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Melanie - Interview 21

Age at interview: 45
Brief Outline: In 2006 Melanie's husband, Simon, took his own life while the 'balance of his mind was disturbed.' He jumped to his death. Melanie and her three young children were devastated. They have found help via counselling, support groups and the internet
Background: Melanie is a barrister. She is a widow with 3 children. Ethnic background/nationality: White British.

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Melanie’s husband, Simon, hurt Melanie by what she has called “a betrayal in our marriage.” She was upset and angry but told Simon that she wanted to help him to work out his problems. Simon said that he was “deeply remorseful” about what he had done. He said he was sorry he had hurt Melanie and wanted to change things.
 
At times Melanie continued to express her feelings of hurt and anger. At the same time she tried hard to be supportive. She wanted to keep the family together, and a happy life for her three sons, who were aged 10, 9 and 5. Gradually it became apparent that Simon had a mental illness, partly because he said he could hear voices. One day he tried to take his own life by taking alcohol and a number of tablets. Melanie called 999 and he went into a mental health unit for a few days. He then had a fortnight in a private clinic. He was not given a diagnosis or any medication at the time, but looking back Melanie and Simon’s GP think that Simon had probably been suffering from bipolar disorder.
 
One evening, in April 2006, Simon said that he was going by train to a “self-help” group, “debtors anonymous”, but he never returned.  The next day two policemen arrived with the local vicar to tell Melanie that Simon had taken his own life by jumping off a railway bridge. Simon had left a suicide note to say that he felt such a sense of shame and guilt that he could never be with “normal decent people again”. Melanie believes that Simon did not want to die but that he could not see any other way to solve his mental anguish. He felt he was causing others great pain and distress and wanted that pain to stop. He had made an appointment to see someone from the mental health team but he died before the appointment.  
 
Melanie screamed when she heard the news and then felt completely numb. She could not believe what had happened. When the children returned from a friend’s house she told them what had happened. Obviously the children were very upset. She told them that their daddy had taken his own life because he had a mental illness. Melanie then phoned other friends and relatives to tell them the terrible news. 
 
The local vicar went with Melanie to the local hospital so that she could see Simon’s body and kiss him goodbye. Members of the hospital staff were wonderful. The vicar read some prayers and was very supportive.
 
The next day Melanie and a friend went to the place where Simon had died and laid some flowers on the ground under the viaduct.
 
Simon’s body was taken to the chapel of rest. The funeral directors were kind and helpful and let Melanie visit each day to see Simon, even though it was over the Easter holiday weekend. At times Melanie felt distraught and shouted, “Wake up”. She took her eldest son to see his father. Her son was only aged ten at the time, but Melanie believes it was the right thing to do.    
 
Ten days after Simon’s death his funeral was held in the village. Melanie chose the hymns they had had at their wedding. Simon was buried in the churchyard.
 
Melanie looked for support for her sons. She found a wonderful group called CHUMS, which provides support for bereaved children and their families. A counsellor from the charity came to the home to give individual counselling to the two older children. The children also met other children on Saturdays for play therapy and other activities.
 
Melanie also phoned Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) and attended her first meeting three weeks after Simon died. She found it amazingly helpful to talk to others who had also been bereaved due to suicide. Melanie still finds these regular meetings a great help. She goes every fortnight and sees them as “her life-line.”
 
Six months after Simon’s death Melanie phoned Winston’s Wish, who also support bereaved children and their families. After an initial assessment she took the two older boys for a weekend “camp”. About 20 children were looked after separately while their parents had discussions and meals together. Alternative therapies were provided for the adults and the children took part in numerous activities, which they found “hugely helpful”.
 
Melanie also had 10-12 sessions with a counsellor, a woman who listened as Melanie poured out her grief. This counselling was provided by her work. This was followed by more counselling which was provided by the NHS mental health unit. Melanie has found all this counselling immensely helpful. She has also found Widowed and Young, the WAY foundation, a “lifeline” and another email message board called “Widowed through Suicide Support” helpful too.  
 
In September 2006 the inquest took place. The coroner was sympathetic and caring and after the documentary inquest gave the verdict that Simon had taken his own life “while the balance of his mind was disturbed.” The coroner went on to say that had Simon been well he would never have done it.  
 
