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Bereavement due to suicide

Other people's reactions

 

Mike said that after his father died people crossed the road to avoid meeting him because they...

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Age at interview: 53
Sex: Male
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…people don’t know what to say, I mean we’re not good at dealing with death in our modern day society, it’s like sex in the nineteenth century was a great taboo, well it’s death is a great taboo in the twenty-first century, you know we’re not good at talking about this, bereavement of any kind, let alone bereavement by suicide which has got a whole new dimension, the very fact that somebody’s taken their life by their own hand makes it completely unique, different even to murder or sudden death it’s, it’s that dimension that it’s by that person’s own hand.  And some people just don’t know how to deal with it, they just feel so uncomfortable, they don’t know what to say, people will walk across the other side of the street sometimes to avoid talking to you, I’ve had that happen to me in the past with it. So, yeah I mean people just don’t know how to deal with it really, it’s a problem.

 

Lynne doesn’t think others made judgments. She thinks that others avoided the subject of her...

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Age at interview: 47
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And you know Mum’s funeral, the church was absolutely crowded with people and it was a very, it felt a very supportive and you know sort of, a supportive funeral. There were a lot of people who were offering support during that time, but I think people don’t, people didn’t make judgments, but also people didn’t talk about it either, and I think you know it was almost as, and I think it is the reaction that you continue to get whenever you say, “Oh my mother committed suicide” is that it’s almost as if people just sort of say, “Oh okay,” and then pass on to the next thing you know that it, I, I just have this very strong sense that it is something that we just don’t talk about, that people don’t talk about, whereas if you say, you know somebody had another illness, they’d probably, it’s likely that somebody would ask you the details about it, but when we.


Would you like, would you like to be able to talk about it more openly to people?


…it’s hard isn’t it, because there’s a level at which people in reality, in our day to day lives, is people don’t want to know the detail, but I think that that the response that you get is that people are embarrassed and I think what I would want is for people not, not to be embarrassed when they’re told, when somebody tells you that a person has committed suicide. And you can actually sense the embarrassment from people if you say that. So in some situations absolutely not, it’s not appropriate to be able to, you know to talk to people more, but I think it is just that that whole thing about what, you know why are we so embarrassed when somebody tells us that a person you know, somebody that they love, or my mother, if I tell someone my mother committed suicide, why does it embarrass somebody that I’ve told them that? Certainly people very few people would ever ask any questions.


Mm.


And the normal response is to change the subject and move on to something else.


And why do you think that is?


…I don’t know really, I don’t know whether it’s because people think it’s upsetting, for, it would be upsetting for me to talk to them about it. So it maybe that people just don’t want to upset me, I think probably we, I guess we don’t tend to handle bereavement very well do we in any case, whether, you know when somebody you know says that a member of their family has died I think probably we do tend to move on, so I’m not sure whether it’s just that we’re not very good at doing bereavement in our country or whether it’s just that people don’t…, I think there is this fear, this genuine fear that, that people don’t want to upset me.


Mm.


Rather than, I think that’s what it is. Because they, they won’t know where that story goes once they ask will they, so I think you know people can quite, quite quickly get into maybe areas of my life that they don’t necessarily want to go to, don’t know.

 

Many people haven’t spoken to Dolores since Steve’s death. Her parents don’t mention his name....

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Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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And, you can’t change it for my husband but I think services that, situations like this should be, research like this and the various organisations that are trying to make a difference with regards, of raising the awareness of suicide needs to be funded, they need the assistance to make the difference because, I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve gone through [crying] but I know other people will; but a bit of compassion from medical people, a bit of compassion from undertakers, police, a bit of understanding would go a long way because I certainly have felt the stigma of suicide, as a person, I’ve felt it within my family and I’ve felt it within my work colleagues, which really and, aye has been a shocker for me ‘cause I worked in mental health, but you become very aware of people’s attitudes towards suicide and the lack of understanding that there is for it, and it needs to change, it needs to change.

