Wednesday, 13 August 2014
On suicide, bereavement, and being a good friend
In the work I've been doing recently for a bereavement service, I sometimes have to ground myself to prevent tears rising up. It feels like an honour to sit there with someone as they tell you about the person they loved and still love, the death, and the effect it has had on them. But sometimes it's terribly sad, and I feel there's nothing helpful I can do or say, other than to just hold that sadness (and anger and other feelings) with the person sat in front of me.
Yesterday morning, along with millions of other people, I woke up to the news that Robin Williams had died. It was reported that he had severe depression and had killed himself. And like millions of others who were strangers to him, I couldn't believe it. We didn't know him, had never met him, but his tremendous voice and his energetic presence played in our living rooms time after time. Although many of us admired his darker work like Insomnia and One Hour Photo, and his dramatic roles in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, it was his (often improvised) comedy that we'd enjoyed so much. Aladdin was the first film I took my sister to see at the cinema. It was the old cinema in Sidcup which is no longer there. I don't know what she understood, but she giggled a lot. I bought the VHS for her and she watched it every day.
It seemed deeply unfair that a person who brought so much kindness and laughter to others could feel so unhappy. As I read the news, I found myself crying. I don't often cry at the news - I think the last time was when I saw the filmed reports when David Cameron visited Sri Lanka. I wasn't sure why I was crying at first yesterday, but then I realised it was probably to do with my friend.
My friend took her life over a decade ago. I don't want to share her name here out of respect for her family and also because I hate the idea of people Googling her name and seeing links to horrible tabloid reports that don't represent the young woman I knew. I found out through my boyfriend at the time - his boss had read the report about my friend in a tabloid, and wondered if I knew her. I remember the phone call from him almost word for word. And I remember the phone call a few hours later, to my friend's boyfriend. I will never forget his kindness to me during that call. At the time of her death, my friend and I weren't speaking. A stupid, childish argument that was never resolved, despite her attempt to reconcile things at one point. But her boyfriend didn't care about that; he said my friend knew I cared about her and she would have wanted me at her funeral. It was the first funeral I went to.
I still think about her. I wonder what sort of woman she would have grown into, whether she would have stayed in the job she was doing or changed careers, whether she and her boyfriend would have got married, or whether she would have met someone new or just been happy on her own. I wondered if she would have had children and what they would have been like; she was one of the most maternal people I knew at that time. And more than anything, I wonder if she would have been unhappy or content.
I'm agnostic, which leaves me in a bit of a no man's land as far as life after death is concerned. If someone asks me, "Do you believe in life after death?" I'll answer, "No." Logically, impulsively - no, I don't. But somewhere, I don't believe in something but I feel something. Memories, I guess. But they don't feel stuck in the past to me. My memories of my friend are as much as a part of my present and future as my past. I don't want to forget her. She deserves to be remembered. So I sometimes think of her. I sometimes have a one-way conversation with her in my head (this is fairly normal bereaved behaviour, by the way!). I've donated to charity on her behalf for her anniversary. I've written her a letter I'll never send.
Once the shock and sadness had subsided, guilt was the overriding feeling after she died. I imagine a lot of suicides leave the bereaved feeling angry or guilty. Or both. I wasn't angry, not at her, and can't ever imagine feeling that towards her. I feel sad that she was so troubled, and guilty that I wasn't there when she needed a friend. I don't believe I could have "stopped her", but...I don't know. Maybe she'd have felt the tiniest bit less alone. I don't know. Maybe it's just selfish of me. I was just someone who was friends with her for a fairly short time. What on earth have her family and boyfriend been going through?
After yesterday's eventful morning, and a slight reprieve photographing the supermoon, I threw myself into my flowers for the day and was so grateful for the peace that they give me. I had to deliver flowers on the train...and found myself crying again. Although I stopped long before I got to the front door. I left a lonely bouquet at the train station - I hope it brightened someone's day.
When I got home, I cut for myself a Genova dahlia, a Galahad delphinium, and made a tiny posy of Cariad David Austin roses, phlox, verbena, mint, and my only red zinnia. Zinnia = I mourn your absence, phlox = our souls are united, verbena = pray for me, mint = warmth.
If you are feeling depressed or have thoughts of ending your life, no matter how small or fleeting the thoughts are, please talk to someone:
In the UK, you can contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, or Mind (who can provide details of local mental health services), or your GP. The BACP has a list of accredited therapists who you can contact directly.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
And if you are friends with someone who has depression, please contact them as often as you can and don't ignore them when they reach out to you. People say, "You can ring me anytime", but it's not as simple as that - depression and anxiety can be debilitating and soul-sapping. The idea of phoning someone can be terrifying, and the disappointment when people don't answer the phone or ring back can be huge. You don't have to talk for hours, but a real conversation with a real person can make such a difference.
I'm fortunate to have a lovely friend called Tracey who calls me and chats for hours on end. When I was going through a hard time last year, she sent me a different "How many...does it take to change a lightbulb" joke every single day for a month - by postcard, text message or Facebook. I think Robin Williams would have been proud of her.