Melanie has found grief physically exhausting. She felt a great sense of physical pain and desolation for the first six months. She still feels devastated and also very angry with the person who she believes is responsible for Simon’s death. She also feels she could have done more to help Simon. Melanie finds it hard coping with all the many practical matters that have to be seen to, as a widow, living on her own with three small children.

Patricia was interviewed in July 2007.

 

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I didn’t have to register the death because obviously there was an inquest and all I had to do was write off for the Death Certificate and it was sent to me after the inquest.


Where do you have to write for that?


It was the Coroner’s Court. There was no problem about that.


So they fill in the Death Certificate?


Yes, yes. I wrote and told all of the utilities because my husband always paid the bills and everything was in, well it might be in joint names, everything came under his account. Most people were fine, but I had terrible problems with the broadband and telephone provider who was [name] who was completely outrageous, and refused to speak to me. They said thing to me like, “How do we know the account holder is dead? We insist on speaking to the account holder.”


How awful.


Well if you’re able to tell me how you do it because I’d like to speak to the account holder. And in fact I have referred my correspondence to my MP because I was so outraged. British Telecom was brilliant, but [name] were disgusting, absolutely outrageous. People demanding that I finish paying the contract yet they’d cut my Internet service off, not giving me the migration code to be with another Internet Provider which all seems small beer now but.


At the time.


At the time, you know, sobbing on the phone for them for two hours because I was moved from pillar to post and not getting any joy.


So that’s a real message to those sort of people to provide a better, kinder service?


Well they insisted I sent my husband’s Death Certificate to them which I wasn’t prepared to do because of the attitude they adopted. Whereas another firm.


You didn’t even have it at that stage?


Oh I had an interim one that I could have sent but another firm who were very sympathetic, who sent a nice letter offering their condolences blah, blah, blah. I sent them the Death Certificate too, a copy because they were so nice. It’s just the aggressive attitude.


So who provides you with the Interim Death Certificate?


The coroner.


Ok.


Yeah.


Would you have to write for that or were you sent one automatically?


I was just provided with one automatically.


It’s these sort of practical details that people might not know about.


Yes, and they sent copies as well so I could go to the banks, and…, because you need Interim Death Certificates for various things. I obviously had to take legal advice to sort out things. I mean Simon had a will so we were ok on that but you know that’s worrying. Touch wood the house had been paid for but there is that fear that if someone takes their own life whether insurance companies will pay out. I’m still waiting for various moneys to come through and that’s 18 months.

 

Melanie made a new will soon after her husband died. She was worried about what might happen to...

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I’ve made a fresh will since Simon died. I’ve named guardians, but that was something in the very early days that they [the children] were very worried about; the little one said to me, “What happens if you die Mummy? What happens if Grandma dies? What happens if all the grown-ups in the world die?”


You could really, you reassured him.


Well I was able to reassure them that they would go and live with some friends of the family. My parents are late 60s now and that they’re, you know three small boys and late 60s don’t really go together. But I worry what will happen if they die.


So you found guardians who would be prepared to look after them?


But they’ll never love them the way I love them.


Of course.


And particularly because our eldest child has special needs.


Mm.


What will happen to him?


Mm.

 

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Why was it a Documentary Inquest rather than asking people to come?


Because there wasn’t anything in dispute. Simon had left a letter so his intention was clear. The coroner said if I had wanted to cross-examine any of the doctors then we could have had an inquest with witnesses. There wasn’t any need to.


You don’t need to do that.


I didn’t need.


So you just have to have the coroner there?


Well summarising the statements. It was obvious. I mean in the sense I felt why did there need to be an inquest. I know the system, well. I understand that the system in Scotland is if the; it’s either the police or the Procurator Fiscal and I’m not sure which one, but someone in Scotland will be able to tell you. If they determine that it’s a suicide or there is nothing suspicious there doesn’t need to be an inquest. And I think that should be adopted in this country. I know there’s been a recent commission on it. We have enough agony to live through without having to go through that as well.

 

Melanie's GP, who she has seen every fortnight, has been a 'tower of strength'. She did not ...

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Did your own GP help you at all?


She has been wonderful. I continue to see her every fortnight, every three weeks for me to say the same things over and over again. I’m on antidepressants at the moment. I was on sleeping tablets. I’ve come off the sleeping tablets and I’m cutting down on the antidepressants. She has been a tower of strength.


Did you have any private counselling?


