By Ellie Hatto, July 2023
A personal reflection of real life after suicide, to encourage understanding and inspire hope
Exactly 10 years ago to the day, I witnessed the aftermath of my 82-year-old dad’s suicide. He didn’t leave a note to explain why (it wasn’t his style), but I believe his decision was based around his physical, then mental decline and an impending diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
10 years on, here are the top 10 things that still surprise me (in no particular order):
- I can’t believe it actually happened
And I’m not sure I ever will. OK, so I haven’t seen my dad in 10 years and I walked behind his coffin at the funeral (assuming it was him inside), but every now and then I am overwhelmed with a sense of shock and disbelief and for a split second question whether his death by suicide happened at all, as is the sudden and often traumatic nature of bereavement by suicide.
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2. There’s still too much shame and stigma around suicide
Things are moving in the right direction but I’m not sure much has changed in 10 years. The inappropriate comments and treatment I received vary little from those experienced by more recently bereaved people I speak to, which is a shame. This also applies to people who experience suicidal feelings (1 in 5 of us).
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3. Time has dampened the raw shock, but the trauma remains
For example, every summer when the weather gets stiflingly hot, I’m somehow transported right back to the day my dad died (we were in the middle of a heatwave at the time), as if my body is re-living the traumatic event that has now become hardwired in my brain. I’m expecting it to re-appear again in year 11 and beyond (though I’d be glad if it didn’t).
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4. The best (and only) real support I’ve received has been from relative strangers
I gave peer support a try after my dad died. I hadn’t really heard of it before, but it became a lifeline for me and still is. I find being around people who “get it” immensely powerful. The strangers I met have become friends, confidants, colleagues, supporters and healers. Without them I’d still be feeling bewildered, isolated and stuck.
5. The benefits of peer support far outweigh more formal types of support (for me, anyway)
Did I mention that I think peer support is amazing? When my dad died, many people said I should “get therapy”. But I didn’t want to. I knew deep down that it wouldn’t really help me. And I think I was right. I couldn’t fast-track my grief or apply tools to manage it.
Despite bereavement by suicide being complex, seeking out peer support and meeting up once a month in a village hall, chatting with others in a similar situation to mine was and is enough (though the hugs, coffee and biscuits certainly help).
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6. People bereaved by suicide continue to face inappropriate and unkind behaviour by others
But I believe that people generally mean well. Often, I think they just don’t know what to say (and sometimes say nothing at all), but please don’t ignore us or cross the street when you see us. We’re not contagious. We just want to feel supported and understood (just like everybody else, especially when we’re going through a tough time).
7. The anniversary of my dad’s death gets me every time
I have a bit of a reputation amongst my family, friends and suicide bereavement community that I don’t really “do” anniversaries. This applies to Birthdays and Christmas too; it just wasn’t something my family made a big deal of when I was growing up.
So, it’s quite a surprise that in the month or so leading up to and including 10 July each year (the anniversary of my dad’s death) a strange, unnerving feeling comes over me that I can’t shake and I might cry at the drop of a hat for no apparent reason, for example. Add a heatwave into the mix and it’s even worse (see point 3)! However, I find that the day itself is nowhere near as awful as I think it will be, the feelings of apprehension leading up to it are far more unsettling. (Tricky word, anniversary, it suggests something to celebrate).
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8. Services designed to support people bereaved by suicide are often inconsistent and inadequate
When my dad died, the police and paramedics arrived very quickly and were both gone within an hour, leaving me to deal with the aftermath of the devastating, life-lasting event with little to no ongoing support or guidance (Google was my best friend that night).
Unfortunately, I hear similar stories from more recently bereaved people I meet. The police don’t have a consistent, UK-wide approach to dealing with suspected suicides, or the treatment of loved ones left behind.
Experiences with coroners and other service providers vary too. There is a need for greater understanding of the unique challenges and needs those bereaved by suicide face, so they are treated with the respect and care they deserve at one of the most difficult times of their lives.
9. Every bereavement by suicide is as different as it is similar
Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. I have met scores of people who have been bereaved by suicide. Every story is unique. Every situation is unique. Every relationship is unique. However, time and time again, similar emotions and feelings are described as being felt, most of which I can relate to.
They include guilt, shame, anger, abandonment and relief, amongst many others. They are important to recognise and should be key areas of focus for discussion to create understanding and promote healing amongst those bereaved and those who support them, on a personal and professional level alike.
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10. My dad’s death opened up a world of opportunity I wasn’t expecting
My dad’s death by suicide was not something I ever imagined would happen. But it did and it set me on a path of personal exploration and growth, driven by a need to understand what might drive a person to take their own life and how those of us left behind can be best supported.
From the humble beginnings of being a peer support group attendee, I have become more and more involved in work in the suicide support field, which gives me an immense sense of personal comfort and privilege. And there’s still so much more to do! It will never be a sexy subject area, but I can handle that and I feel that encouraging discussion about suicide challenges the stigma and shame still surrounding it. Suicide, after all, is everyone’s business as it’s indiscriminate and can touch any one of us. I always say I’ll never “like” what my dad did, but over time I have grown to accept the decision he made on that impossibly hot and sunny afternoon of Wednesday 10 July 2013.
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