My 15-year-old grandson died by suicide six weeks ago. At 3pm, six weeks ago, I was wondering how many of the delicious cookies that I’d just baked I could eat. By 5pm, my whole world had changed for ever.
To say life is now difficult is a complete understatement. To say friends, colleagues and family members want to help and support me is completely true. But some of the time some of them get it wrong, even though they mean well.
Some of the time I can see they are terrified of making a mistake and adding to my pain. They don’t want to be clumsy and insensitive.
So, I’m writing this now for all of you who may one day be faced with what to say and do in the face of a friend’s raw grief over the suicide of a loved one.
I need to say that everyone’s experience of this type of grief is unique, so what helps one person may not help someone else. But from talking to others who are deeply affected by my grandson’s death there are some things we share.
It’s just too complicated. Everyday life goes on. I still have routines and some of the time I can immerse myself in things, but sometimes the grief feels overwhelming. How do I feel? Right now, I may be doing OK, but by the time I finish texting that reply I may be feeling far from OK. So, do I delete it and start again? It’s easier not to reply.
For me, that’s the essence of this grief. It changes from minute to minute. It’s clearly not going to be a steady recovery to a new way of living. Some moments are better than others. I still find myself laughing at something occasionally.
I can sometimes enjoy the sun on my back as I ride my bike. Sometimes that warmth just reminds me of my grandson and my love for him, and it completely undoes me. I have no way of knowing in advance which it will be.
If you want to message me, just text “Thinking about you xx” or “Love you” or “Here for you whenever you need me” or “I’m around today xx.” Please don’t do it only once. I may not reply, but these sorts of message help me. Please don’t ask me if I got your earlier text.
Friends suggest we meet up. They say helpful things like “We can talk about Max if you want, or not if you don’t want.” But for me, arranging to meet you is impossible. I don’t know how I will be feeling in 10 minutes, so how can I know whether going for a walk with you tomorrow will help?
Some other family members find having these advance arrangements helpful, but it doesn’t work for me. Some people want to be surrounded by others, some people don’t. As I said, everyone’s grief is in some way unique to them.
And it changes too, so what works one day won’t work the next. This can leave you, my friend, uncertain what to do. I understand that. I’m sorry, but it’s the way it is.
I regularly go to the gym and also volunteer in a local charity shop. I asked someone in both places to let people know what had happened to minimise the number of people I had to tell. Inevitably there were some people who hadn’t heard.
I meet them and they say: “Hello Jane. How are you?” I could just say “fine” but that denies what has happened to my grandson. I usually say something like “Not great.” Some people don’t ask me what that means, but some people do.
I want you to know that if you’re one of those people who do ask, I understand your horror when I explain. Please don’t feel bad. You didn’t know. Telling people is (I hope) part of the way I process what has happened.
Please don’t tell me about the death of someone you loved. It doesn’t help right now. I would also appreciate it if you don’t tell me how I feel: “You must be feeling devastated.” It doesn’t help. It’s OK to be silent with me. Maybe to touch me gently or put your arm round me, as you know I’m someone who likes physical contact.
But if you’ve experienced bereavement by suicide, I do want to know a little about it. It tells me you understand some of what I’m going through. But be careful what you tell me. I don’t want to know right now that someone never got over it or that they were broken by it. I really don’t want to know much about that suicide as I’m having trouble coping with this suicide.
Death by suicide is also a time of cliches. Yes, I know I have to take one day (or even one hour) at a time. I know that time heals, but right now I’m faced with another day to get through. And please, please, please don’t tell me that all we can do is love one another. It’s true but it’s not helpful right now when I’m experiencing the pain of loving so much.
“Death by suicide” sounded odd to me when I first started saying it. Partly because of the enormity of what it said and partly because it seemed contrived. I started off by saying “he committed suicide” or “He chose to end his life.”
I find both of these acceptable descriptions of what happened, but some people who are bereaved by suicide don’t like them. “Committed” makes it a sound like a crime – it no longer is. Some people also don’t like “chose” to kill themselves/end their life, as they feel people don’t chose it. They are driven to it in some way.
So, it’s best to say “died by suicide” and “bereaved by suicide” for those people or those days when anything else feels wrong.
I’ve written so many things for you not to do. You may be frightened of doing anything in case it’s wrong. But the worse thing you could do is withdraw or avoid me. Send me a card. Send me another card a few weeks later. Send me an occasional message or email reminding me that you are one of the good things in my life, still there when I’m ready.
If you meet me, ask me how I am. I may say “Fine” and move on or I may want to stop and talk. Just wait for me to decide. Be patient with me while I find a way to go forward without my bright star of a grandson. Understand that I have an overwhelming concern for the welfare of his parents.
I know the depth of my pain. I cannot imagine theirs. I am a mother, but how can I comfort my son and daughter-in-law in this time of terrible loss? This grief is not just about me, but also about the others affected so directly by this intense loss.
I’m practising what I will say when someone asks me how many grandchildren I have. Is it OK to say: two but my grandson died aged 15? What about: two but my grandson died by suicide aged 15? How much do I need to protect you from my grief? I don’t want to ruin your day. There’s enough misery in the world without me adding to it.
But I can’t answer: “Just one.” I need to honour my grandson and his life. He is still my grandson, Max.
Understand that right now I feel I’m living in a different world from you. I hope, with time, to be able to come back into your world, but there will always be a piece of me that belongs to Max and exists in this separate place. Life will never ever be the same again. So be patient with me. You can still be a good friend by just waiting for me to be ready to be with you again.
But please also understand that my feelings and experiences do not mirror those of everyone bereaved by suicide. Just be there for them in a way that does not demand a response. Let them find what helps, and be there if needed.
Remember that what they want may change from day to day. Being bereaved by suicide is frightening and devastating, but you can help in this way to make it a little easier to bear.
Do you think grief is different for everyone and depends on the circumstances? Have you felt the pain caused by a loved one’s suicide? What do you think can help a friend experiencing such deep grief?