I had through my work and my work has been fantastic. I had listening counselling. I had 12 sessions of that. It should normally be 6 or did I have 10? I can’t remember. It was 10 or 12. It’s normally 6 but the lady who was doing it felt that because I was in such terrible state I needed more. And that really was just almost an unburdening of my soul, a sort of purging of everything. After that finished I went to see my GP and I was then referred to a counsellor, ironically at the mental health unit where Simon had been treated. And I found that, because I was at a different level then, it was the right sort of counselling then. It was more challenging. It was more questioning, it was more getting me to consider things.


So that was NHS?


NHS yeah. The first lot of counselling I had I went to one lady who was very nice but I didn’t really click with and I was allowed to have a second bite at the cherry and try a second lady and that, that was great. So I’d say, you know, if you don’t click with the first counsellor don’t be afraid of saying, ‘I’d like a change’.

 

All provided by the National Health Service, that was?


Yeah. That was through my work so that was. So I had a work counsellor first


Right.


And that was provided by work and they were fine about me saying, ‘Could I go and see someone else’. And then the second person I saw was through the National Health Service and I had 6 sessions.  And I’ve also gone back onto her waiting list because I just feel I need to be able to go and see someone and talk to them completely independent person still.


On a regular basis.


On a regular basis but again that probably is only going to be another 6 sessions.

 

Melanie found Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide very helpful. She used the telephone help-line and she attended SOBS meetings once or twice a month. The groups have been her 'lifeline'.

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The Coroner was magnificent. He sent me so much literature and contained within the literature was a leaflet for the Widowed and Young group. I discovered the Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide organisations through that, going onto the websites and then searching around.. I phoned their helpline I think every day if not twice a day in those first few weeks and months just to talk to someone else who’d been bereaved by suicide was amazing. And I attended my first SOBS meeting in London three weeks after Simon died.


And did you find that helpful?


Yes I did. I cried and talked an awful lot but again that feeling of, what am I doing here? I shouldn’t be here. But just to meet other people.


Can you explain what happened at that meeting, just for other people who might be thinking about whether or not to go to a meeting?


The meeting, at that point it was facilitated by a lady from Cruse who hadn’t been bereaved by suicide but had been leading the group for several years and led it beautifully and guided it wonderfully. And basically you’d go round and you’d say who you’d lost and when you’d lost them. And she explained the confidentiality; that things said in that room were to go no further. And then it was just, almost as the spirit moved you. You spoke about your grief and if something you said moved somebody else they would say their piece. The lady who facilitated the group was very careful not to let people talk over one another. She also allowed everyone, if they wanted to, to say what they wanted. Eighteen months down this path I sort of liken those meetings to almost the meetings that my husband should have gone to; Alcoholics or Debtors Anonymous meetings. We who’ve been through it and apparently survived can help those who are starting off. So it’s not like, “Hello Melanie I’m an alcoholic”, it’s, “Hello Melanie I’m a widow and I’ve been bereaved by suicide”.


Yes. How often did you go to those groups?


Every month. And I also started going to the groups in [area] because although we’re lucky enough to have a group in [county name], their meetings are once a month but the way that they worked out I was going to a meeting every fortnight, once in [name] and once in central London. And they were my, and continue to be my lifeline.


And when you rang up you said you were ringing was it SOBS?


SOBS yes.


What sort of response did you get when you rang?


Well it varied. Everyone was completely supportive. The ability of the person on the other end varied because they are only volunteers. They’re not counsellors as such. And sometimes you felt more connected with one particular person than another, but just to know that you weren’t going mad.

 

The WAY group has been Melanie's 'lifeline'. She looks at messages every day. She has also met...

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I joined the Widowed and Young group fairly quickly after Simon died and they have got a website and they’ve also got something called Easyboard which is where people can log on and post messages and that’s all a closed and protected message board so no one else other than a member of Widowed and Young can go on it. And there’s a poetry and prose section and there’s a passage called ‘What you can do for me’. And it’s just a piece of prose and one of the sentences is, ‘When you say I’m strong I feel you don’t see me’.


Yes.


That’s how it feels like when people tell me how good I am and how brave I am.


Have you found the website helpful?


WAY has been my lifeline.


Can you explain a bit more how it’s been helpful?


To be able to go on there and to post messages about how terrible I feel. How I feel as if I’m going crazy and to get the response from other people that actually I’m not going mad. That this is grief, to be met only with love and comfort and support from people who are suffering in the same way is truly amazing.
 


