Chapter Excerpts from Chasing Death: Losing a Child to Suicide
Chapter One: The Shock, The Disbelief, The Horror
On the trip up to the hospital in the police car, I stared vacantly at the world outside that carried on without my permission. I stared blankly into other cars that passed by and wished that it was I sitting there, going home to a son who was still alive. I wished I were someone else. I watched some seagulls circling in flight overhead and thought of my son’s free soul. I wondered where he was and what he was feeling. Was he watching the scene of grief now? Was he realising the true value of his life and the devastation his suicide had caused? Was he watching the emotional crucifixion of his mother, his siblings, his girlfriend, his family and his friends?
I was determined to be totally honest about Kristian’s death. I refused to gloss over the details of his suicide, because in addition to dealing with the loss of my eldest child, I did not wish to carry around the additional burden of secrecy.
If you try to conceal the truth, it has a way of clawing its way to the surface and hitting you - and everyone else to whom you’ve lied - with brutal force. I have heard people talk about the stigma of suicide, but I believe that much of the stigma lies within the mind of the survivor. Because of the punitive nature of society, I imagined that I saw some people almost retreat in horror, embarrassment and pre-judgement, when I mentioned the “s” word, but they were probably just shocked at the news of his death. Even the most articulate of people can suddenly feel verbally clumsy when confronted with a bereaved person.
Chapter Four: Wearing a Mask
I even protected those dear, close family members and friends who did allow me to be myself, by containing the full force of my grief in their presence. Yes, I would weep and I would talk about Kristian, but weeping was a gentler substitute for wailing and screaming in an alarming manner. Talking rationally about what had happened was a substitute for yelling, “WHY? Why didn’t he call me? Why hadn’t I noticed the signs? Why didn’t I try to contact him more? Why hadn’t I done and said things differently? Why couldn’t I protect him? Why didn’t I tell him I loved him more? Why? Why? Why?” I would struggle to keep the artificial smile glued to my face and contain the swelling ball of emotion in my chest and throat that threatened to burst out in a startling display of uncontrollable grief and anguish. Once suppressed, the ball would settle until a time when I was alone and could allow it to be fully released.
Standing in the supermarket queue, I would try to focus on anything but my son, but somehow every alternative focus would remind me of him; a small child demanding sweets, laughing teenagers walking past, a song being played over the tannoy, or even an item of shopping that the customer in front of me had placed on the conveyor belt. I tried to think of nothing, but in doing so must have appeared deranged, with wild staring eyes from which a fountain of tears threatened to erupt.
Chapter Six: Grieving in Your Own Way and Own Time
Other people’s inability to handle grief in someone else manifests itself in inappropriate clichés, such as, “Time is a healer”, “Life goes on”, “Think about what you still have” or “I know exactly how you feel”. Other people want you to look to the future, but that’s not what a newly bereaved person wants to do. When your grief is still like an open wound, you cannot even contemplate a future without your child. You want to dwell on the past, because in the past your child was alive and by focusing on memories, you are keeping them alive. You cannot always think about what you still have because your entire focus is on what you have lost.
My grief has been like taking part in a ceaseless game of roulette, where I am the ball and the numbers are the full spectrum of emotions. The route cannot be predicted. One minute I stop in despair and the next I find myself in hope. Immediately afterwards, I am thrown into anger, then into guilt and back again to despair.
I found that as time moved on and others felt I had reached a point when I should have been feeling better, I actually felt worse. To a certain degree, I had been protected from the worst pain by the initial shock, which threw me into a surreal state and made me believe that this wasn’t really happening. It allowed me to cope, but it was not permanent. At around six months, the reality began to creep painfully in.
Chapter Seven: Referring to Your Child as “The Body”
In life, the body and the spirit are inextricably linked. We refer to someone as having a “kind face”, or a “friendly smile”, or a “mean expression”, because our emotions and personality are expressed through our faces and our physical bodies. When a child ends his or her own life away from the home environment and the parents are informed of the death by a third party, there is often a strong urge to see, touch or hold their child. Not only did they not have the chance to say goodbye, but they may have difficulty in accepting the reality of the death and wish to seek firsthand proof that their child is no longer alive. Our minds require evidence that our child’s life has ended and the presence of their body provides this evidence, however painful it might be.
Connie, from Brisbane Australia, whose 16-year-old daughter April jumped from the sixth floor of a block of flats in October 1999 said, “Using the word ‘body’ without a name attached sounds so impersonal. When the police officer asked me whether I wanted to identify ‘the body’, I remember thinking, ‘What body?’ It was as though the body was totally detached from April, which I grant that many people might say is true if they believe in life after death. But April’s body was how I identified her as a person. When you’re walking along a street, you don’t recognise someone’s personality do you? You recognise them by their body; the way they look, dress, walk and move.”
