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Jane - Interview 13

Age at interview: 65
Brief Outline: In 1984 Jane and Maurice's son Tom took his own life by hanging. Jane and Maurice were shocked and devastated. Jane found support from friends. Counselling and a support group were also helpful.
Background: Jane is a part-time riding instructor. She is married with 1 adult child. She had another child who died. Ethnic background/nationality: White British.

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Jane and Maurice’s son Tom was 17 when he hung himself while at boarding school. Tom may have been under some degree of stress, partly because he was preparing for ‘A’ level exams and partly because he was about to take his driving test. Jane thinks that other factors may have contributed to his suicide. Tom had had a painful back and was unable to play sports, which he enjoyed, and his GP had not been able to offer any help with this problem. Tom seemed to like school and had chosen to board, but he said he had been bullied by a teacher and Jane thinks that perhaps this could have affected his decision to take his own life too. Maurice also wondered about other factors (see Maurice’s account, interview 14)
 
Tom had painted his room purple and Jane had suspected that he was a little depressed. The television news at that time had been awful because night after night there had been reports of people starving during the Biafran war in Nigeria. Jane says that Tom was a sensitive person and may have been affected by that too.   
 
At the time of Tom’s death in 1984 there was also some “upheaval” at home because his father, Maurice, had been made redundant, and Jane and Maurice had been thinking about moving to Australia.
 
After Jane and Maurice had been told about Tom’s death Jane felt shocked and totally numb. She felt anger towards the school, perhaps because the school had not accepted any degree of blame and was so defensive. She was also upset and angry with her GP because he had not understood her feelings, and because he seemed “cross” with her for dressing in black and appearing melancholy. She also felt a terrible sense of guilt.
 
Jane and Maurice went to see Tom’s body after he had died. Jane found it was hard to believe that he was dead, even having seen him in the hospital chapel.
 
Tom’s funeral was held in the school chapel. Jane was glad that a great many people attended the funeral. Tom was cremated and then buried next to other family members in a church yard in Cheshire. Jane and Maurice placed a seat in the churchyard in Tom’s memory. Jane now finds churchyards comforting places.
 
Jane felt even worse during the second year after Tom’s death. The ‘fog’ had lifted and she felt a great sense of pain and felt very vulnerable. She cried only a few times but heart wrenchingly at this time. To start with she found it very hard to talk to her husband about what had happened.
 
Jane found that other people expected her to join in social activities much too soon after Tom’s death. Looking back she knows that she should have refused invitations to dinner parties and other social events, such as weddings. It was at least seven years before she felt comfortable attending large social gatherings.
 
Jane found that some of her old friends found it hard to talk about Tom’s death, perhaps because they found the subject of suicide so frightening. However, Jane wanted to talk about Tom and found it hurtful when others ignored what had happened or expected her to feel better after only a few weeks.
 
After Tom’s death Jane had some private counselling for about a year, which she found helpful. She also joined a support group organised jointly by Cruse and Samaritans. Ten years later she saw another counsellor and had some transactional analysis, which she also found helpful.
 
Eventually Jane decided that it would be better if she accepted some degree of responsibility and a little bit of guilt for what had happened to Tom. She recognised that it was very negative to be struggling with guilt all the time.
 
Jane can now talk about Tom without crying and she has good friends who offer support. She has gradually learnt to “live again” and enjoys travelling and learning about other cultures. She particularly likes mountains because Tom loved mountains. Jane says that Tom is always with her and that his death has “changed her life”. She likes to talk about Tom and she keeps some of his belongings, such as his school hat, some clothing and photos around the house.

Jane was interviewed in August 2007.

 

Jane thinks that her son Tom had been bullied at school and was a ‘bit of a depressive’. His...

Jane thinks that her son Tom had been bullied at school and was a ‘bit of a depressive’. His...

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Right, it was nearly 23 years ago so some of it fades. He was at school at the time and we knew he was a bit of a depressive. He’d chosen to paint his bedroom purple which people said was worrying, but that was his choice and there were tiny signs that we found out afterwards but not, anyway it was a time of upheaval for us because my husband had been made redundant and our son Tom was in his A’ level year so there were you know stresses, and then we were out on a Saturday night in London and he was at boarding, part time boarding, nearby and we got back and there was a phone call to phone the school. And my husband did it straight away, and I just heard him say, “Suicide.” And that was it.

I suppose I haven’t revisited it because it didn’t seem important, it… it seemed important dealing with the stuff around me and I did try and understand;  Tom was bullied at school, one master gave him a hard time,  so that, you asked earlier about anger, that would’ve been relevant. I mean I remember saying to somebody that if I met the chap, he was only a small chap and I said I hope I don’t meet him ‘cos I’d kill him.

Mm.

