If you know me personally or have read past entries in this blog you will know that my brother died to suicide. Suicide is a very specific kind of death, and it is a manner of death which complicates the grieving process. Survivors of bereavement to suicide are highlighted in the bereavement literature as having particularly complex emotions to process and as being more significantly at risk of depression and suicide themselves following the death of their loved one. This is due to many overlapping and competing factors. In this blog, as well as tracking my grief, I will attempt to unpick some of the major issues that surround suicide and that complicate the grieving of someone bereaved by suicide.
There was a time following Greg’s death when my mum and I watched a lot of TV. For a while it was the only way I could conceive of passing the time, which dragged painfully slowly. The Hairy Bikers (two British television chefs, for those reading from overseas. Yes, bizarrely, people overseas read this!) had a programme involving school children and elderly people, and the general aim was that the two generations helped each other with their problems. There was one young boy (around 12 or 13 years old) who was particularly likeable – he was chatty, interested, and eager, but was also often in trouble at school. His father had ended his own life, and he was clearly struggling to understand this. In one scene he sits in the car and wonders how his father could have chosen to leave him and his sister. His feeling of abandonment is palpable. The woman with him tries to console him – you have your mum, she says. It’s not the same, the boy replies.
Our society has come a long way in terms of our understanding of mental health issues, but this understanding seems to go only so far. Most people nowadays recognise that depression is a mental health illness. It is not merely feeling low, being sad, being pessimistic or being lazy, and it is not something people can simply ‘snap out of’ or can somehow will themselves into changing. Whether it is the cause or the effect, depression involves a chemical imbalance in the brain which in turn affects emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. This is pretty much accepted.
And yet suicide is still seen, by some, as a choice. People say things that imply this. ‘We must respect his wishes’. ‘I’m angry at him for doing this’. There is still a view out there that suicide is selfish. No one has said this to me but I know as much from my interaction with the world previously. Even people bereaved by suicide believe this – angered as they are by being left, apparently deliberately, in such a violent and hurtful way by someone they loved and they thought loved them back. The boy described above will no doubt grow old thinking of his father as a selfish person, of his death as a selfish act, and of himself as being deliberately abandoned.
But if depression is a mental illness and suicide is a result of depression, then it makes no sense to think of suicide in this way. It is a complete contradiction. A mental illness can (CAN, this does not mean it necessarily does, but it certainly can) completely undermine a person’s ability to think rationally and reasonably. The illness takes hold of the brain in the same way cancer takes hold of the body. The brain is captive to the illness, it is its prisoner. The brain’s agency is eroded and the illness takes full control. The depression tells the brain that the only thing to do is to end one’s life. The brain believes it.
Carla Fine’s ‘No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Loss of a Loved One to Suicide’ is filled with the testimony of other survivors. In this excerpt a husband describes his wife’s reaction to having a particularly bad depressive episode:
‘She turned to me, saying that she thought she should be hospitalized. I called her doctor, who said that it would be difficult to get her admitted over the weekend and she should come see him on Monday. That night, she took a whole bunch of different pills. When I woke up in the morning, she was dead beside me in the bed.’ p. 173
It is blindingly obvious that this man’s wife did not want to die – she wanted to be hospitalized because she could feel that her suicidal instincts were becoming stronger and she needed to be protected from them. She wasn’t, and the result is that she ended her own life. This is not selfish and this is not a choice. It is a tragic result of a terrible illness. When talking about suicide the mental health community request that the public refrain from using the terminology ‘committed suicide’. Saying that someone ‘committed suicide’ suggests that there is choice involved (people ‘commit’ crimes), whereas in most cases (if not all) suicide is something that happens to people. Saying that one ‘ended their life’, ‘took their own life’, ‘died to suicide’ are other ways to factually describe the event without unthinkingly apportioning blame or guilt.
People who have been bereaved by suicide can understand the death in one of two ways. Either, like me, they believe suicide is a result of mental illness but are aware of the negative views society can attach to suicide and thus feel the need to explain; to remove guilt from their loved one; to preserve the loved one’s dignity, innocence and honour and to maintain for them a reputation which is not unfairly blemished. For me Greg is completely guiltless, but I carry with me an intense fear that others will misunderstand and misjudge the person I love so much. This does not happen with most other deaths. People don’t normally judge the morality of the deceased by the nature of their death, so it is not something the bereaved would normally concern themselves with.
Or, like the boy above, those bereaved by suicide may have never had the opportunity to contextualise suicide within the framework of extreme mental illness. Or they have, but they regard suicide nonetheless as a choice. In this case, the bereaved is left with feelings of hurt, abandonment, anger, blame, hatred mingled together with love into agonising confusion, and guilt for having these feelings.
My heart broke for the boy above because no one seemed able or willing to explain to him that his father did not choose to leave him – that his father (perhaps, hopefully) loved him and would never choose to leave him, but that his father had been very ill, and that an illness of the brain can be just as dangerous as an illness of the body.
This is what I believe, and I believe it is a view vindicated by science and logic. I am afraid, however, that not everyone agrees.
The Cooking – Aubergine and Farro Salad
Summer is the season of salads! For me, this generally means opening a bag of prepacked salad leaves, chopping some tomato, cucumber and possibly a red or yellow pepper into the mix, and cobbling together a dressing of oil and balsamic vinegar. If I’m making a particular effort (and feeling a little more flush than usual) I might even add an avocado, sliced apple or walnuts. This is as far as my salad making skills go.
But there is a whole world of salads out there that may be worth some exploration. Starting with this recipe, ‘Salad of Farro, Roasted Aubergines, Cucumber and Mint’ by Sam Harris which I have taken from a past issue of the Observer Food Monthly (03.08.14). Farro, I gathered upon examination, is a grain of some kind. I imagined it being part of this new foody interest (can we call it a fad?) in “healthy” grains and seeds – chia, quinoa, etc. I can’t actually remember how much the little pack of Farro cost but it did add something special to this meal. Not such a fad ingredient, maybe.
The recipe is relatively basic. Roast the aubergine after cutting it up. Cook the farro with softened onion and garlic. Chop the cucumber and herbs, grate some lemon zest, add some seasoning, red wine vinegar and olive oil, and mix together in a big bowl. The farro takes some energy to cook because it’s similar to risotto and requires constant stirring. Other than that, not much to go wrong here!
The result was surprisingly complex in flavour and satisfyingly filling (always a worry with salads). We ate it as a main and it made a very good vegetarian option for meat eaters; both the aubergine and the farro work well as meat substitutes. Farro is nutty in flavour, like brown rice but more substantial. The aubergine was soft, squidgy, and rich, the cucumber crisp and refreshing. Some sprinkled chilli flakes gave some heat, which was then cooled by yoghurt and herbs. Taster quote: ‘a good marriage of earthy aubergine, cool cucumber and the nutty grain’. This was a tasty main meal for the summer months, but would also serve very well as a vegetarian option at a summer party spread.