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Alex - Interview 3

Age at interview: 57
Brief Outline: Felicity and Alex had a daughter, Alice, who diagnosed with depression and then bipolar disorder. In 2004, aged 22, she killed herself. Alex felt that the role he took supporting others helped him to cope with the 'fearful shock' of her suicide.
Background: Alex is an economist, and is married with 2 grown-up sons. He also had a daughter who died. Ethnic background/nationality: Anglo-Saxon.

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Felicity and Alex had a beautiful daughter called Alice. She was a talented budding photographer. During her late teenage years she had depression, and then become psychotic. When she was aged 18 she tried to kill herself by jumping from a roof. She survived and recovered physically, but was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (which used to be called manic depression). With the help of various drugs she felt much better and in 2002 was accepted by a local art college. Alice did not like taking her medication and in 2003 her psychiatrist allowed her to stop taking all her drugs and he discharged her. At first Alice seemed fine without medication. She lost weight, and was highly productive. She passed out of college with distinction and was accepted by Glasgow School of Art to read fine art photography. She had a wonderful first year at Glasgow, made friends and did excellent work.

Then her depression returned. She went home and saw a psychiatrist and was put on medication. After only two weeks she was determined to return to Art School. On the way to the station she told her father that she was finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that she was going to have to live with her illness for the rest of her life. On November 21st 2004 Alice told her flat mate that she would not be going out to supper. She stayed in the flat and suffocated herself.  

Felicity and Alex were woken in the night by a policeman, who told them what had happened. Then Alex had the difficult task of breaking the news to their two sons. Family and friends were “shocked” and “completely stricken” by the news of Alice’s death. The family flew to Glasgow to meet her friends and teachers. They also went to see Alice’s body. Felicity said she looked “incredibly peaceful”. They did not attend the inquest.

Felicity and Alex arranged a “beautiful funeral”. Over 400 people came to the funeral, and there were many tributes to Alice, both during the funeral and afterwards during the wake. She was buried in the graveyard.

Felicity and Alex have always consulted each other and their sons about what was right for Alice and what was not. Family solidarity has been important for them all. For example, they all decided to fill the house with candles during the first Christmas after Alice’s death, and they all played a part in choosing and designing a head stone for Alice’s grave.

After Alice died Alex spent a fair amount of time talking with one or two close friends, but he did not seek formal counselling. He says that he was not too overt about his own emotions because he felt that others needed support. In retrospect he says that he found it very helpful to feel that he could support other members of the family.    

Felicity has found it helpful to write about Alice and to raise awareness of bipolar disorder. Alex and Felicity have also taken comfort in setting up a scholarship or bursary in Alice’s memory, The Alice Duncan Travel Prize. Each year a student who has just graduated receives money to enable him or her to travel and then come back and have an exhibition.

Felicity and Alex have also published a book of Alice’s photographs. The book is called Alice Duncan' Photographs, and is published by White Bridge Press. Felicity and Alex said that it was “incredibly important” that they were able to publish this beautiful book in memory of Alice.

Alex's wife Felicity wrote an article about Alice that was published in the Guardian on Saturday April 22nd 2006. The article is called “Once we had a daughter”.

Alex was interviewed in July 2007.

See also our interview with Alex’s wife, Felicity

 

Alex and Felicity received the news that Alice had died in the middle of the night. The police...

Alex and Felicity received the news that Alice had died in the middle of the night. The police...

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Yes, they rang us, plus or minus 3 o’clock in the morning, and said that they would be round in five minutes, so they were obviously at the end of the drive. Two policemen came round and they handled it with great sensitivity, I was very impressed. They came round and it was pretty clear to us that it related to Alice and we assumed instantly that she had in fact killed herself, so when they came a few minutes later it was no great surprise at that moment in what they said, they chose their words very carefully, I was impressed by the consideration that they showed us, they used the phrase that, “Alice is no longer with us.” As a euphemism it was very well, well judged by them. So altogether, you know, they were very courteous, they obviously waited long enough to see whether we needed them to stay on or needed any further help, but we didn’t. So off they went after I imagine a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes or so.
 

