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Barbara - Interview 23

Age at interview: 68
Brief Outline: Barbara & Colin's son, Matt, found his first job as a junior doctor very stressful. In 1992 Matt was found dead in a crashed car; probably due to suicide. He was aged 24. Colin & Barbara were devastated.
Background: Barbara is a retired teacher. She is married and has 2 grown-up children. She also had a son who died. Ethnic background/nationality: White British.

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Barbara’s and Colin’s son, Matt, was very talented (see also Colin’s interview). Matt was a high achiever and a good sportsman. He studied medicine at university and seemed to enjoy his days as a student. In1991 he started his first hospital house job, which he found stressful. He was living in a house on his own and he felt unsupported by senior colleagues. After about five months he left his job and returned home, feeling unhappy, inadequate and depressed. Looking back,Barbara thinks that perhaps he found the responsibility involved in his medical work quite overwhelming. Matt started working for a medical publishing firm and moved to another town.
 
One of the hospital consultants wrote to Matt to say that he was sorry Matt had left and that he was a good doctor, but no-one else wrote to him to encourage him to return to medicine. Barbara wished that others had shown some compassion, and she wrote a letter to the BMJ saying that some young doctors are vulnerable and need more support and encouragement to return to medicine after they drop out of the profession.
 
One night two police officers arrived at Colin and Barbara’s house. The policemen said that there had been an accident, and they asked Colin and Barbara to drive for over an hour to identify a young man who had been found dead in a wrecked car. Feeling shocked Colin and Barbara drove to the hospital mortuary and found their son, dead at the age of 24. At first Barbara felt “stunned” and “frozen”, and only later “howled” in anguish. Matt’s corneas and part of his aortic valve were used for organ donation, which gave Barbara some small degree of comfort.
 
Matt’s funeral was held at a crematorium about 10 days after he died. Some of his favorite music as played, such as A Whiter Shade of Pale. His ashes were scattered at the crematorium. Later Colin and Barbara planted at tree in Matt’s memory, at a local arboretum.
 
The inquest was about four months later. The coroner delivered an “open verdict”, because even though Matt had left notes before he died there was still some uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of his death. Barbara does not remember much about the inquest. She thinks the “open” verdict was “kinder” than a verdict of suicide, but having seen the note that Matt left behind she thinks he probably meant to end his life. One of Matt’s friends finds it comforting to think it could have been an accident.
 
Barbara went back to her job as a teacher – she found it helped to get back to work. Other people did not know what to say to her and she found this difficult. Barbara had one session with a private counsellor, but decided that this type of counselling was not for her, partly because the counsellor looked at her watch and had not met Matt and so Barbara felt the counsellor could not really understand the situation.  
 
Barbara likes people to remember Matt, but sometimes she gets upset so she does not like talking about him when the grand-children are around. The pain of losing Matt is still there and sometimes she worries about the pressures put on the next generation.
 
Barbara now finds some joy in activities such as walking in the countryside, but there is never a day when she does not think about Matt.  She has never felt angry with Matt, only a great sadness that he is no longer alive and with the rest of the family. She thinks Matt died while “balance of his mind was disturbed.” She would have liked that verdict given at the inquest, because she finds it meaningful and comforting.       

 

Matt's note said he couldn’t live up to his own high standards, that he loved all the family and...

Matt's note said he couldn’t live up to his own high standards, that he loved all the family and...

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So you think from the note it was clear that he’d meant to take his own life?


Yes, yes, I do, he started by saying, as I said to you I think earlier, “For a long time I feared that there would come a time when the difference between the person I am and the person I’d like to be, would be intolerable. That time has now come.” And then he says to us, and to his sister and brother, “I love you all, this will cause you pain I know but it shouldn’t. What I have done has relieved me of a great burden which genuinely could not have been lifted any other way. All my love, Matt.”


Mm.


And he’d written earlier on in the month, “It’s better for me to do this now, whilst I still have some dignity than to prolong the pain.” So I think he [the coroner] was…  perhaps being kind to us to give an open verdict, perhaps he felt that was, I don’t know.

 

A young policeman made what Barbara thought was an ill-judged remark about her son (Matt)’s...

A young policeman made what Barbara thought was an ill-judged remark about her son (Matt)’s...

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Yes, what I remember, two [police] men, the one in charge I felt was very, very good, I mean, what can one do in such circumstances, he was the one who offered to make the tea, and I, I made it for them. The other one was younger, and I, I’d probably make the same, I thought it was a mistake at the time, it, it was so awful, it was just that my husband said that Matt probably did like to drive quite fast and had once had a minor accident, and I said that he drove into the back of somebody because there was a hold up further on and coming round the bend, this was some holiday somewhere and he went into the back of the car, and it was nothing serious with which, it was what had happened, but the young police officer said, “Oh but that is serious, my wife, somebody went into the back of my wife’s car and it’s taken her months to recover,” and that’s very sad, it is very sad and I understand that but I, I felt at the time, if he had perhaps had been older and wiser, perhaps he needn’t have said that.


