Recalling happy events appears to build resilience to mental illness, say scientists.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
I returned to my childhood home recently to collect a huge suitcase full of old family photographs, documents and other items connected to my family history.
There were several photographs of my mother, many of which I had never seen before. I’m told I look like her, though I can only see a passing resemblance.
I have no memory of time spent with her and am unable to picture her face in my mind, so any photographs I come by are treasured. If my father had been kind enough to share positive memories of her while he had been alive, so much heartache and family distance could have been avoided. As could my own difficulties with mental health as a result of there being so many unanswered questions about my history.
I have spoken with a number of other people in person and online who seem to have experienced similar problems with family members shutting down in the wake of a suicide and relationships suffering as a result. Of course, unanswered questions result in uncertainty and anxiety for those left behind, especially when those people are children. Discussing the suicide of a family member is never easy, but discussing what has happened honestly can save the potential for there being years of bitterness to follow.
This journey has been an emotional one, that goes without saying. When I started learning about my mother’s life, I had no idea my research would go as far as tracking down old friends of hers to share memories and obtaining the coroner’s report and her suicide note. The feeling of empowerment it has given me though, has been incredible. I have a newfound confidence in what I can achieve and feel that I truly understand a woman who was a mystery to me for 31 years. I feel close to her for the first time.
I have reached the point now where I feel I can start to write a book, it will be more detailed than the blog has been and follow a more linear format. The blog has jumped around a lot as I learned new things and decided to write about them.
I intend to keep this site updated as often as possible with news on suicide prevention and mental health treatment and perhaps new posts that result from further research.
Until next time, thank you all for reading and following me up to this point. See you in the new year.
We see no reason, other than the attitudes of the adults concerned, as to why these children should not enjoy a normal, happy relationship with their grandparents.
Social care welfare report
It has been a while since my last post, life has been quite hectic and I felt that continuing with this blog would be counterproductive to my getting things straightened out. My research has been incredibly helpful to me in terms of making sense of the effect that being bereaved by suicide can have on a life, and taking time to reflect on that was important. For now at least, I’m back on track.
I have very little recollection of my mother and her behaviour while she was married to my father, but social care welfare reports and the writings of family members at the time indicate that the atmosphere in the family home was tense.
An affidavit written by my father when my mother’s parents were seeking access to their grandchildren following their daughter’s death stresses the negative effect that her illness had on me. My brother, being younger and having less understanding of what was happening, seemed less influenced by it. I believe my father attempted to care for his children as best he could on becoming a single parent, though his actions were sometimes self-serving and showed a lack of emotional maturity. His relationship with his parents in law was strained at best, and he seemed to believe that they would emotionally manipulate his children with memories of their mother. The bitter resentment between the two parties would continue for the rest of their lives.
A welfare report conducted by social care as a result of the access case notes the tension between the adults and the potential for it to affect familial relationships going forward. My father seemed unable to compromise on the matter, and based this on the assumption that his former in-laws would continually reference their daughter’s death in front of her children. Eventually, we did have contact with our maternal grandparents, though it was clear that there was no love lost between the estranged parties. Of course, this led to feelings of awkwardness for my brother and me whenever it was time for a visit.
My mother’s parents seldom talked about their daughter when we saw them, seemingly for fear of upsetting us or saying anything that could result in our father stopping contact. Having to airbrush her from memory while her children were present must have caused tremendous pain, but I understand and respect their decision. Better to be able to have some kind of relationship with their grandchildren than none at all.
I do feel that my father’s actions in keeping his former in-laws at arm’s length were detrimental to his children’s emotional development. His parents lived quite some distance away in the south-west of England and he had no other family, so estrangement from my mother’s family meant that we were isolated from other relatives who could have given us love and stability.
For a while, I was unconcerned by this isolation, as I do have some happy memories of my childhood, but on reflection, I have realised how damaging it was. My father did his best, but his resentment at the hand life had dealt him became evident over time and what he claimed to be an easy going parenting style was actually quite neglectful. The comings and goings of various wicked stepmother types over the years didn’t help either. As we grew into our teenage years, he did little to maintain the family home, ensure he had dinner prepared each evening and encourage his children to achieve our potential as young adults.
Naturally, growing up in this environment had an impact that has, in some ways, lasted until now. There have been times when I felt emboldened to overcome the tremendous difficulties life can present, and others when I found myself crippled with anxiety at things that wouldn’t concern most other people. I believe that I have now reached a point in my life where this has lessened, learning all that I have about my mother’s life and death has certainly helped in building my emotional resilience and self-belief.
It is incredibly hard for any family to come to terms with suicide, especially when blame is apportioned from different sides who have an axe to grind. I do wish that all the adults involved when my mother died had handled things differently, but there is little use in navel-gazing about what might have been. My mother, father and three of my grandparents are now dead. My maternal grandmother is currently in a nursing home with advanced dementia, I have been fortunate enough to be able to visit and tell her I have a better understanding now about what happened all those years ago. She seemed to understand and it was wonderful to be able to let her know that her daughter is not forgotten.
We let the bird out and he got on my arm and we stroked him…and he flew around like a little duckling and walked like a little duckling…
Excerpt from a letter written by my mother during her childhood
The quote above is from a letter mum wrote to her parents when she was a child. She talks about visiting a relative who has a pet bird and refers to him as a little duckling. Reading it gave me such a joyful feeling, as ducks and geese (well, all waterfowl really) are my favourite animals. Although it may seem fairly inconsequential, reading it made me feel that we had something in common.
