Updated: May 6, 2021
On 30th December 1997, my Dad took his own life. I was 20. I was abroad so I found out over the phone and I remember a feeling of falling through space, as if I was in an invisible lift plummeting downwards, as the ground fell away from me and my world fell apart. The impact of his decision changed my life forever and even now there are still days when I spend hours trying to unpick it. Although the immediate grief eventually faded, my emotional response to his death continues to develop as I grow older and learn from different experiences. I am surprised by how much I still miss him.
For many years I didn’t tell anyone beyond my close circle about it. I said my Dad was dead if I needed to but I couldn’t talk about how he’d died and would sometimes even lie about it, saying he died of cancer if I was asked directly. I couldn’t bear even the thought of the awkward look of horror, followed by tremendous pity in people’s faces if I told them. But on top of that, I was also ashamed. I was ashamed of how he died and I was ashamed of myself.
It seems to me that shame and suicide go hand in hand. The American researcher Brené Brown says that shame thrives on three things: secrecy, silence and judgement. In relation to my Dad’s death, I instinctively adopted all of these into my personal coping strategy: I wouldn’t tell anyone and I wouldn’t speak about it because I didn’t want to be ‘that’ girl. I didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable or broken so I put up defensive walls and developed a tough, impenetrable outer shell.
It was only in the last few years that I realised the only way to rid myself of the shame was to confront it directly and be open about it. To be honest, it’s still something of a struggle but I’ve made the conscious decision not to hide how my Dad died anymore. Whilst it makes me feel vulnerable, I know that ultimately it actually makes me stronger. It’s given me a deeper foundation, one that’s built on truth and acceptance, and one that won’t crack if my dirty secret is exposed.
Over the past month, I know of two people who’ve taken their own lives. I didn’t know either of them particularly well – one was someone I was at school with and the other was a former colleague. These deaths are absolute tragedies and I can’t help thinking of the horror that their loved ones will be going through and of how, in the course of a moment, their lives have been damaged forever. However, what stands out for me in both cases is that neither family explained that these people had taken their own lives. They just said they had died and let people work it out for themselves.
It’s recommended not to report methods of suicide and I wholeheartedly support that. I don’t want to know the details of these terrible deaths. However, it seems to me that by not calling it what it is, shame is allowed in right from the start. Whether it’s to protect the memory of the person or whether it’s to protect the family, the lack of acknowledgement plays right into shame’s hand.
I don’t know that discussions around suicide can ever be normal but if we talked more openly about it, our levels of empathy and understanding would increase. I think of those two people who took their lives recently and my heart breaks at their desperation. I think of their families and friends who are just starting on their journey of coming to terms with what’s happened and I know their route will be paved not only with shame but with guilt and terror as well. I’m not a mental health expert or a therapist but I know that denial will not take away their pain.
Over the past few years, looking after your mental health has become much more of a mainstream conversation and rightly so. However, it means little if we’re not prepared to confront the really dark areas and acknowledge these tragedies for what they are. Failing to do so maintains the taboo and makes it harder for people who are at risk of suicide to seek help.
We need to start being honest about suicide. The Samaritans has a great resource on supporting someone with suicidal thoughts which I urge anyone reading this to read too. It states: “Evidence shows asking someone if they’re suicidal can protect them. By asking someone directly about suicide, you give them permission to tell you how they feel, and let them know that they are not a burden”. I hope never to have a conversation along those lines, but the unfortunate reality is that it could happen to any one of us, at any time. Whilst those conversations will never be comfortable, I know they’d be easier if the words we need to use in them weren’t so loaded with shame.
When life is difficult, Samaritans are available day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org , or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) is a national charity that has a wealth of resources to support people who have experienced the loss of someone by suicide.