This September, it will be 13 years since my brother’s suicide. That seems like such an incredibly long time when I write it down like that. He was 34 when he died and so he would be 47 now. In that time, his two little nephews have grown up from 4 and 2 to 17 and 15. He has a niece now too. I am used to the idea of my own tragedy in all of this; that particular knife rarely wounds me anymore. It is not until I think of how much my children have missed out on that I feel the sharp stab of grief again. 

They lost Uncle Steven. On my phone, I still have a Facebook message where he talks about wanting to fly kites and play cricket on the beach at Mersea Island with them. He had just bought a Beach Hut, that last summer of 2008. He was imagining a time when he could play with them and create the same happy childhood memories that we two siblings shared from Mersea. 

One of the last occasions that he spent with the two boys was a July Sunday when we had driven to Mersea to see the Beach Hut. I of course had no idea at the time that it would be the second to last time that I saw him and talked to him. As is often the case with days like this, I can remember it with absolute clarity. The sea was just coming in and it was a gloriously sunny day. We took our sandals of and walked out across the mud to paddle in the warm sea as it made its way towards the beach. The boys were playing around on the sand and mud. We talked about times from our childhood, and I remember glancing down and seeing his feet through the water and thinking how remarkably vulnerable his toes seemed. Such a strange thought, and it left my head as soon as it entered. Only with hindsight did it seem prophetic. 

But then so much about that day seemed prophetic after his death. I have a photo from that afternoon of us sitting together on the beach, and when I look at it now I imagine that he is looking at the lens with sorrowful eyes and a fake smile. We drove to a garage with him as we left the Island so that he could buy some food and we could get petrol. I turned to wave at him from the car as we left the forecourt and he waved back, and I turned to my husband and commented that Steven seemed sad. I know I didn’t imagine that bit: there was a heavy air of melancholy as we drove away. But I quickly forgot about it and returned back to my busy life of bringing up two small boys.

I remember having to tell Thomas about his Uncle Steven’s death that September. He had just started school and I had been in to have a meeting with the Teaching Assistant, Mrs King, to talk about how best to break the news. She told me not to lie and to be as honest as I could. Children can sense a lie and will learn not to trust their significant adult. I was about to shatter his innocent world forever. My heart banging in my chest, I broke the news. I did not say how he had died, only that he was, very sadly, dead. He listened carefully, his eyes very solemn, and said “Can I go and play now?” That was hard, as Steven’s death felt diminished somehow. But it was an entirely normal response from a 4 year-old. He had no idea of what he had just lost.

When someone dies, those left behind spend hours wracking their brains to try to remember ‘the last time.’ Or later, trying to forget, as those painful memories are prone to flood in, unannounced and often unwanted. The last time I saw Steven was my youngest son’s 2nd birthday, when he arrived late with an enormous, person-sized stuffed monkey. I remember him leaving and coming to say goodbye to me in the kitchen. I was surrounded by small boys, trying to man-handle plastic toys and cake into party bags. I barely turned around to say goodbye. There are a few photos from that afternoon, and again, I spent hours after his death searching them for clues. There were none. 

The suicide of a loved one brings with it a terrible sense of shame. In my experience, that is unique to a death through suicide. It is pure horror. It is numbing and shocking and desolate. There are no words of comfort that can be offered. There are often just no words at all. How can there be any words sufficient to greet the news that a young man has gone into his garage one morning and hung himself from a beam with his own dressing gown cord? The dressing gown he got for Christmas for God’s sake. My instinct when I received the news was to run. I ran up and down the street. I ran across the busy A13, blind to oncoming traffic. My husband had to pin me down and lock the doors until the need to run subsided and became something more manageable. My mum’s instinct was to scream. She screamed until a doctor came and gave her some sort of tranquilizer. And my Dad. His reaction was to sit in his armchair and sob throughout the long, terrible night while his heart slowly broke into pieces and never mended.

My brother’s death was like an enormous rock being thrown at speed into a still and calm pond. Up until that day, we were just a normal family. As normal as any family can be, that is. We had normal worries, normal arguments, normal Christmases. After the rock landed, normal left the party and never really came back. We held on to each other and it felt like we were being battered by howling winds from every side. It took all our strength to survive those first few days. I am left with snippets of memories like some dreadful suicide collage: taking my mum to see a priest and being terrified he’d say Steven’s soul was doomed to wander Purgatory for eternity(he didn’t – he was lovely); standing outside the garage door where by brother had hung himself and trying to get a sense of the despair he must have felt to hurt us so badly; and my husband, rushing around making us endless meals that nobody touched. 

My mum continued to need something to deaden the pain: she developed a serious drinking problem that finally resulted in her suffering a series of brain bleeds and my dad found his comfort in food. He developed diabetes and finally died of heart failure, at least 10 years too soon. My children have grown up without their uncle and I am an only child. These absences are always brought home to me whenever I am choosing birthday or Christmas cards…

My brother’s death and what happened to my family afterwards was a big factor in me deciding to change my career and become a counsellor. It didn’t happen immediately; it stewed for a good few years. Years in which I experienced a mental breakdown and had to go for transformative counselling myself. From the chaos and destruction of my brother’s death I wanted something good to come. I came to believe that my brother had lost his way and could no longer remember who he was. He listened too attentively to those voices telling him what he ought to be until he could no longer remember what it was he had wanted to be. He became so lost and disconnected that it was easier to put an end to it all rather than try to untangle the threads. I believe that a good counsellor can help a person in despair to find those threads, untangle them and understand where they lead back to.

My wish is that I had stopped to listen to my inner voice trying to tell me there was something badly amiss. I wish that I had said “are you ok?” when we were standing gazing out to sea. We always have wishes and regrets after a death, but I think after a suicide they are far more intense. 

I am not religious but in amongst the many cards of sympathy that we received was one that really brought me comfort. There was a quote that read “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.” I desperately wanted to be heard, to be understood and to feel that I was not alone. For me, that is at the heart of what I try to offer as a counsellor.

Sinead Withers

Yet another personal and inspirational blog written by our therapist Sinead Withers here at Life House Therapy.

If you’ve experienced a loss of any-kind, please reach out to us here at Life House Therapy. One of our hand-selected therapists would be honored to be by your side in the process of filtering your experience.

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