But you know I think it was only a contributory factor it wasn’t a cause, it was just you know another brick in the wall, which is back to the, …what’s that group I mentioned earlier? It was their theme song that we played.


Oh yes.


That we played at the end of the funeral.


Why was that…


…the funeral, the brick in the wall.


Was that a song that he liked?


Mm.


In particular?


Mm. So but it, it was relevant, I mean there were a lot of things that were difficult at the time, he wasn’t a high flyer at school so doing A’ levels was some stress I suppose, and then father redundant and we were thinking that we might go abroad at the time to live so there were a lot of; and unfortunately he used to come back from school, he only boarded sometimes, at 9 o’clock when always the news was on, and the news it was when the Biafran famine was on, it was just awful night after night, I’m sure that must’ve, with hindsight had an effect on him.

 

Jane felt guilty for years. She only started to feel better when she decided to carry a bit of...

Jane felt guilty for years. She only started to feel better when she decided to carry a bit of...

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I think it’s probably in the early days like maybe the first seven years, the biggest problem for me was the feeling of guilt and so I related to it if it cropped up in anything else. I realised that it was a totally negative destructive road to go down, but couldn’t get rid of it. And some friends used to say, “Oh you were wonderful parents”, you were this and that and it just didn’t sit comfortably at all, how could I have been a wonderful parent if  total failure.


I think it was probably the most dominant response, feeling in me for probably the first seven years. And I knew that it was a totally negative response and it was a bad road to go down, because it was destructive, but I couldn’t, I always came back to that, it is how I felt. And I responded to everything else that was brought up on the subject of guilt, but  friends used to say to me,  “Of course you were wonderful parents,” trying to make me feel better if I brought the subject up, and it sat uncomfortably, it didn’t fit, until one day I thought, try the other, opposite response, which is of course you are guilty, you were part of his life, if I can accept that I, I have some responsibility for his life I can understand chemical responses in him, but, I was part of his life, and when I took that step of accepting some responsibility and therefore guilt, it was alright, it just seemed to make sense suddenly, stop trying to push it away, just carry a bit and that made it much better.

 

The grandchildren discussed their uncle’s death with other young members of the family, who then...

The grandchildren discussed their uncle’s death with other young members of the family, who then...

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We had some little, well a second cousin, my cousin brought her children, sorry my niece brought her children and they were talking with our grandchildren and they suddenly came up with, at the dinner table, something about Tom hanging himself, and there was a deathly silence, and the little boy was chirping, chirping, chirping wanting to know the answers, and my niece is very sweet and just turned to me and said, “I’m sorry” and I said, “It’s alright. It’s just I’m not sure how to answer simply enough, and quickly enough, but I really don’t mind them asking,” and you know it was a little bit difficult for the second cousin you know who obviously had never known Tom. But in a way it was quite good that the grandchildren had accepted that it was part of our family life, and they know about Tom, a bit.


So do you think that it’s best to be open and honest with children when they ask?

 

Oh yes. Yes because in fact there’s a bit of family history of suicides in sort of grandparents generation, in fact on both sides, that I didn’t know about until you know you’re aware of the subject, therefore you pick it up when you, in other situations. So yes I might’ve known more about it if people hadn’t covered it over in the past. So I’m glad the grandchildren know the truth, it was just they took me slightly, [by surprise].

 

Jane couldn’t believe it when a friend met her only six weeks after her son Tom had died and said...

Jane couldn’t believe it when a friend met her only six weeks after her son Tom had died and said...

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You said that some of your friends you’ve kept, and some not. How did people react then?


Oh I don’t know, preconceived ideas, one of the worst ones I remember was I was walking down the road and a friend stopped in the car and said, “How are you, are you, are you feeling better now?” And it was actually only six weeks on, and I’d already decided that whatever I answered to anybody it had to be the truth, to keep my sanity, and I said, “No actually, I feel worse.”


Mm.


And she said, “Oh, don’t say that,” and drove on. So you know that was, I mean I think I probably even did laugh at the time it was just so awful, and also socially people kept on inviting us to things and it took me a long time to have the self confidence to say, “no this isn’t what I want”, but you seem to have to make up your own excuses why not to join in with everyone else’s life.


Did you want to be on your own and fairly quiet for a long time?


Well obviously some people were easy and wonderful to be with, but if it was in the social context when everybody else is carrying on with their lives, like at a dinner party, I mean it took me a long time to work out, “This isn’t where I should be”. So I do try to say to other friends and people, “Don’t be pushed by society”. 


Do you feel that that other people expected you to grieve in a particular way, when you say, don’t be pushed by society?


I think they expect the recovery time to be far too quick, it’s a huge thing,  and I don’t know, the way I saw it, it’s probably the worst thing that most people can imagine for themselves and therefore they can’t bear dealing with the subject, so that’s how it felt. You know a lot of people just wouldn’t mention it where, to keep my sanity I needed it to be mentioned.