And also I’ve joined the local WAY group in our area which is very active. So I’ve not only met people through the chatroom I’ve; you know we meet for coffee mornings and.


I didn’t know they actually have a physical group.


Oh Absolute. Yes, yes.


Does each area have a physical group?


Well it depends whether there is a volunteer to set up a group but there’s one in this area and the adjoining county and they’re, they are counted as one group.


So would they advertise on the website that they’ve got a meeting coming up?


Or you get sent the literature to your house because we join our own group as well. Sometimes it’s posted on the website. Sometimes, certainly in our area, you get a list of events and you can choose which ones you want to go to.


So what sort of events would they organize?


Meals out in the evening, drinks. We recently did a banger car racing thing so the children could go too. We’ve done walks in forests, picnics.


And this is for anybody who’s widowed under 50 isn’t it?


Yeah absolutely with or without children. Not necessarily widowed, you can be, it can be your partner, you can have been separated from them. It tends to be people who were married and have been widowed but it, it’s not exclusively. So it wouldn’t be someone whose lost a parent.
It sounds good. I didn’t know they had physical groups.


Absolutely yes. And in October there’s a big thing at Centre Parks and Sherwood Forest that everyone, well not everyone is going to but you know it’s open for people. We went to, did a group in Longleat in February. And our own local group had a weekend away in Arundel in June.

 

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Winston’s Wish has been marvellous. I contacted them soon after Simon died, I think, no actually perhaps it was October, so 6 months after Simon died. And discovered they run camps for families bereaved by suicide. And we all had to go down to Cheltenham for an assessment. That was earlier this year (2007), and at that assessment they decided that the two older children and I could go on the camp but they felt the little one wouldn’t get enough at that stage.

 

When we were down at the assessment we did a big family tree and they explained to the boys that Simon had been adopted and he’d found it always difficult to be adopted although he was adopted by a lovely couple. He found the whole concept of being adopted very difficult although he’d found his real father and that had been a huge joy in his life. But they were able to explain that daddy had had a lot of sadness in his life. And I was asked to tell the story, the last few weeks of Simon’s life to everyone and I did that and then the children went off with their counsellors and I was left with a counsellor. And I said ‘And now I’ll tell you what really happened’ and I told him.


But that was just between you and him?


Yes, yes the very painful bits that had happened. And he urged me to try and tell in my own words that part of the story to the children because he said that they would know I was holding something back. And he said, you know, do it over a meal, do it whilst you’re out walking. And in fact we went out and had lunch after we’d had our assessment and I was able to tell the children then the very sad thing that I’d been keeping back from them.


That must have been hard.


It was but it was also a huge relief.


So you’d recommend to other people to try and be really as open and as honest as possible to the children?


Yes. You don’t have to go into all the messy details about things. You do it, pitch it at their level.


You said you went to Winston’s Wish first of all for an assessment.


Yes. They have to make sure, because there are a limited number of places, that you’re going to get the most out of it and that they can offer you the most.

 

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And then you went back again with the two elder children.


For the actual camp yes. And at the camp the children are taken off and are looked after and meet other children, about 20 other children bereaved by suicide, whether it’s siblings or parents. It’s mostly parents [who have died]. And then there’s a parents' group and that was.


By camp does it take place in a hotel or quite literally a camp?

It’s in a house in the Forest of Dean that the children stay in. So they’re really in a building but it’s called camp. And the parents stay in a very nice bed and breakfast and we have our sessions in a local school. But in the evening, it was only one evening, Saturday evening we went back to a very nice bed and breakfast and there were alternative therapies for the mums in the evening which was lovely.


What sort of alternative therapies?


Head massage or Bach flower remedies. (…) And there was aromatherapy. It was; it was a lot of touching. Not I mean, because I mean that’s one thing we all said that we missed, just another grown up touching us.


I can understand that.


And it was good to meet other people. We haven’t seen each other since. We’d seen each other the once since the camp but I felt that some real friendships were forged. There were deep bonds of understanding and pain and all the stories were different.


And the children, what did they make of it all?


They  the children, well certainly our children haven’t kept in contact with other children, but again for them to meet other people bereaved by suicide to know that they weren’t abnormal, to know that they could have fun again. And just to know that this happens to lots of mummies and daddies. It’s not unusual.