Chapter Eight: The Day of the Funeral and After
Rivers of friends from different directions pooled into the area surrounding the church gates, people I didn’t recognise; sad, nameless young faces forming a sea of respect, sorrow and disbelief. My partner and I huddled tightly together beneath a large, black umbrella to shield ourselves from the relentless vertical rain that fell like a waterfall of tears on this tragic farewell scene. My partner’s arms gripped me like a vice, as though to prevent me from feeling any physical or emotional pain. I watched the sodden autumn leaves fall silently from the myriad of surrounding trees that gave them life. I equated the falling leaves to my son’s final breaths, symbolic of a life ebbing away and the trunks as the trees’ souls, continuing to live on.
I watched the funeral staff solemnly slide my son’s coffin from the back of the hearse onto a trolley, so that it could be wheeled up the path into the small church. Again, I idly wondered whether they were able to completely detach themselves from the emotion of such proceedings; whether it was just a job to them, or whether they felt for each family at every funeral they attended. Did they go home at night and carry on as normal without a thought about their working day, or did they – as I would do – dwell on what had occurred, think about the families concerned and feel emotionally drained?
Chapter Nine: The Family’s Grief
When a child dies, everyone’s attention and sympathy seems to be focused on the grieving parents and in particular the mother, but what about the forgotten grievers; the brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews? Grandparents have the double burden of grieving for their grandchild and seeing their son or daughter suffer pain. Likewise, siblings may mask their own grief in order to protect their parents from further worry and suffering. In today’s complicated family situations created by divorce and remarriage, there are often many more people involved, such as stepparents and stepchildren, all of whom may have had their own special relationship with the lost child.
My daughter Anneliese expressed the following thoughts about the loss of her brother.
“Although, my mum and grandparents grieve his loss, it is different to my grief. They have the childhood memories of Kristian. I have more recent memories of my brother as a best friend and confidante almost constantly over the final two years of his life. I did not always agree with some of the things that he did and the way that he lived his life at times and we occasionally had some terrible arguments, but I loved him. After all, how many brothers and sisters are there who don’t fight at some time? If I hadn’t have cared about him so much, then I wouldn’t have bothered arguing with him and would have just let him get on with his life in his own way. I miss him terribly, but I also still feel angry with him for what he did.”
Chapter Ten: Bizarre Thoughts, Actions and Secrets
Nicola’s youngest son Dale was 19-years-old when he shot himself in February 1997. Immediately after his death and in a state of deep traumatisation, Nicola was obsessed with finding out everything she could. She left no stone unturned in her quest for answers and some reassurance that Dale’s death could be attributed to anything but suicide. Dale was discovered in a wood by a couple out cycling. It was estimated that he’d been dead for about five days.
“I drove out to the spot where Dale had been found expecting to find some clues. I even took a camera, notepad, pencil and dictaphone with me to record my findings. How crazy is that?
“When I arrived at the scene of the ‘crime’, I remember crawling around on my hands and knees sobbing and frantically searching for any clue as to what had happened. I suppose that part of me was hoping to find some sign that he had not been alone. I took a bag with me and some food storage containers in which I placed anything that I thought might be relevant; a broken coke bottle, a cigarette butt (Dale didn’t smoke, so maybe it was from his assailant), a used tissue, plant matter and earth from the immediate area that I believed could be used for forensic tests.
“Not only was I searching for clues, but I wanted mementos, however distressing or gruesome. I wanted to tear up the earth and foliage where Dale’s body had lain when he fell and preserve the findings. I have never mentioned that to anyone before, but from talking to other bereaved families, I now know that these kind of thoughts and emotions are not unusual and a perfectly normal reaction to a sudden death. I don’t think that anything we think, feel or do is abnormal where the grieving process of a survivor of loss by suicide is concerned.
Chapter Eleven: Memory Triggers: Sights, Sounds, Smells, Possessions
Sometimes it was the most unexpected sights that would send me into flashback mode. At the beginning of October 2006, we took Lauren to a historical museum, which traced life from the Iron Age through to the English Civil War. One section recreated a scene from inside a Roman home and contained four waxwork effigies of a Roman family. Their stiff, inanimate, pallid hands immediately transported me back to the funeral parlour’s chapel of rest where we had visited Kristian over the three days prior to his funeral.