 

When you say you’ve been aware that there’s stigma to do with suicide…

 

Uh-huh.

 

…do you think people, can you explain the actual stigma you feel a little bit and what that is?

 

It’s that whole thing of you’re very aware of, people not wanting to talk to you, you’re very aware of mumbling; before I moved from where I lived, prior to, where we lived when this happened, we were well known and established in the area, and it’s amazing the amount of people that haven’t spoken to me since this happened.


Really?


You’re very aware of people, seeing you in the supermarket and disappear up a different aisle, and you’re very aware of when you think, when you, when I feel strong enough and capable enough and I’ll maybe say, “Oh hello.” And they’re like, gottae get away from her, you know, and you are very aware of people uncomfortable around you, you don’t know, you want to say to them, “What is it makes you feel uncomfortable?.” But you know you’re not gonnae get told and, I see it in my own family, I see it in my own family and because of, coming from a very strict Irish Catholic upbringing, from my parents, it’s a difficulty that they had a, a son-in-law that took his own life and they would prefer his name’s never mentioned, and they would prefer that his son didn’t look so much like him. But that’s a great comfort to me because he is so like his daddy, that, it makes me feel there’s a huge part of my husband still here.


Is that because they feel it’s against their religious beliefs?


Uh-huh, yes because they’re, they’re in their seventies and they’ve been brought up in a very strict Catholic faith and so then, they would have the same opinion if one of their children was to walk in and say they were divorcing, that would be a major difficulty for them, and there is that generation thing of, they just don’t feel comfortable with it and you don’t show emotion and you don’t show weakness, and Steve showed the ultimate form of weakness and emotion by taking his life.

Hugs, displays of warmth and expressions of sympathy were often appreciated, though one woman said she had found it ‘weird’ when a woman she hardly knew had hugged her in the street.
 
People often thought that the problem of embarrassment around death and bereavement is more pronounced when the death is due to suicide, and they used the term ‘stigma’ to describe this aspect of suicide. The word ‘stigma’ comes from the Greek. In ancient times, perhaps partly as a mark of shame, signs were cut or burnt into the body to advertise that the bearer was a morally blemished person. Thus, ‘stigma’ occurred when society marked someone as ‘tainted’ or ‘less desirable’. Some people we talked to said that they felt a sense of stigma because they were related or closely connected to the person who had died by suicide. Erving Goffman, the sociologist and writer, called this ‘a courtesy stigma’.
 
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Patricia recalls that someone who attended a 'Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide' meeting said...

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Age at interview: 58
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And that is, I think, the single most important message that we can give over because when it happens to you, you are totally alone. Even in a big family, you are totally alone. Your perception is that this sort of trauma has not ever happened to anybody else; it’s just landed on you. It has set you apart. I’ve spoken, I certainly felt myself, and I’ve spoken to many a widow in the ten years of work I’ve done, and funnily enough it came up at the group meeting, the last group meeting we had in [this town]. We had a new person there and she feels as if she’s got emblazoned across her forehead, ‘Suicide’s widow’ for all to see. She has been separated, marked out, it’s to do with the feelings of stigma.
 
So it’s still very much stigmatised?
 
Oh definitely, absolutely.
 
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Margaret believes that the subject of suicide is taboo and that others see her as 'contaminated',...

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Age at interview: 62
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I’m aware there are so many taboos still around suicide, if someone may have had a hand in ending their own life, and certainly around prison.


How are you aware of that?  Have other people made you aware of that?  Have other people made insensitive remarks?


Basically because when I’ve talked about [my daughter] they’ve chosen not to respond, as if I hadn’t said it.  

Oh.


And I find that so strange.  I find that there must be an awful lot of fear, there must be so much fear, they’ve been somehow contaminated by knowing someone that knows somebody that’s been in prison.


You think it’s prison or suicide, or both?


Both.


Hmm.


