Empty autumn road. Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Please note that this post contains explicit discussion of suicide – please proceed with caution. Stay safe. I love you.

Eighteen months ago today, Kieran took his own life.

That is to say, at some point after 6.13am and probably before 8am, Kieran went into our garage, which he used as a workshop for woodworking, and hanged himself from a beam, using a rope he had bought specifically for the purpose three weeks earlier, on a day when he and I had a happy lunch together in the early spring sunshine. At 6.13, he left me a voice note saying good morning to me and Grace, and that he loved us and was proud that we are his family. Then he left his phone in the kitchen, though I know he used it to stream music to play in the garage. I won’t tell you what that was, though I bet those of you who knew him well might be able to guess. But it seems to me a private sort of thing, as much as the content of his suicide note, which I already hate knowing the police and coroner read before I got to.

Why am I sharing all this detail? It is to share something, too, of the very specific pain of sudden bereavement – particularly suicide – which is filled with both terrible, painful details and also terrible gaps. I have tried, many times, to imagine his walk from the kitchen to the workshop, wondered whether he paused to look at the sky, whether all that drove him was a relentless need to get this done or if, having decided to do it, he felt a kind of peace.

I had a conversation with a couple of people recently where, not long after disclosing that Kieran died by suicide, they started talking about a documentary that interviewed suicide attempt survivors and wondered aloud whether those people felt regret.

So. This is the first item in the list of things not to say to people bereaved by suicide, on this World Mental Health Day, a great day for “raising awareness” and not actually doing anything to address systemic problems in our treatment of mental illness. Don’t speculate over whether or not a person wished they hadn’t done it once they set the train of events in motion that would end their life. Wonder about that in your own time. Your bereaved friend will have thought about it a lot, and if they’re anything like me, can have come to peace with it only in the profound hope that what their loved one felt wasn’t fear or regret but relief.

Don’t ask your friend how their loved one took their life. You may be curious, but your curiosity doesn’t deserve sating. A few years ago, when a friend took his life, a stranger emailed me to ask if I knew how he’d died. A stranger!! And in fact, I don’t even know the answer, because I’ve never asked and their family hasn’t disclosed it. It isn’t relevant. I have shared the means of Kieran’s death here as, at this point in my particular journey, I feel that withholding it altogether gives it a power I don’t want it to have. But the only person I will ever, I suspect, discuss the details with is my therapist, which is my right. Besides which, asking intrusive questions about means of death can trigger strong feelings of trauma in bereaved people, especially if they were the person who found their loved one. My father-in-law found Kieran, and I was shocked to learn recently that several people asked him how Kieran had died. Why would you make someone relive that for your own curiosity?

Similarly, don’t ask them where they did it, unless they have offered you other information that suggests they’d be happy sharing it with you. For many people, their loved one died in their home, and inevitably, that leads to people responding in a shocked or disturbed manner, and they don’t need to deal with your disgusted/horrified feelings when they’ve probably had to spend a lot of time coming to terms with what has happened in a previously safe space for them.

If someone does disclose their loved one died at home, don’t say something like “how can you still live there?” Many people don’t have a choice to just move! And even if they did, many people don’t want to; they may feel that happy memories override the terrible memory. But they may have had to do a lot of hard internal work to reach a place that they can feel that way. Your careless ideas about what makes a home bearable or not are not helpful.

Don’t say you don’t understand how their loved one could do this to them/their kids etc. They probably have had these thoughts many times themselves, and should feel free to express them. I have talked to my family and my therapist many times about my anger at Kieran for leaving me and our child. But anyone outside of our circle is not welcome to express those feelings to me. They make me defensive. If you need to express them, do it to someone outside of the inner circle of grief. It’s fine if you feel angry – it’s a natural part of grief. But remember the ring theory of grief – support in, dump out.

Grief circle – image from Upworthy

It is ok to say you don’t understand how it happened. Just don’t expect your friend to give you an answer. There are lots of reasons that contributed to Kieran’s suicide, but they aren’t an answer. There are only partial answers, in the end. Your friend is probably working hard to come to peace with that. I know I have been, and am.

When I look back at the past eighteen months, I know I’m in a much, much better place than the raw agony of the early weeks. But I did have a period only six months ago when for a month or six weeks, I felt almost as split open inside as I had done in the early days. I know that a time like that may come again; the only positive of which is that I know now, from experience, that with care, that pain will subside and become bearable. A day doesn’t go by without me thinking of Kieran, but several hours can, and I can often think of him now without also thinking of his death. These are gifts of time, self-care and some very expensive therapy. Mostly I feel very whole, in and of myself. But there will always be days that leave me bruised. That is the nature of grief, and of love. I am learning to live with that.