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Bereavement due to suicide

Suicide notes

After a death by suicide survivors want to know why their loved one has died, but fewer than half of those who take their own lives leave a suicide note. Only 25-30% of suicides are accompanied by a note*. Many people we talked to said that their friends and relatives had not left notes or letters.

 

Darren left no note. Not knowing why he took his own life has been very hard for his parents.

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
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Did he leave a note or anything?


No note, nothing. And one of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with is, “Why?” And we keep asking ourselves that question. We know we’re not going to get an answer, I remember saying to Lynda soon after it happened, when she was on about, “Could it have been this, could it have been that?” I said, “Well the only person who knows is gone, he’s taken it with him.” But afterwards I started to do it myself, you do, you, well the great human mind does not, does not like mysteries, it always like to find out answers to questions that, that’s why you have so many history programmes and we like to find out what could have happened at…, so we’re the same, we, we keep asking, “Why?” And we’ll go down a particular route, come out nowhere and later on we’ll go down a different route and try something else but, we, we know, we might know, we might have well said what the truth is, but we don’t know the truth.


No of course.

 

So and that’s, that’s one of the biggest things that’s probably, well biggest thing for everybody I think is the; it’s to know why. And not everybody leaves notes.


No.


And sometimes people do leave notes but there’s still no answer. “It’s not your fault, love Mum.” Or “I love you Mum.” Or something, and it’s not your fault but it doesn’t say what the reason is, and, and that’s one of the biggest things.


Which is difficult?


It’s one of, yes, the biggest difficult thing to get over is not knowing why.

However, some people had found a letter, note, or a message in a diary, on a computer or mobile phone. Jenny's husband had written her a letter three weeks before he died, but he told her about it and they discussed it and burnt it together. He convinced her that he would never take his life. When he died three weeks later he did not leave another letter.

Suicide notes may partly explain why a person was feeling depressed or desperate at the time (see Kate’s account in 'People’s perceptions of why the suicide took place'), but notes rarely answer all the questions about why the death occurred. They may not specifically mention suicide at all.

 
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Her friend left a note but it didn't specifically say that she was going to take her life.

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Age at interview: 60
Sex: Female
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Yes certainly. My story of suicide bereavement involves a friend and business colleague. We’d known each other for over twenty years and had done a lot of … shared a lot of lifetime experiences. On the particular day that the suicide occurred my friend didn’t feel very well. And said that she wouldn’t be coming to work with me that day, as we worked … we had a business together. I went off to work and returned home in the evening to find that she’d disappeared. I found a note in which she’d indicated that she really didn’t feel that she could cope with life anymore. She didn’t actually say that she was going to take her own life in the message. But there was enough indication there for me to realise this was a serious situation.

Notes often take the form of an apology to exonerate close relatives and to relieve survivors of any responsibility. Susan’s son, Barry, for example, left a letter and on the front of the letter he had written, “No suspicious circumstances”. He told his parents to remember the “good times” and forget the “bad times”.

 

Both her sons left suicide notes. Both told the rest of the family to remember the “good times”...

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
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Yet you still feel a sense of disbelief?


Yeah, yeah. I just, to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t think that Stephen had the guts basically to commit suicide. I really didn’t. And it’s still strange to me that he died exactly the same way that Barry did, he felt that he had to go the same way as Barry. Again he left a letter, and very very brief, but again he said the same as Barry had said, “Please don’t think about the bad times, think about the good times”, he left a separate letter to his sister, and he left a letter to his brother and his wife. He listed everything that he wanted somebody to have, and certain you know particular things, and one of the things that he did say in the letter was, “Don’t chuck anything, chuck anything away, please give it to charity.” He was very much like that, he didn’t like binning anything he, he always thought somebody could make use of it.

Some notes include statements about the person’s low self-esteem and sense of failure at the time of death.

 

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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Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
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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.

Research suggests (see Wertheimer 2001, p. 74**) that not all suicide notes are intended to make survivors feel better. However, none of the people we talked to said that they were upset by the notes they found. Some people had found them comforting.

The police gave Lucreta a note that they found on her daughter, Dionne (who had renamed herself Dominique just before she died). She also found a note in one of Dionne's diaries which Lucreta was glad to have and a poem written by her daughter.

 
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Dionne's diary said that she loved her mother, that she had been 'living a lie'.

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Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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Where did she leave the notes?


She had a note on her when she died, but I had to go back to my previous home and I just knew as a mother there was something there. I just knew, you know when you just really really know there’s something there. And I found a note and she said, “I’m sorry if you’ve become…” I’ll try and read it. I’ll read it to you. It says, “Dear Mum,” and this was extracted from her diary 92-93, she was 15 to 16, I never knew any of this, I never knew her plans, they look as if she’s been unhappy with herself for some time. It goes, “Dear Mum, have decided to leave, move away and find my destiny elsewhere in a place where I am guaranteed success, success, life now has almost certainly become a joke, I’m just living a lie, I’m sorry for becoming an added failure to your list.”

 

So you think she’d been feeling dissatisfied with herself?

 

For many years.

 

Mm.

 

“I’ll see you in several years time, when I’m mature and have found success and happiness. You will be proud of me. Goodbye, friend and bosom of my heart, I love you and wish you the best of luck in the future, love Dionne. p.s. don’t worry where I am, I’ll be okay. Dionne is a survivor who has positivity in some areas even though often not visible. I love you Mum, keep your chin up.” I found this in her diary.