I think it’s both and I, I think it’s also there’s that your child has pre-deceased you.  It’s everybody’s fear really.  You mightn’t consciously know it but it’s the unthinkable.

According to the sociologist Graham Scambler, stigma, or negative evaluation, may be either ‘felt’ or ‘enacted’. ‘Felt’ stigma is the fear of being discriminated against because of a supposed inferiority or social unacceptability, whereas ‘enacted’ stigma describes actual discrimination of this kind.
 
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Marion 'felt' that a stigma was attached to her because of the way Graham died. She acknowledges...

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Age at interview: 58
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And of course it was in the run up to Christmas so things were happening at school and my youngest son was actually in the Christmas play and he was absolutely determined he was not going to do it, absolutely determined. And I, I wanted him to do it because it was something that he had planned for several months and he was persuaded by his head-teacher that it would be a good idea if he did it. And therefore I had to go as well on the opening night. And I went on my own which would never have happened normally. Graham would have been with me. And I was shown to my seat by a very solicitous deputy head which would never have happened normally. And I sat all on my own with an empty seat beside me because we’d had our tickets for quite a long time. And I was aware that all [my son’s] classmates were, parents were around me. And I knew quite a lot of them and nobody said anything. They didn’t know what to say did they, been there, done that, you know. They didn’t know what to say.

And his turn came on, on the stage, and I have to say he was brilliant. It was a comedy sketch that he and this other lad did. And they were just so funny the two of them. Where he got it from I do not know. He found it from somewhere and he and this lad did this sketch. I don’t remember what it was about and I remember sitting there and thinking, this is supposed to be funny and I couldn’t laugh because I knew if I laughed I wouldn’t be able to stop crying. Everybody else was in fits of laughter.

There were mince pies and cups of tea afterwards and I remember standing in the school hall with all these people and kids and you know, it was great excitement. It was the end of the school term and there’d been this fantastic play. There were lots of other little sketches as well but that was really funny apparently. And I remember just standing there and being completely on my own.


How awful.


Yeah. Completely on my own although there were loads of people there that I knew. And people did come and talk to me but I was completely on my own because Graham wasn’t there. And I think that was probably the first time I realised what it was actually going to be like without him.


Do you think people avoided talking to you or do you think they were just so busy talking to their children?


Yeah I think, yeah I mean it was, it was a school play and it was all very exciting. My perception of it was that I had this stigma attached to me because he’d committed suicide but I don’t think that was it really. I think I felt that.


Felt that at the time.


Yes, yeah. I think a lot of it was people very, very embarrassed. They didn’t know what to say. Quite a lot of them were probably frightened to death I’d dissolve in tears which was quite a possibility at the time. But generally speaking for that, for that fortnight, certainly for the fortnight up to the funeral I don’t remember being particularly tearful or particularly weepy. I, I think I was just shocked. I was so shocked. It was unreal, the whole thing was unreal.

Some people were sure that stigma was associated with suicide - in some cases this was seen as tainting the family of the person who died. They believed that other people had avoided them or avoided talking about what had happened because they disapproved of suicide, thought it was a ‘sin’ or believed it was an act of weakness (an idea that several people challenged).
 

Lucy says that stigma is attached to the word ‘suicide’ and she has experienced stigma since...

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Age at interview: 39
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I mean, it’s, it’s a scary thing to think that someone’s got into that state that they want to take their own life and there’s still a lot of stigma where you say the word suicide and people like cross the street or if they come and speak to you about it it’s because they’re curious about gossip rather than curious about how someone’s actually got to that state. So it’s still, it’s still quite a stigma to actually say the word.


Have you experienced that?


Oh yeah. When I went back to work, I don’t know whether it was just because there’s been a death or whether it’s particularly suicide, but after I went back to work, lots of people who you thought were like close work colleagues were avoiding you. Conversations would stop when you’d walk in a room. A lot of people might find that quite difficult but I think I then started to speak out and say, look this has happened. I was quite open right from the beginning, that this has happened to me…

 

Nina says that suicide is such a hard death to deal with because it is stigmatised. She had to...

