During this Mental Health Awareness Week, Fathers Network Scotland's Director, Dave Devenney, writes about his experience of losing his mum to suicide.
It was three o’ clock in the morning when the police came. The first thing I became aware of when roused from a deep sleep was that my gran was crying, more than that, she was sobbing uncontrollably and could barely speak. Still half asleep, I followed her through to the lounge where two very serious and sad looking uniform police officers gently encouraged me to take a seat. I sat down. “David” one of them began, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this but your mum has been found dead.” He then went on to speak four words that changed all of our lives forever. ” Your mother committed suicide”. I was 14.
In 1970 people still used the term "committed suicide". in fact, suicide was only decriminalised in the UK in 1961. In 1970 taking your own life was, and perhaps still is, universally stigmatised and typically taboo even to discuss.
My mum and dad had divorced and she had begun a new life, complete with new job. She maintained contact with me and my two younger brothers through our wider family. Her sense of positive expectation of a new life with her children turned to ashes when the divorce court granted my father custody. On the day I was informed of her death I accompanied my uncle to the mortuary where he identified her body. When the police handed over her belongings there was a note. He would not let me read it, but later he told me that she had written, “If I cannot have my sons then life is not worth living…”.
No one in my family ever explicitly told me to keep my mum's suicide quiet, but all discussion of her death, and even her life, seemed to get buried with her at her funeral. At 14, the way I tried to process what had happened to me and us was through blame. I couldn’t grasp the complexities of adult relationships at that point so I blamed my mother initially because she had left the family home and then she had left us finally and forever by taking her own life. I remember standing at her graveside trying hard to make myself cry and wondering at the same time why I was finding it impossible.
After three decades my self-imposed silence had robbed me of the ability to appropriately grieve my actual loss. Older and a little wiser on one level I missed her and the fact that she had missed out on the significant reference points in my life – marriage, children, success and our relationship as I grew up into manhood. But, I could deal with it, I had simply hermetically sealed all those memories into a place where it couldn’t cause me pain.
This all unexpectedly changed when, after a long career in the military, I offered myself for ordained ministry. I had applied and been selected for a three-day selection process for ministry within the Church of Scotland. By the last day I felt that everything was going well and on the final afternoon all that was left was a one-hour interview with a psychiatrist. Half way through that interview I felt calm and relaxed until, glancing at his notes, the psychiatrist said, “I see here that your mother died when you were relatively young. How did you feel about that?”. In an instant I felt as if I had fallen off the edge of a cliff and for the first time in my life experienced a panic attack. My military training pulled me through and to this day I have no idea how I responded. I was eventually selected but the incident revealed to me that the severity of my reaction was directly related to the trauma and the unresolved grief over my mother’s suicide.
We often talk about suicide as if it is a thing in and of itself, complete and final. It isn’t. Suicide when it happens is the terminus of an individual's journey through depression and anxiety and possibly much more. Suicide is a critical mental health issue that, perhaps uniquely, puts specific and heavy emotional burdens on those left behind -- with unanswerable questions, what-ifs, guilt and shame. I often liken it to an emotional hand grenade that unexpectedly explodes into the life of a family and those closest to the loved one pick up the most shrapnel. An emotional wounding that leaves scars for the rest of their lives. Silence also creates significant emotional barriers with the living because you, in a sense, start living a lie. Not acknowledging my mum’s death became the very large elephant in the room for me at family get-togethers. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact in denying her death in this way we began, unthinkingly, to slowly write her out of our lives, effectively robbing her of any positive legacy.
After my episode at the interview, I realised that I needed to talk this through with someone who could offer support and guidance. I had a friend who was a counsellor and over some weeks I gradually began to unpack the complex feelings I had around my mother’s death. I came to the realisation that her death, although an acute expression of a deep depression and anxiety, was also an expression of her love and longing for her children. That understanding became the key that allowed me to step out of my self-imposed cell of protective silence.
In this Mental Health Awareness Week where the theme this year is kindness I think on reflection now that the gift of my mother’s suicide is this: an understanding that we need to be able to cast aside any remaining stigma around mental health in general and suicide in particular. We must practise a radical kindness and understanding towards those who struggle every day with the challenges of poor mental health and her love for me, although expressed most vividly in her death, has brought into being a kind of redemptive kindness that has reconciled us to each other again.
I think about her now possibly more than ever and I mostly smile and am thankful for the things in my life that she gave me, some of which I am probably unaware of and sometimes, in the smiles, expressions and eyes of my children and granddaughters, I catch a glimpse of her looking back at me.
If you are struggling with your mental health, then please remember that you are not alone. Here are some useful resources:
https://www.samaritans.org/ Or call 116 123 free anytime.
http://www.pandasfoundation.org.uk/ Free helpline and email support for any parent who needs a helping hand with their mental health.
https://www.bright-light.org.uk/ Relationship Counselling, currently offering face-to-face online therapy.
https://www.cry-sis.org.uk/ Helpline offering support for parents with crying and sleepless babies.
#BeingMeBeingADad #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek #KindnessMatters