Mm.


It seemed, well it just didn’t seem fitting but I’m sure he didn’t, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it but….

 

Barbara and her family provided food for those who came to Matt’s funeral. She found it hard to...

Barbara and her family provided food for those who came to Matt’s funeral. She found it hard to...

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So you had the funeral which you felt was a bit rushed.


Yes.


Not enough time to think what you really wanted.


Yes. It was. And having to organise [a gathering with food] and everybody does at funerals, I know when people have died from, but to have to organise a meal and things for people, it isn’t that one begrudges you know it’s just something you don’t feel,


No.


You just don’t feel, you know, well up to.


No.


Because any death is, any death of anybody is a traumatic experience I know, but for young people who’ve been ill, terrible, but for, for a suicide somehow there’s, it’s,  I feel it’s harder to come to terms with than any other kind of, there’s no sense of, there can’t be any sense of perhaps relief that maybe some people feel if you’ve had a relative who’s been ill for a long time and in pain, there’s, there’s no, there seems to be no sort of, there’s no silver lining in that respect, and no celebration of life as it were.


Did many people come to the meal that you provided afterwards?


Quite a few people did because it was only you know sandwiches and things like that but quite a few people did because they’d come from quite a, you know, quite a way so.


Mm.


Well you have to, you know, it’s only fitting to provide people with [refreshments].


I can see it must be hard to talk.


It was, very, very hard yes. I didn’t, didn’t like that at all. I’d rather just’ve disappeared, but there you are.

 

Barbara feels that the decision to scatter Matt’s ashes in the crematorium garden was made too...

Barbara feels that the decision to scatter Matt’s ashes in the crematorium garden was made too...

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Was, was the funeral as you hoped it would be. Was it what you wanted?


…I’d never really thought about it, a funeral for one of my children.


No. No.


I have a very strict Methodist upbringing, huh, so it wasn’t really,] it was just at the crematorium, I think it was all, it’s all too quick, you really, you really don’t function properly. The music was as we wished it to be, and, but I I think, sounds a ridiculous thing to say, I don’t know. One wouldn’t want to prolong the agony and have it… sort of months later, perhaps we; but a memorial service is, is a bit over the top for so young a person who you know, it probably was the only thing we could’ve done but …


You felt it was a bit rushed?


It was rushed, yes. I felt we had to do everything too, too quickly, yes, yes. And, and it was a place that really didn’t have a lot of meaning for us, that was one of the problems I suppose of having moved from where the children had been, we had lived in Scotland for far more years, so in a way it was unfortunate that way but, I don’t suppose there was anything we could’ve changed really in that respect.


And were, were his ashes scattered there?


Yes, now that is something I regret, that was again far too sudden a, far too quick a decision, I can’t remember which of us made that decision, and I wish perhaps we’d had them and thought of somewhere that meant something to Matt and perhaps [er] put them with the tree that we tried to plant in his, in his memory. That was too rushed yes. I don’t, perhaps advice on that would’ve been helpful, I don’t know but…


So looking back now, you’d rather have a place where you know his ashes are, is that what you’re saying?


Yes, I think I would. I don’t know whether Colin would but I think I would, we didn’t really want and I don’t think the family, I don’t think our other children wanted a, a grave as such.


So are they scattered amongst the rose bushes or something?


Yes, amongst the rose bushes, which, which I suppose is, it is nice, I can tell myself that you know, living things grow from, you know, just the elements of the soil, so, but I think I would’ve liked, I did keep a, going back to when we, saw his body, when we identified him, I did ask for some of his hair, which I, I planted a, I put a tiny bit of his hair with the tree that we planted, and I still have a little bit, so that, that was just something.


That was nice.


Yes, just something. That was just the only thing I could think of at the time.

 

Barbara felt she could communicate with Matt by writing notes to him, and she says a prayer at...

Barbara felt she could communicate with Matt by writing notes to him, and she says a prayer at...

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Have you used any other way of sort of coping with all this? Did you keep a memory box or have you done anything else at all?


Yes, I have got a memory box and I’ve kept some of the things Matt had. I don’t know if it’s a good thing but his, he had a red filing box and I’ve kept that. And I have got a little book and after [he died] we planted a tree.


Mm.

 

I write notes from time to time, I used to do it more often. And I don’t do it as often now, and that’s not, and I asked myself recently actually why I did it less often, it would be nice to think that it was because I didn’t need to, I don’t think it is that, when I really, when I feel low, I think I, I say to myself it’s because “What’s the point?” But I don’t often feel like that, and it’s just, in a strange way it’s I feel I’m communicating with him.


So you write notes to him?