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Age at interview: 27
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Were you offered any sort of support at the hospital by anybody?

 

No, no. Nothing, Absolutely nothing. We, we had to, we; we were left very much alone. Very, you know there was, no, no, not even a referral to the GP you know. Everything, everything had to come from us; we had to seek out the support.


Would you have liked the hospital chaplain or somebody to have come along?


I mean, they did, it was…


Was that too, too premature?


No I mean its personal preference really isn’t it? If you, if you would like, I mean I would just, I think that particularly because there is evidence to suggest that once you have a suicide in a family then you are more prone, you are, you know its, particularly in those, in those tender months, even years afterwards, there… there just should be some, there should be a referral I think you know if suicide is such a hard death to deal with, it’s such a stigmatised death, you’re not able to talk about suicide freely. You know, my Dad lost a friend over it, he wouldn’t speak to him because of, because of what happened. And I can, and I can remember you know people you know, I’d obviously, I’d moved back home and people knew, friends knew, school mates knew, school friends, but I can remember people crossing the street, just to avoid me, to not, whether or not that’s because you know they’re thinking, “Oh I can’t speak to, you know, that’s just too much for me to be able to speak to Nina.” And I’m sure, I’m sure that that, but its still, you know, added with the fact that you have, you know you’ve lost your brother, and then you have to cope with people’s reactions as well.

 
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Other people recoiled in horror and didn't expect Rachel to be 'normal' after she told them that...

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Age at interview: 41
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You said you thought there was a stigma attached to suicide. What makes you think that?


I think it’s just people’s reaction, you know, when, when I say what happened to mum. And again I don’t really tell people some things. I don’t want people’s pity. I mean if anybody’s lost a relative, you know, parent. I remember once a year, a few years ago, I was, I think I was pregnant, yes, I was pregnant with [my son] and I was still working, I used to work in, in London. And there was a thing with Paula Yates, who was married to Bob Gel-, was it Bob? Yes, married to somebody, might have been Geldof. And she died and they didn’t know if she’d committed suicide or it had been an accidental overdose. And I remember some girls at work were talking about it. And I thought they were being a bit small minded about suicide, just being, saying some really awful things about suicide. So I just said, I just started saying, “Actually my mum committed suicide.” And immediately they both looked, they sort of almost recoiled in horror. And then they said to me, “But you’re so normal.” And I remember thinking, “Well, that’s probably why I don’t tell people” because they, you know, immediately think that they must have been a complete fruitcake, sort of fruitcake. And then I felt that it changed the way they looked at me and I thought, “I just want you to judge me for who I am and not what, you know, not what’s happened to me.” So I don’t really, a lot of people I just don’t tell, you know. If people ask me how mum died, then I say. And it’s amazing actually how many people then still ask. And if you say your mum committed suicide, people will say, “Well, how?” And then you say, you know, “She shot herself.” And then everyone looks completely horrified. I felt like saying, “But you asked me. So I’ve told you.” You know, you can tell people, a lot of people are quite uncomfortable about it. Probably because they, you know, they don’t know enough about it.

Kavita found other people’s reactions to her brother’s death ‘quite distressing’. Her mother has also experienced negative reactions. When people visited the house after her brother died she heard some of them saying that suicide is a sin.
 

Kavita believes that there is stigma associated with suicide because others see suicide as...

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Age at interview: 41
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Well it’s quite distressing actually. I had a couple of people who were very willing and happy to listen and be there. But the rest, most people, especially when I went back to work, I was, I was very, very disappointed really. People’s reactions especially being, this being a suicide, people didn’t obviously know what to say, and they would just not even acknowledge anything or say anything. And I think that was very painful.


Do you like to talk about your brother now?


Yes. I still … I always did, even afterwards. And I never hide the fact that he died by suicide.

 

Hmm.