It was the sight of his defrosted hands that had disturbed me the most and which were the most shocking indication that the body lying there was just an empty shell and not really my son at all. It was the soul within that had given such dexterity to his hands, the hands that had gripped mine so tightly as a small lad seeking reassurance and security, the hands that had crafted the words, “I love you Mummy” on birthday, Christmas and Mother’s Day cards and the hands that had embraced me and patted my back in greeting and departure as a teenager. They were the hands that had gripped me tightly the last time that I saw him alive. Did he know then that he was saying goodbye forever?
Chapter Thirteen: Handling Insensitivity from Others
I soon realised that I would rather people speak to me, in whatever capacity, than have them ignore me completely. Some people whom I had known for many years on a casual basis, such as other mums from the junior school that Kristian had attended, suddenly began avoiding me. Those that had already caught my eye would smile briefly and quicken their pace. I could detect the look of ill-concealed horror on the faces as they realised it was too late to change direction and pretend that they hadn’t seen me. I could sense their fear that I may stop them in their path and initiate a conversation that involved the mention of my dead son. I wanted to be able to say to them, “If, for a fleeting moment, you could experience the pain that I’m feeling, you wouldn’t ignore me. You’d want to wrap your arms around me and allow me to cry. Your ignorance won’t necessarily increase my pain, but speaking to me could possibly make me feel a little better. I might be having a day when I am coping well and can honestly say that I do feel ok, but when you ignore me, I immediately become aware of my open wounds and the pain consumes me once again.”
Despite the fact that death is inevitable and that it will touch most people’s lives at some point, why are we so incapable of dealing with the bereaved, particularly those who have lost a child or suicide? Is it because child death and suicide goes against the natural order of life? Is it because the combination of child loss and suicide is just so tragic and unimaginable? Is it because it makes people question the safety of their own children and that by speaking to you, their family might somehow be cursed with the same tragedy? Is it simply because what has happened to you is so unfathomable, that they just don’t know what to say?
Chapter Fourteen: Firsts of Everything
That first Christmas was horrendous. However, I had to do my best to make the day as magical as possible for Lauren. I didn’t think I could bear to put up the tree, but I did it for Lauren. I also strung up the “Thinking of you” cards, although was amazed by the tactlessness of people who still sent cards saying, “Have a wonderful Christmas” and similar. I am sure that people did not mean to be so careless, but probably got caught up in the robotic mindlessness of Christmas preparations and automatically wrote out cards to people on their list. How indicative that is of our world today, when no one has time to stop and give much thought to what they are doing, nor to consider those for whom Christmas is a tremendously difficult and poignant time.
Nevertheless, I still bought Kristian a card wishing him a happy Christmas wherever he was. I also bought him a bear, which I gave to Lauren to “look after” for him. It now sits on her bed during the daytime and under the duvet with her when she sleeps. He is called, simply, “Kristian Bear.”
Chapter Eighteen: Professional Views
(From Sue Scott, the nurse who was with me on that tragic day): “Although I have been nursing now for over twenty years, I have tended never to be complacent. I have yet to become used to some of the sights, traumas and suffering I have witnessed. Despite people who believe one must get used to it, believe me, you do not. It was the events of 1 November 2002, which changed so many lives; it gave me personally an almighty kick up the backside. I realised that despite all medical intervention and modern technology, the human body and mind are so fragile.
“That night as a nurse, I felt inadequate, both practically and emotionally. I was a mere bystander. Kristian’s death was thought provoking and a wake-up call for me as a mum.
“My heart broke for Jan that day, especially when she collapsed and sobbed, asking ‘Why?’ I never had the answer. I know that I gave my three children an extra hug that day and to this day have thought, ‘There but for the grace of God!’ My children are still young enough that I have control of their whereabouts, their purse and, to some extent, the company they keep.
Chapter Nineteen: Life after Death
In communicating with hundreds of bereaved families, I discovered that even those who were previously sceptical about the afterlife now spend much of their time desperately searching for proof that the spirit of their loved ones lives on. The death of their child, grandchild, sibling, relative or friend is inconceivable. They don’t want to believe that the death of the body is the end of that person, because it’s far too painful to accept.
Many bereaved families will begin to experience “signs” that their loved one is still around. Smells, sounds, electrical anomalies, vivid dreams and uncanny coincidences are commonly reported occurrences. They want to believe that their loved one is letting them know that they are still with them in spirit. Many families find these signs comforting, whereas others may find them a little frightening, particularly if they were previously non-believers.
