Content warning: suicide.
Before 2017, suicide was something that existed in my peripheral vision. It was a dark unknown, a distant tragedy that happened to friends of friends or celebrities. But in that year, when I was 20, suicide became an immediate reality, over and over again.
In March, I got a message to tell me that an old classmate of mine had taken his own life. Ross was someone I’d laughed with everyday throughout secondary school. He had fiery red hair, the sharpest wit and the biggest grin. We’d lost touch after leaving for university, so the disbelief I felt at the news of his death sat awkwardly. Nothing visible had changed in my day-to-day life, but someone who was part of the fabric of growing up had reached such a horrific low that he wasn’t there anymore.
A month later, while I was studying in my university library, I received an urgent text from my mum. I picked up the phone with shaky hands, suspecting that something had happened to one of my grandparents. Instead, she told me that her sister, my beloved aunt Julia, who had suffered from bipolar disorder for many years, had died. Growing up, I don’t think I’d ever properly understood the severity of Julia’s highs and lows. She was always a source of comfort and wisdom, taking me on country walks, writing me letters about the books she’d read, and giving the longest hugs. The news of her death was like a gut punch. After a surreal funeral, I coped with her loss by immersing myself in my degree, in friends, parties and a new relationship. I had some of the happiest months, despite everything.
Then October rolled around. Waiting for the first class of my final year, I got another call from mum. I knew before I picked up that something was wrong. Tom, a close family friend, had died by suicide at 22. Tom, who possessed a singular intelligence and magnetism, who took everyone on wild adventures and made you feel like you were the only person in the room when he spoke to you.
When Tom died, all the trauma from losing Ross and Julia unlocked at once. Alongside my grief for each individual, I picked apart the topic of suicide in an attempt to make sense of what had happened. I tried to understand how someone I loved, someone so full of life, could reach a point of wanting to die. I grappled with my own guilt, feeling like I should have done more. I checked my messages with each of them and obsessed over replies I could have sent. I tried to reconcile my own experience of losing loved ones to suicide with the quotes about mental health that saturated my social media feeds. And still I was left with a despair that frequently played out in bad dreams.
Over time, the wounds began to heal. Then, during Mental Health Awareness Week this October, another call from home set off a small explosion: my 26-year-old cousin Sophie had ended her own life. Our warm, effervescent cousin who we’d spent beautiful holidays with on the beach in Cornwall. The all-too familiar feelings came flooding back; the incomprehension, the devastation on behalf of her immediate family. And this time, I felt utterly exhausted. Here were four loved ones from separate walks of life, all with different experiences of mental illness but the same heartbreaking outcome.
“Grief in general is so complicated but I feel like when you lose someone to suicide, there’s something more complex about it,” says James Fort, 25, whose sister died two years ago. For him, feelings of abandonment are the toughest to process.
“I know how much Lizzie loved me but it’s hard to know that she’d do something knowing she’d never see me again,” he continues. “Sometimes there’s this feeling that your relationship with that person was cut short and that they chose for this to happen. That’s very difficult.”
The painful range of emotions triggered by suicide can be underestimated, as can the number of people impacted by a single death. A 2018 study from the University of Kentucky found that up to 135 people are affected to some degree by every person lost to suicide, a huge increase from the previously cited statistic of six.
“The ripples of suicide are vast,” says Professor Rory O’Connor, director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at the University of Glasgow, who has lost two friends to suicide himself. “It’s important to make a distinction between people who are bereaved and people who are affected, but it’s time we recognised that the impact goes beyond immediate family and friends to a wider circle of peers and people who were acquainted with the person.”
As suicide rates in the UK have risen over the past two years, with 5,691 suicides recorded in England and Wales in 2019, 321 more than the year before, those ripples are spreading further.
Florence Kosky, a 24-year-old filmmaker, has witnessed the extent of this, having lost five friends to suicide since 2013. “When you go to the funeral of a young person, there are so many people there who are devastated and heartbroken,” she says. “And there’s this frustration that that person couldn’t see how much they meant to so many people as well.”
Having encountered suicide so frequently, Kosky finds that she’s much better at checking in with friends. However, her anxiety over it happening again materialises in ways that can be detrimental to her own mental health.
“It’s left me with a bit of a compulsion to be a fixer, which sometimes isn’t healthy,” she admits. “If you see things you think of as warning signs, you try to fix people yourself, as opposed to directing them to organisations like Papyrus or the Mental Health Foundation.”
For Fort, taking a step back and carving out time to sit with his grief alone has been as necessary as rallying together with loved ones.
“Allowing yourself to be in a bad way about it, to feel hard done by, like it wasn’t fair, and that it didn’t deserve to happen to you, is really important,” he says.
About seven months after his sister died, Fort listened to a podcast interview with writer Jen Offord, who lost her brother when she was at university.
“She said so many things that I hadn’t been able to put into words myself,” Fort reflects. “I just remember being in floods of tears throughout this hour-long podcast, and I honestly felt so much better after. I felt like I’d cried something out my system.”
Grief from suicide is messy and long-lasting, but I’ve found strength in sharing my experiences with others, which can help to de-stigmatise the issue, too. Though hard, letting go of guilt and looking after your own mental health is essential.
As O’Connor emphasises: “It’s so important to be compassionate to ourselves as well as to others, and to recognise that the only thing that’s predictable about bereavement following a suicide is that it’s unpredictable.”
If you or someone you know is affected by any of the issues in this article, please contact Samaritans UK, either on email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or their 24-hour hotline (116 123).