 

My mum, on the other hand, has started, she told me recently she’s started to tell people that he died but she hasn’t said why. She hasn’t given them a reason.

 

Is that because she’s experienced negative reactions?


Yes, she’s experienced negative reactions in a lot of people. Depending on, even the Hindu culture, the Muslim culture, I don’t know, whilst her friends and people from those sort of cultures, Sikh, Hindu, whatever, in Asian, Indian they’re quite open in a lot of ways, like when they were coming round the house they were openly expressing and crying and, you know, all that sort of thing, some of them are very insensitive and will come out with things like, “It’s a sin.” You know. And, you know, “In our culture it’s a sin,” and just things like that really.

 

Does the Hindu religion see suicide as a sin?


I think so.


Do, do you sense there is still a stigma about suicide?

 

Yes, I think so.

 

Why do you think that is?

 

Because, well why do I, why …

 

Why do you think there’s been this stigma, or there is this stigma still?

 

People perceive someone who has killed themselves to be cowardly, weak, selfish, all those things.

 

Hmm.

 

And somehow that’s, even though that is really not true, it isn’t true, nobody in their right mind would kill them, we all have an instinct, a self-preservation instinct …

One woman, who had accompanied her father to Switzerland for an assisted death, said that she had only told a few people about the way he had died. For more information on assisted dying see Dignity in Dying’s websites.
 
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It was not difficult to avoid telling the details about her father's death because most people...

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Age at interview: 52
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Now what have you told other people about what happened? Are there people who you’ve chosen not to tell?

 

Most people, I’ve just said that my father died. Nearly everyone. That sort of covered it.

 

OK. Yes indeed. And presumably people knew that your father was very unwell?

 

Yes, I mean for a few weeks before, a month or so, you know, he had been getting worse and I told people. And then when we were hopeful [that her father could have an assisted death with Dignitas] I said he was, you know, really not well at all. And so no one was hugely surprised really. And so we were quite proud of ourselves for all of that as well. And then when people said about the funeral, I’d been off work ill following my minor operation, so I just told people we’d had the funeral quietly, just family. So, people don’t like to discuss death, except my family, who love it and have done it for years, and so they don’t like to ask you details at all. You know, most of them don’t look at you. They, a lot of people just ignore the fact. At work some people shuffle up and say, “Sorry to hear about your father” then rush off again. Very few of them look you in the eye and ask you questions about it. And anyway, you know, they’re not surprised if I don’t really want to talk about it. So, you know, very easy.


Was there anyone who you felt was unsympathetic or at all judgmental about what you were doing as a family?

 

Well, most people didn’t know. The only people who knew were very few of my friends. Oh, yes, well, I suppose one of my friends, who was a Roman Catholic. I sort of intimated at one time very stupidly that this was the way my father was thinking, and she was absolutely horrified.

 

On what grounds?

 

On the grounds that she clings to life and she finds it very difficult to accept that someone could so easily just stop it. Because I don’t think, well, certainly my father and I, because I am like him, you know, don’t see the necessity to cling to life. I think we have a different view of what it’s all about. And it’s definitely quality… has a lot to do with it. I think to most people it’s quantity.

 

I think it can be quite a challenging thing sort of existentially to know that some people will choose to end their life.

 

Well, because I come from that, I find it quite difficult to imagine that people can’t understand our point of view. And, you know, I find other people’s point of view so prescriptive as in many things. Which is, you know, I’m not saying, “Make it available, and you have to” but they are saying, “You can’t have it, because I don’t want it.” And, and I, I’ve always had a problem with that sort of attitude. I’m much more liberal than that.

A few people said that they had not felt any stigma associated with suicide. Paula said on the Way Foundation website she had read accounts of other people’s experience of stigma but she had felt no stigma herself. Stephen said that he thought stigma was associated with mental illness but not with suicide. Jacqui had had no negative responses to Mike’s suicide, and Susan had felt no stigma associated with her father’s suicide.
 

