends taught me – what all good friends teach – was to accept it and rise above it. The best people you meet are those who make you forget what time it is.

Finally, I’ve also made a short video to remind me, and you, of my story, of everything that I’ve alluded to here, and of why I’m fundraising for Mind. Thank you in advance for reading/watching. And if I haven’t caught up with you recently or made plans to do so, it would be fab to.

Meanwhile, I’m off to bed. By the time you read this I’ll be awake and ambling my way to London; hopefully having slept some…

[10pm: EDITED TO ADD]: I had that big drink. Hell did I. And I have now raised an absolutely SMASHING £570 for Mind. THANK YOU ALL SO VERY MUCH.


Am I big enough? Hell yes I’m big enough!

Review: Life After Suicide, BBC1

“You don’t ever get over losing someone to suicide but if you can talk about it you can be happy again.”

I watched this yesterday essentially against medical advice. It’s only a couple of weeks since I went to Time To Talk. I’d had a week of particularly bad anxiety that led to cancelling a long weekend abroad and I had the decorators in (metaphorically and literally – neither ideal for the situation). On top of which, earlier in the day I’d been gently advised by my (lovely) counsellor that I’m doing too much mental health-related activity at the moment and should try to balance it with other things for my own health’s sake. But having known about the programme and inwardly prepared for several days (and accompanied by my dad, a Samaritans volunteer), I decided to go ahead with watching…

Life After Suicide was a one-off documentary presented by Angela Samata, whose husband Mark took his own life eleven years ago. She talked, with great courage, clarity and dignity, about her journey from grief to acceptance. The initial shock – he’d shown no signs of depression and, as in most suicides, left no note. When he rang her hours before his death to tell her he loved her she’d assumed he was just apologising for not being at work. Then the guilt – they were childhood sweethearts and at the time of his death had been living apart as she’d been feeling, in her words, “restless”. Then the stigma – people who just didn’t know how to react to her. Then the unfathomable task of explaining his death to their two sons. The youngest was just three when he died. She described the moment, when, age five, his questions changed, from: “Why did daddy die?” to “How did daddy die?”  That one word made all the difference…

The rest of the programme followed Angela as she met other bereaved families and tried to help others coming to terms with similar losses at earlier stages, from a local SOBS support group, to Downton Abbey actor David Robb whose wife Briony took her own life in 2013 after a long battle with anorexia (“I fell in love with the back of her head,” he says, referring to how they met performing in a play). She met Professor Rory O’Connor of Glasgow University, a leading researcher into suicide, who’s currently exploring the link between pain threshold and suicidal thoughts. (“How do you become a suicide expert?” my mum wondered aloud. “When your friends keep bloody well dying of it…” I thought ruefully). Professor Rory wasn’t just there for “The Dry Science Bit” as academics in documentaries so often are; he had a personal connection too – he’d lost a close female friend to suicide, and had been haunted by his inability to prevent it despite his expertise. I’ve only recently started to hear of others who have lost friends, and it’s given me the most enormous sense of relief.

Another contributor with a very personal connection was one of the volunteers at the excellent Maytree hostel which offers a safe space to those in crisis. “I felt my children were better off without,” she said, her voice cracking as she told the story of her several suicide attempts, and time in the mental health system. Angela wondered whether if her husband had been aware of such a crisis service at the time, he would have sought help. (It’s worth also mentioning the Samaritans at this point, as the programme didn’t, although they were listed in the end credits).

Finally, Angela confronted her worst fear as she met a woman called Jacqui who had lost both her husband and son to suicide. She has always worried one of her boys might follow her husband’s path. Jacqui’s story of how her son became ill after beginning a career in the City and eventually killed himself after returning home to live with her was almost unmatchably tragic, but Jacqui was keen to reassure Angela that such a loss was not inevitable, especially not given how open and honest she had been with her boys. Jacqui lives on the Norfolk coast, where she says she has now found happiness.

The programme raised many questions in connection with suicide that could be whole other blog posts here in themselves: The metaphors and analogies we use to describe suicide (“It’s like that moment when you lose your wallet and your heart stops, except it’s permanent” said one widow). The effects of suicide grief on children and how best to communicate with them openly, especially those old enough to remember the bereavement the most vividly. The intense moodswings that go with it (feelings that can change from day to day and even hour to hour). The inquest process and the debate around whether inquests should be public. The role of support groups (my experience of a SOBS group in 2012 was very different to the one in the film). Though the programme did mention the stigma around suicide, there wasn’t any reference to disenfranchised grief, which could make a whole other programme, let alone a blog post. But I’ve so much admiration for Angela and her contributors for making such an articulate and brave film.

“You alright?” my Dad said to me afterwards, with a nervous laugh. “Yeah,” I answered, with tears in my eyes, and clumsily tried to hug him while he was still sitting down. A clumsy, determined hug. Somehow that seems to say everything…

You can watch the programme on BBC iPlayer for the next 27 days. 

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.

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.