Did they tell you what they’d done?


Yes.


What did happen?


They did archery. They did clay throwing, throwing bits of clay at; they’d drawn up a wall with angry words on it. They’d had a candle lighting ceremony. They’d had made a film script of the last few days of the life of the person who had died. And there were some, they’d draw drawings and there were some quite difficult pictures on there. There was one of, for our middle son, of closed doors because he said, you know, “In those last few weeks daddy and you were always talking behind closed doors.” There was a picture of us arguing but I pointed out it was daddy would normally say nothing. It was mummy who was shouting and who was crying at daddy. I think it was hugely helpful for them.


What sort of age group would you say it was most suitable for?


Well 8s probably to 14s, something like that. It runs from 5 to 16 and although our youngest fitted the age bill they just felt that it’s, he was just, he was 6½, they didn’t feel, well actually, no, he was nearly 6¾, that he was old enough to cope with it because when we had the assessment he walked around the room. He sucked his thumb. He cried. He was recently assessed. We went down only a few weeks ago and he’s going on the November camp.


Will you go again with him?


I will take him down but I don’t go on the parents’ camp again. You only go on the parents’ camp once. So I will be in Cheltenham with, for him but I won’t be specifically doing the camp.

 

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So you found help and support through Winston’s Wish for the family.


Yes.


Individual counselling for yourself.


Yes through CHUMS for the family as well which was brilliant.


Yes. What happened at CHUMS?


The counsellor, wonderful man came and saw the children on an individual basis. Well he saw the older two children on an individual basis.


At home?


At home, and I can’t speak highly enough of this group in Bedfordshire. After they’d been seen on their own we then went to some family sessions where the little one came as well. There were several Saturdays where the children would talk about their feelings and lots of play therapy as well.


What happens in play therapy?


This was before we went to Winston’s Wish, and gave them an idea of throwing clay around, shouting, running and exploring their difficult feelings, making first aid kits and first aid kit would be, it was an elephant and they’d stick plasters on it and on the plaster would be written the things that would help the children like talking to mum, talking to a friend, playing, letting balloons go with; we’d write things on cards and tie them to the balloons and we’d let the balloons go. Making wonderful memory jars; I can show you my memory jar that I made.


Can you just say a little bit more about what you did when you went to the, was it a meeting of people at CHUMS?


Yes it was people who had been bereaved. It wasn’t necessarily bereaved by suicide. It was for people who’d lost, children who had lost grandparents who had been close to them. Children who’d lost a sibling and children who’d lost parents. And one of the things that they do at CHUMS that they do at Winston’s Wish as well and I think lots of other people, places do it is, you’re given a jar and you’re given some salt which you then divide up into piles and then you colour the salt with chalks, normal chalks that you just buy in an art shop, and each colour represents something to do with the person and then you put the salt back into the jar.


It’s beautiful. I didn’t know you could colour salt.


No. And then you get a label and you write on the label what each colour represents, so for us green for love of nature and where we live, pink is for Suffolk, it’s pink cottages and our annual holiday is in Southwold, yellow was for the Tour de France because the winner always wears a yellow jersey and your love of cycling, blue is for the sky and sea of the South of France especially Ceret, and purple is for our lavender hedges at the addresses we’ve lived at.

That’s lovely. Does each child make one or did you do it as a family?


No each child has done one as well.


And they put their own memories?


Yes, yeah.

 

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And have you got any message for health professionals or other professionals?


Just spend more money on mental health issues. It’s a huge problem. I understand that more people in the UK take their lives each year than are killed in road traffic accidents.

 

Just provide more help. I mean the ward where Simon was treated has been closed down now.


For lack of funds?


Well the idea that people can be treated better in the community I think. I’m sure, all for very admirable reasons, [but] there also needs to be some half-way house between this sort of confinement where you’re with people who are overtly unwell and perhaps a place like the clinic where Simon was where people are not overtly unwell but who are highly intelligent who are capable of saying whatever needs to be said. There needs to be somewhere that doesn’t need to be funded at thousands of pounds a week by the families, where people can go to where they can feel safe or where they can get the help, where they can get the right help (…). We wanted him out of there [the hospital]. It felt like confinement. I think the clinic was the right place for him, but at £4000 a week.


Oh I see. So you would like something similar and available free?


Yes absolutely.

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