Alex and Felicity realised that a death by suicide in the family might weaken family bonds. Alex...

Alex and Felicity realised that a death by suicide in the family might weaken family bonds. Alex...

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I think we all inevitably have changed as individuals as a result of an experience like this, I suspect in our different ways we are to use the Ancient Mariner’s phrase, “Slightly sadder and wiser people,” because these are the kind of experiences which form an individual. I think I’m very struck by my two sons who were both late teens or twenty or so when this happened, that they have both grown up a great deal very rapidly as a result of this having happened to them, and I’m very impressed by what I see, I was delighted that they were able to pick themselves from this fearful shock and carry on with their studies with their lives, in a way that I was very very impressed by. So, one can’t separate the fact that death does happen in everybody’s family’s, that it is part of one’s experience of living, and in the case of my boy’s of growing up from a youngish age, I think long term they will be stronger people because of this, also I suspect more humane people you know, it helps you to be humane to understand that other people you know also have heavy burdens that they sometimes carry. So I think we’ve all matured to some extent because of this experience, beyond that I suppose I’m simply delighted that the family has been able to have solidarity through this process rather than fragment because I think that one of the most distressing situations that I occasionally see where family’s bonds themselves are then weakened because of the after effects of a death like this, and there I think the loss is compounded, and fortunately in this case that’s not happened.
 

Alex and Felicity were most impressed by the thoughtful action of a policeman who sent them...

Alex and Felicity were most impressed by the thoughtful action of a policeman who sent them...

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The only involvement with an official I think in Glasgow was with a policeman who was designated to be in charge of the case, who was also extremely good, extremely sensitive, he really yes, throughout he was very aware of our situation as a family, there was a later episode which I found very striking which was that when he’d later gone through Alice’s papers and her effects, as part of his investigation, he discovered something that she had written and intended to say at her grandfather’s funeral which was taking place a week or two later. And he realised what this was, and although he couldn’t release the document, he faxed it to us in order that it could be read at the funeral. In fact the fax never arrived, and he took the trouble to ring again to see whether it had arrived, and when we said we didn’t know about it, he then copied it out and resent it a second time. It was a very small thing in a way, but it was indicative I thought of on the personal level, but also the, presumably the culture of the police they have tried to develop there, in cases like this which I found very impressive.
 

Alex found that almost all organisations were efficient and sensitive, but one company failed to...

Alex found that almost all organisations were efficient and sensitive, but one company failed to...

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Yes, as I mentioned, I mean almost all the organisations we had anything to do with were very efficient and very, very sensitive. The one extraordinary exception was an insurance company that Alice, despite her young age; well a pension scheme had started up and so we notified the insurance company of her death, and we got simply no reply to letters or messages, their behaviour was absolutely outrageous and in the end I wrote not once, but had to write twice to the Chairman, to demand some action, and the first of these letters received in reply, a standard letter in the post addressed to my daughter, regretting the poor service that she’d thought that she’d received, so, as a lesson for any insurance company or any private company dealing with this situation, this would be a lesson in how not to do it.
 

Alice’s funeral was ‘immensely helpful’. It gave the family a sense of strength and a feeling of...

Alice’s funeral was ‘immensely helpful’. It gave the family a sense of strength and a feeling of...

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Did the family as a whole get involved planning the funeral?
 
Very much so, it was a very great collective effort, and it was helpful because there was a sense that this was one of the last things that one was going to do for her and I think everybody felt that they had something to contribute, in that respect, so my two sons both either spoke or read something at the funeral. Felicity was very much involved in getting a group of people around to help with the practicalities of the arrangements in the church, the catering, we had a largish wake afterwards, and there’s no doubt that as a shared experience as a family event, a community event, that service was hugely important to us, the fact that a large number of friends and family, of Alice’s friends, of our friends, came, was immensely helpful, the feeling of solidarity it provided us undoubtedly with huge amount of strength enabling us to get through that particular period. It’s very important for societies to have rights of passage where in a public way what has happened is acknowledged and it’s very much part of coming to terms with it, something that is almost unimaginable otherwise.
 