I have experienced many of these signs, with smells, electrical anomalies, visitation dreams and actual visions of my son being the most common. Some sceptics might have more rational explanations and will dismiss paranormal occurrences, but my beliefs have helped to keep me sane and have certainly helped me to get through each day that has passed since losing Kristian. Logical explanations are given because of the limitations of our brains that have been damaged through the centuries, making it more difficult to access the areas responsible for the divine consciousness that we were all able to experience thousands of years ago. This logic limits our ability to perceive and experience anything outside that which can be explained rationally. The sceptics could never find a logical explanation for all the premonitions I’ve experienced in dreams, including the 9/11 disaster, natural disasters, deaths, pregnancies, a partner’s online affair and many more.
Chapter Twenty: Coping Strategies
Everyone copes in different ways and what works for one person may not be suitable for another. Following is a list of suggestions, some of which I hope will be helpful to all those who are desperately seeking ways to move forward in a positive way. This is not an exhaustive list, but just a guide. You may find many other constructive ways of managing your grief.
• Be gentle with yourself. Take one small step at a time. Don’t force yourself to do too much too early. If you feel like wrapping yourself up in the duvet and doing nothing, don’t let anyone persuade you differently. Do things when you feel ready to do them, not when someone else feels you ought to be ready. Take control over the aspects of your life that you can and accept those that you can’t.
• Seek the company of supportive people. Spend time with people who offer you support and comfort and try to avoid those who don’t. You don’t need anyone’s permission to grieve, or to talk about your child. If you encounter people who make you feel like this, then limit the time you spend with them where possible. You need to be with people who make you feel better, not worse. If you don’t feel that you have a supportive network of family or friends, then try to find a local support group. Alternatively, if you have internet access, there are many excellent support groups online where you can connect with other bereaved parents and voice your innermost thoughts, feelings and grievances without being judged.
• Do something positive. Create a memory book of your child. You can chronicle your thoughts about him or her, write down happy or amusing memories that you have, add drawings, schoolwork, certificates of achievement, letters, poems, photos or any other memento that you would connect with your child. Set up a support group or initiate a suicide awareness campaign in your area. Raise money for a mental health organisation, or establish a charity in your child’s name.
• Laugh. Yes, it really is ok to laugh. You don’t need anyone’s permission to laugh in the same way that you don’t need anyone’s permission to grieve. In the beginning, you may feel that you will never laugh again, but you will and when you do, you should not feel guilty. Laughter is healthy and it releases feel-good chemicals into your body. Laughter offers a temporary relief from the intense pain of grief. Rent out a hilarious movie, seek the company of someone who has a fantastic sense of humour, or simply reminisce about some amusing moments that you shared with your child in the past.
Chapter Twenty-One: The Years Ahead
Although living alongside grief can be a terminal struggle, our continuing existence keeps the memory of our precious children alive by enabling us to share aspects of their lives with family, friends and strangers. Time also allows us to offer support or comfort to newly bereaved parents.
In the beginning, I realised that if I could live through the first week, then I could make it through another week, then a month, then six months, then the first anniversary and so on. By reviewing my life since the event, I have been able to see where I was in the beginning and where I am now. Time has not healed the deep wounds, but it has allowed me to manage the pain in a constructive manner. With many ailments, we have the option of a taking pill to quickly and effectively relieve a physical pain, but there are no instant fixes or fast resolutions for grief, which is a chronic condition.
Everyone will encounter different obstacles at different times along the grief road. Whilst we can foresee the obviously difficult times, such as anniversaries and Christmas for example, most cannot be predetermined. We cannot always predict when we are going to encounter an intense grief trigger, as mentioned in Chapter Twelve. In these situations, the time that has elapsed bears no significance.
Chapter Twenty-Five: Kristian’s Story
Approaching the end of September 2002 was the last time that I saw my son alive. He visited me with his daughter Kayla, who was just beginning to walk. He looked extremely well and showed absolutely no signs of being under the influence of drugs. He was a tremendously handsome young man with such huge potential that seemed to have been lying dormant for the previous six years.
This visit was just a few weeks after he had been attacked, so I was relieved to see that his face was back to normal, with the exception of a scar and some bruising where his ear had been stitched up. When I asked him why he hadn’t told me about the attack, he said, “Mum, I didn’t want you to worry.”
These were some of the last words that my son would ever say to me.
In response I said to him, “Supposing something like this happens again and you don’t tell me about it. Can you imagine how I’d feel if a policeman were to turn up on my doorstep and tell me that something awful had happened to you? I would always feel that I could have done something to help, had I known about it.”
These were some of the last words that I would ever say to my son.
Five weeks later he ended his life.