This blog has felt like a chronology of sadness at times, and I have become acutely aware of the need to acknowledge and celebrate the happier period in my mother’s life before she started showing signs of her illness. I covered the importance of remembering the triumphs as well as the tragedies of people who die by suicide in a previous post, so that is what I hope to do for her here.
It seems that mum was a very creative child, far more than I ever was, although my brother seems to have inherited the gene. She loved painting, textiles and making Airfix models of historical figures. English was another strength, and she enjoyed reading, although she wasn’t particularly academic and some school reports suggest a lack of confidence in the classroom.
Despite her occasional difficulties in school, socially she seems to have been more self-assured; it seems that she enjoyed her childhood. She was pretty, petite, with thick blonde hair and a lovely smile. She enjoyed ice skating, fairground rides, netball and dancing. Another relative recalls that she enjoyed camping holidays with her family, she was loyal to her brother and cousins, loving and caring towards them.
In 1971 she married my father, who was her childhood sweetheart. For a while, the union was a happy one. They bought a house in Tamworth and mum started work at Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. A former colleague recalls her being great to work with and a good friend, visiting her in hospital after an accident and helping to choose her wedding dress.
Apparently, she was a bit of a hippy around this time. She wore tie-dye t-shirts and jeans and listened to a lot of folk music, although she also enjoyed soul and Motown. Everyone I have spoken with has mentioned her wonderful sense of humour, it seems her exuberance had carried on into adulthood and the first five years of her marriage. I’m told by friends that my sense of humour is also
passable good, though quite dry and self-deprecating.
Learning about the happier times of mum’s life has been an important and very positive experience. The family member who gave me the first lot of information about her said it had been kept because so few people spoke up for her when she became seriously ill, and they wanted her children to have an understanding that her legacy is not solely defined by her illness and death.
I feel very fortunate to find out the things I have. Of course, there are times when the poignancy of what could have been had she lived hits home and grief sets in. Still, I try to remember that discovering a shared love of ducks, reading and writing, and a good sense of humour allow me to feel a closeness to her that I previously thought wouldn’t be possible.
I just thought I’d share a photograph of the woman this blog is dedicated to – my mother Judith, who died by suicide in 1987. Here she is on her wedding day to my father.
I am corresponding with family members and old friends of hers to gather more information, and hope to start covering her achievements and other more positive aspects of her life in future posts.
Thank you to everyone who reads this blog, it has been an amazing experience to learn about mum and share it with you all.
It’s so much more than feeling up and down.
There is nothing more unaesthetic than a policeman.
As the title suggests, this post covers the inquest and coroner’s report following my mother’s suicide. Please bear this in mind should you choose to read on.
Often, the first a family will know of a loved one’s suicide follows a very unwelcome knock at the door by the police. It can come as a complete shock, they may not have known that anything was wrong, or it can be an oxymoronic dreaded relief following a long period of stress or mental illness in the deceased’s life. Either way, a bureaucratic maze of evidence gathering and investigation is likely to result in a coroner’s report and inquest.
Inquests are very public affairs, the aim being to determine the cause of death and, in the case of a suicide, to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the deceased meant to take their own life. For some families, this is an important step in coming to terms with what has happened, for others it is a painful reliving of past events. Given that anyone can attend the hearing (including the press), they may worry about the private life of a loved one being scrutinised and speculated upon when they can no longer answer for themselves.
For a long time, my knowledge of my mother’s inquest began and ended with years of my father parroting that she had been partially decapitated when the train hit. Given his somewhat belligerent sense of humour, I often wondered how true that was, giving way to nightmarish visions of what else had happened that day. Upon doing a bit of research, it became obvious to me from his wording that he only ever troubled himself to read the press report and had memorised the most shocking detail.
In spite of what I had learned, I still only knew so much. I felt that after reading the coroner’s report, my brain would stop endlessly filling in the gaps with different “what if?” scenarios. Usually, coroner’s reports are unavailable for general viewing for 75 years following the person’s death, unless exceptional circumstances arise or people who are entitled to see the information make an application. So, a Freedom of Information request was made and the report was released to me as a ‘properly interested party’ under Rule 57 of the Coroner Rules 1984.
I was on uniformed patrol…At 12.50 hrs I attended the railway line…and there met ambulance crew, and British Rail workers, answering the call of a person having been hit by a train.
Police officer’s statement – coroner’s report
Unsurprisingly, parts of the contents aren’t for the squeamish, though a little foreknowledge of the manner of my mother’s death prepared me for some unpleasant reading. There are graphic descriptions of a previous suicide attempt and the state of her body post-mortem which I won’t repeat here just now, though I may cover in the future after giving it some more thought.
Believe it or not, having a clear description of the timeline of events of that day is strangely comforting. There are several reports from investigating police officers who attended the scene, the driver of the train, British Rail rolling stock inspectors who surveyed the locomotive for any damage, and statements by my mother’s relatives. They all piece together what happened and put 30 odd years of pondering to rest.
Of course, a coroner’s report isn’t where this journey ends for me. I am fortunate enough to have received other useful information regarding my mother’s illness and death which I have already covered on this blog, and am currently corresponding with her relatives and friends to get a clearer picture of happier times in her life. At some point, I hope to write a book based on all this, and the experience of growing up following the suicide of a parent. I feel that this blog is shaping up to be good practice for that.
- Coroner’s Inquests – The National Archives
- Healthtalk.org – Bereavement due to suicide – The Inquest
- Rethink Mental Illness – At the inquest