A year after Alice died Alex and Felicity asked a sculptor to carve a headstone. One of their...

A year after Alice died Alex and Felicity asked a sculptor to carve a headstone. One of their...

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There is a rather wonderful headstone, in Portland stone, done by a local sculptor. One thing that was I think right is that we left it the best part of a year before getting going on the stone. And I’m glad that we did that because it helped very much for time to pass and to allow one to think of the form that it should take and what one wanted to say on it. One of our sons is also very artistic and he took a very active role in the design of the stone. And as the stone was done by somebody who was a sculptor rather than a stone mason it was a rather interesting process of two artists having to come to an agreement which I mean ultimately it did take quite a number of months to arrive at an agreed design and shape for it, and I think we’re all really delighted with it now. The grave is somewhere that we go on a fairly regular basis, all of us, I mean in general I feel that cremation is a perfectly appropriate thing to do with a body, but I think with a young person where the nature of the grieving is I suspect very different from when an old person dies, I found it extremely helpful to have like a place to go to, which one can associate with her, and so I’m really delighted that she was buried rather than cremated, and that we have a stone which reflects something of her, but it was also something that should not be started too early I think.
 

Did you have a, a little ceremony when the headstone was put in place, or did you meet at the grave at that time?

 

Yes we helped the sculptor to put the stone in place, and that again was one of those activities that we did together, which I’m very glad that we did, and we had an extremely modest ceremony, with the three or four of us at the time. But there was nothing much, but again it was the, to have this physical activity that you can do together is an important part I think of grieving.
 

After Alice died Alex did not seek counselling. He spent time talking to close friends rather...

After Alice died Alex did not seek counselling. He spent time talking to close friends rather...

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And you yourself, where did you find support at that time?
 
[pause] ...I spent a fair amount of time talking with one or two close friends that I’ve got, but I think generally I went less that some other family members for external support. Whether it’s a male female thing, or me as an individual, I don’t know, but I think I found it in retrospect, very helpful to feel that there were other family members who also needed a certain amount of support, and that provided a way forward in a certain, a role as it were in what is obviously a difficult period. And there were certainly periods when I found that I wanted to not be too overt about my own emotions, because of the feeling that other people needed support. I have a lot of family background in Africa where I was brought up, and having seen a lot of people in Africa who’ve been bereaved, who’ve lost children; that it’s a very normal thing for many people unfortunately, I think I’ve always been struck by the extent to which family members are able to deal with that. And to provide mutual support, so I suppose for me that was more of a feature of my coming to terms with what had happened than seeking external support, I suppose I’m just basically more private about it perhaps than some of the others.
 

Alex says that the anniversary of his daughter’s death is more difficult than birthdays, but as...

Alex says that the anniversary of his daughter’s death is more difficult than birthdays, but as...

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I think in general the anniversary of her death has been more difficult than her birthdays. The first one in particular, there was definitely something one felt that needed to be marked. There is also no doubt that with the passage of time, it’s now two and a half years since she died, that these things become easier, I mean time does change these things fortunately, even though it’s very hard to believe at the time, and soon afterwards that that would be the case. It changes the nature of grieving, the pain is much less sharp, I think as time passes, but beyond that, no I don’t think there is anything much to say. I think the, these milestones, they are poignant moments; they bring memories back but, as I say they become less painful with each passing year.
 

Alex draws attention to the saying “Mourn the dead and cherish the living”, and says that the...

Alex draws attention to the saying “Mourn the dead and cherish the living”, and says that the...

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A friend of ours said there is a wonderful Jewish saying that, “Mourn the dead, and Cherish the living.” And so I think the feeling that the living do need to continue to have a good deal of support is a very important thing to bear in mind. Beyond that, I mean for those who have been bereaved, I think considerable comfort can be taken from a knowledge that over time these things do become easier to bear, and the pain is extremely sharp for quite a long time and it seems sometimes that it will be there forever, but these things do change, and the passage of time is enormously helpful, but, beyond that no, I don’t think I have anything further [to add].
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