Would you sometimes bring the subject up yourself, or would you prefer other people to have brought the subject up?


It was kinder if other people brought it up, or just asked me an open question.  I think my husband found it was easier actually to bring it up but the obvious question is of course meeting people who don’t know you and saying, “How many children have you got?” and that happened almost straight away that so you had to learn and I tried different ways of dealing with it,  but found I only once said, “We have one child, one daughter”, instead of saying, “We had two”, and that felt so terrible that I never said that again that I, they had to go with the true answer.


Mm.


And still do. And so some people, it’s best if they can accept that and say something appropriate, like, “I’m really sorry.”


Yes.


But some people, it would just stall them totally, and they change the subject and that’s very hurtful.

 

Jane and Maurice marked Tom’s grave with a small stone. Jane wishes the stone were bigger to...

Jane and Maurice marked Tom’s grave with a small stone. Jane wishes the stone were bigger to...

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Did you have a special memorial stone made for him?


Well that’s one of my regrets, because he was cremated we were only allowed to put his name and date on the stone, and it had to be a specific stone and specific size, and that at the time was a huge regret for me because there was nothing personal on it, and if I could change that I would’ve done.  I think that’s a big thing, but it’s not just name and date situation but that’s how it was at that churchyard and because of there being a time lapse from the funeral and the burial, I guess if we’d had him buried here he might’ve not been cremated. And I’ve got no strong feelings about either, it was just being left with this single little stone, I don’t like; we can put flowers there, and the churchyard bends the rules a little bit by having a pot and things and it’s nice to go back and change it and the grandfather and other generations are there, so that seemed sensible and we also put a seat in the churchyard because I think time to contemplate was good for anybody. 

 

Jane has gradually started to live again. She enjoys travelling with her husband, particularly in...

Jane has gradually started to live again. She enjoys travelling with her husband, particularly in...

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So how have feelings and emotions changed over the last 23 years?


Well I suppose we’ve re-established our lives. The big thing is it’s certainly changed my life, and I suppose gradually you learn to live again and it’s a bit different, and, we are very lucky we’ve, we have got good friends, and that’s so vital, and luckily we’ve got good health, we enjoy traveling very much. And I suppose we’ve learnt a lot. We’ve learnt about things we might not have done.


Such as?


Well… depth of things, when I think about death itself, I actually find graveyards quite a comforting place to be, which is strange to some people. I like trying to understand about other religions, other ways of living, and that’s probably why I enjoy traveling so much. Ah, I think I’ve got slightly more understanding than I might’ve done otherwise. …some places would would always be points of contact for me, Tom loved mountains, so mountains are good.

 

Well life has changed hasn’t it, and we’ve just moved on and so it’s only occasional now I think, you know “I wish Tom was here, Tom should’ve been here.” you know, “I wonder what it would’ve been like with him as an uncle, and to the grandchildren.” And you know I just occasionally felt, “Gosh he would have liked this.” Whatever. …Yes, just there’s that really. So, so it’s not painful day to day, I think some people probably are surprised that we’ve still got his school hat in that other room, which was a visitors room so that’s where more of his photos are, they’re probably surprised we choose to keep that sort of thing around but, I doubt if it will ever get moved.


Do you find it a comfort to see it there?


Well, yes in some way yes, you know it was part of our life and I don’t totally want, totally want to let go.

 

Friends pressed Jane to go to social events. She says that bereaved people must understand that...

Friends pressed Jane to go to social events. She says that bereaved people must understand that...

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I think the main one is that this, back to what I’ve already said, is that there is a huge pressure of society to join in and that’s not general, I mean you know other people’s expectations of you, and it is very powerful and it took me a long time to realise it was OK to say, “No, this isn’t right for me”, and find an alternative way of dealing with something.


Mm.


So I did feel pressure and I succumbed to it, and it didn’t do me any good, you know trying to fit in with whatever other people want and people would, there were people that thought they were doing the right thing by me, by suggesting and encouraging me to do something, and could be quite overpowering in that way, so it’s difficult isn’t it?


So was the most helpful thing having just the individuals talking to you?

 

Yes. Yeah.

 

Rather than inviting you to a gathering or something.

 

Yes. Oh definitely. Yes.

 

How many years did it take for you to feel comfortable about going to those large events again?

 

Oh a long time, I mean it could’ve been seven years. I think seven years was a bit of a watershed, because I think we were making steps forward, progress of learning how to deal with life again, for seven years, and I think after seven years we didn’t change much. That’s how I see it. And coming up to 23 years, that, the progress was mainly in that 7 years.

 

Mm.

 

And the first two were painful and then sort of from then on for me it was taking steps forward.

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