They’re, they’re a mixture. Sometimes they’re just a note about, came today, sometimes I say, came with Henry the dog and, I describe you know, if it’s spring time and whether there are leaves are coming out and what the flowers are around, and I saw a particular bird. Sometimes it’s just like that. Sometimes it has been, I actually do say, “Matt,” you know.


Do you keep the notes?

 

Yes I’ve got it in a little book, yes, yes. And sometimes, earlier on I told him when you know new grandchildren had come, because he, he was alive when my daughter had, her first two were born and our sons first daughter was born, but the others have come since, so.


Do you have a spiritual faith that helps you or not?


No, I wish, I want to have. I was brought up as a strict Methodist and I, but it’s a long, a long time ago that I even, I even when I was in the 6th form, I began to question things. I think perhaps I had too much of a, going to church three times a, and I began to question things and it was mostly seeing children, suffering with cancer and things which made me think that you know I can’t reconcile this, I can’t find any answers, so I [sigh], I suppose it, well I, yes I have lost faith and yet there is a small part of me which just occasionally, particularly when I’m out walking and there’s a lovely, lovely day and, and some small part of me, just for fleeting seconds, I think there has to be something more than this, and, then I think perhaps it’s arrogant of man to think that just because we can’t understand it, there isn’t something else, so there is still, there is still some part of me that, well there’s a spiritual dimension to me and there is some part of me which wants it to be a Christian belief. So, I, I go on hoping that, that I might you know, find some faith but...


Mm.


...I don’t know. But I haven’t entirely, I haven’t entirely dismissed it. That’s sounds very silly doesn’t it but …


No, does that, does that help you with your…


It would help me.


With your loss of Matt, does it help?


Yes it, yes it would help me, it does help me, and I do, I do, I, I, I say a prayer every night, and I, I think why? Why do I? I think of Soames in the Forsyte Saga who, who said, he said his prayers as a sort of insurance policy, just in case there was anyone there. I don’t do that. I don’t think I, that’s not my conscious motivation so I think there has to be still some, there’s still some part of me that, and I sometimes talk to, well, yes I do, I sort of talk to Matt, when I’m in a bit of a quandary about things I sometimes say, “Oh I, help me to”, you know, “go on the right lines.” So there, there must be, there is a spiritual dimension.

 

After her son left his hospital job none of his colleagues phoned to find out how he was feeling....

After her son left his hospital job none of his colleagues phoned to find out how he was feeling....

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Looking back, do you think there is anything that could’ve prevented this terrible event. Do you think there’s any message for the health professionals at the hospital involved for example?

 

…Yes, I would, I would, as I say I would, I would like them [my son’s hospital colleagues and teachers] to have been in contact with him, just a phone call or something. If somebody could just have been in contact with him, just as a friend, just in a friendly way, I know that doctors have so much to do, and it is difficult, but if somebody had phoned and just said, “How are you Matt?” You know, “What have you been doing at…?” Just something to make him feel that he was, you know, he still mattered, that people remembered him. As it happened, nothing, and I’m sure part of it was because a large part was because they’re all so busy, I see that from my own daughter and son-in-law, but also, perhaps they feel you mustn’t force people to stay in a profession with, but, I mean his consultant said, “I feel sure that your future lies, you know, in medicine.” They saw a lot in him, and maybe, I’m not sure, and I think maybe it [the profession of medicine] wasn’t right for him, I don’t know, but he didn’t have a proper chance, I really do think it could’ve helped.

 

If he’d been made to feel valued?

 

If he’d been made to feel valued. Because once you have given something up…. And then I remember my, oh, my own father, who was born in 1900, long been dead, but he, he had a pretty stern upbringing I think and his own father said to him, “When you put your”, the Methodist tradition, “When you put your hand to the plough never turn back”. And my father had, against his own father’s wishes left school at 16 to join the merchant navy because he wanted, this was in the First World War, and he wanted to go and he was too young. So he thought he would go by joining the merchant navy. So he, he always bore in mind what his father had said, and he became a merchant navy captain and the first ever person to become a, an Extra Master.


Mm.


Why am I saying that? Probably because, I was saying that probably because that was sort of the, that was the ethos in which I was brought up, and I never ever said that to the children and I never said that to Matthew, never, and I was supportive, but I’m sure that in one’s own heart, if one gives something up one, you know, a career for which one’s done sort of six years of hard work, he must’ve felt, well lost. He had not, he knew himself perhaps, perhaps he felt himself that he hadn’t, he couldn’t, if he just couldn’t go on at that time, that he really hadn’t given it a try and that everything else he would do, he liked writing, but I think he probably thought this is not the solution.

 

Mm.

 

So I think yes, if somebody had, if somebody had just, if somebody in other instances of, for other people like Matt, if somebody just keeps in contact, has somebody somewhere in the university, the, the hospital somewhere to just phone and say, “How are you doing, would you like to come up and have a, a drink or something?”

 

Mm.

 

Make you feel that you mattered. And it might, I don’t know, but it might make a difference. It might make a difference for somebody else.

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