Paula has felt no stigma at all since her husband’s death. People have reacted with shock,...

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Age at interview: 45
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People here have been very supportive. I mean I said that one friend kind of disappeared. But there’s one in particular who appeared from nowhere and just kind of helped and helped and helped. And, and people really do, here. They’re lovely and I haven’t as I said I think before we turned the tape on we had, we haven’t had any, I haven’t felt any stigma at all. And I’ve heard other people talking about it on, in, in the WAY chat-room and so on about them, those kinds of problems, and I’ve not had anything like that at all.


So on the whole when you tell people how your husband died what sort of reactions do you have from them?


Shock, surprise, concern.


…sympathy


Good.


Touch wood so far.

 

Stephen believes that stigma is associated with mental illness but not with suicide.

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Age at interview: 45
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Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you think would be useful to talk about?


Yes, I mean we haven’t really talked about the stigma of suicide. And I know that’s sort of, it’s something that does… it’s something that happens in, that occurs in conversation about whether or not there is any stigma. But I personally never felt any, but I’ve also explicitly gone out of my way to tell people, and I know you know Gill’s, Gill’s parents for example, don’t tell anybody anything about it. I just think it’s just, she took her own life, I mean it’s a,  it’s, I don’t know, is it something like three and a half, four thousand suicides a year in the UK? Amongst young people, it’s one of the most common causes of death. Why the hell shouldn’t you tell people because almost certainly you know as I’ve found in telling people, you know people say, “Yeah, you know, it happened to me,” or my cousin, or my dad’s father – you know, it’s just, it’s just everywhere.


Mm.


And everyone’s been touched by it, I’ve found, so I, you know, I think the stigma, there is stigma in the person who’s experiencing the depression, and there’s stigma about being depressed, and there’s stigma about taking the drugs, you know that, there is definitely stigma. I don’t think in open society these days, not in the UK anyway, I don’t think there’s any, I don’t, I’ve not felt anyone ever, even a hint of, of  stigma.

The death of a child is particularly hard for parents to bear – some parents thought that a child’s death by suicide was the worst form of bereavement. In social situations parents are often asked how many children they have and it was sometimes hard to know whether to reveal that a child had died, or explain how they had died and risk shocking people.

Jane and Maurice wanted to talk about Tom when they met other people. They found it hurtful when others changed the subject, or expected them to have got over their grief.
 

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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Age at interview: 65
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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.

 

Maurice and Jane found social occasions difficult for a long time because other people ignored...

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Age at interview: 70
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How, have friends helped you? You said you found it reasonably easy to talk to friends after it all happened?


Yes, I think it is important to have friends and to use them, and I explained that I, I used them in a way, that I told them what had happened, and talked to them. Do they talk to you? A very small number do. And obviously some people are frightened of talking, quite clearly some people are frightened of talking to you and won’t, and won’t even broach the subject, and social occasions were very difficult for probably 12 months and even longer for Jane. They were difficult because people ignored what had happened completely, and when they ignore what happens that is very hurtful. And I don’t think they mean to be hurtful, just ignore it and think that well it will go away, but it never does go away, not in a lifetime.

Bob also said that other people expected him and his wife to get over Darren’s death within a certain length of time. He said that the death of a child is something that they will never “get over”, it is “with you for life”. However, some people told us that even after the loss of a child, with the passage of time the pain lessens, and anniversaries do become easier (see ‘Anniversaries and other special occasions’).
 
Lucreta found that other people were too busy to really listen to her when she wanted to talk about her daughter’s death. She believes that we live in a “non-listening society.” Lucreta also found that if she did tell people that Dionne had died by suicide they were shocked, and she had to comfort them. Now Lucreta sometimes tells people that Dionne has died but she does not always tell them how.
 
Some found that joining a support group for people bereaved by suicide helped to reduce the sense of stigma and isolation (see ‘Self-help groups’)
 
Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated October 2010.
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