 

Could she have been thinking about moving away to another place do you think?

 

I don’t know but this was comforting this.

 

You found it comforting?

 

Yeah. At the time because I was looking for something.

 

Lucreta reads a poem written by her daughter, Dionne, just before she died.

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Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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You just wanted to read the poem.


Okay, the poem is headed,
“Pain, long suffering”
Pain is like water,
Every time you smile, cry or moan, it drops in your eye.
Pain is something that hits, breaks, ruins and shatters all of us.
It is something that we all feel in one form or another.
We inflict pain through feeling pain.
It is easier to give pain than to abstain from giving it.
You see pain is almost like a magnet or mirror,
When you see ugliness, you want to give it back.
Ironically, when you have been crimed, you want to commit crime back,
Revenge, Frankenstein versus the Monster.
But there’s some that don’t do that,
When they are faced by ugliness, they see great beauty.
And when ugliness hurts, or injures them, they see beauty.
That barrier, to see good people like this comes far too few in this world.
Maybe, maybe this could result in a better world, a happier world
But to do this means great long suffering, often pain to the extent of one’s life.
Maybe this is the price to pay for beauty and beautiful things in this world.
Would you give your life?

 

And does she put her name at the end?

 

Dominique.

 

Thank you very much. That was the poem that your daughter wrote.

 

Yes.

Notes may include details about the type of funeral the person wanted.

 

Steve’s sister left detailed instructions about her funeral but she did not explain why she...

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Age at interview: 37
Sex: Male
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The police had broken, had gained entry to my sister’s flat and found references to her planning her own death. There were quite a lot of them [references] as well and they were all; everything was documented very well. She’d planned it to the, to the finest detail how; she hadn’t actually hinted at a method of how she was going to do it but everything else. She’d even planned her funeral, what the songs that she wanted played and the people that she wanted there and the people that she didn’t want there and that she didn’t want flowers. It was clear to the police obviously that this had been planned for quite a while. And the dates on the letters were dating back to as early as August and September, and it was November that she, she died.

 

Did she say in the notes why she was feeling so desperately unhappy?

 

I’ve got all her diaries as well which have proven to be very useful because she wrote in her diary everything, every day. Every thing that she did she, she wrote in her diary for years. And looking back the, the style of her writing and the things that she, she’s starting to write, it becomes clear that she was becoming unwell in September. And from, there is a, there is a big gap then. Most of October there’s not, there aren’t many entries written at all but it’s clear that she’s losing insight. So she, a lot of it is, it doesn’t make a lot of sense really. And her writing becomes tiny so some of it you can’t actually read, it is so small. But no she doesn’t, she doesn’t specifically name any cause for her wanting to take her life or explain why she’s feeling so, so desperate. Which I suppose is another huge cause of guilt for the family, me and my family because we don’t quite know why this happened.

Notes may also include instructions about the disposal of belongings. One of Susan's sons, for example, wanted some of his things given to particular people and other things given to charity.

Suicide notes have to be given to the coroner’s officer; they are usually handed back after the inquest. Sometimes the police take the notes before the bereaved family has had time to look at them properly. This may be distressing.

 

Her daughter left a note which the police took and gave to the coroner. She was angry that she...

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Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And she had left some notes you said.


Yes and he [the coroner] produced her note, her suicide note in a plastic bag like this. And wiggled it in front of me and said, “Is this your daughter’s hand writing?”


And you hadn’t even seen it?


I hadn’t seen it.


Ohh.


And I said, “Yes, where did you find it?” And she had written it on the back of a Edinburgh University, which is which is where she was, a concert programme, where she and her brother had been soloists. And she’d … it was on her bed.  I had seen it. They had produced it. The police had searched her room and found it and brought it down. But I was … I, I was … I mean they showed to me and I was so hysterical that they put it in a bag and took it away. But yes they produced that again [at the inquest hearing]. And I sort of grabbed it and said, “I want this.” And they said, “Well you can have it now.” I’d actually sort of … they took it away obviously as evidence. So actually they had the evidence in front of them already.


Hmm.


I mean the coroner had it there. He was reading it, it says, “Please forgive me if you can. I can’t go on..” And I virtually said, you know, I had to control myself from actually being quite rude to him.

People may be annoyed or upset if notes addressed to them are opened by other people or taken away by the police until after the inquest. For example, when the police arrived at the house they told Stephen, that he could not read his wife’s note, which he found “extremely frustrating”. Marion said she was “fuming” because her husband’s boss opened her husband’s note that had been left at work but addressed to her.

People may feel differently about notes if they understand why someone has decided to die. Susan’s father had made it quite clear that he intended to take his own life because he had a terminal illness. He left a note at the top of the cliff, which Susan never saw. She assumes the police kept it. He also left a note in the house about his will, but with no other information. Susan was not particularly upset that she had not seen the note on the cliff, or that no long explanation was left in the house. She thinks her father realised that the family would understand and so no further explanation was needed.

Notes may contain significant information. For example, Patricia is convinced that the message left by her husband indicated that he did not intend to kill himself (see 'The Inquest').


*Gelder MG, Mayou RA, Geddes JR. Concise Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry 2005)
** Wertheimer A. 2001, A Special Scar: The Experiences of People Bereaved by Suicide 2nd Edition. Routledge, London

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated October 2012.

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