Initially, after being asked whether I could write a little something about losing a parent to suicide, I thought this would be easy. I had reams and reams and reams of writing which I had done in the immediate aftermath, both in my personal diary and as draft blog posts. I thought I could quite simply just adapt one of those. However, sitting down to write this, I thought about what I would really want people to take from this post… What do I want people to understand better about suicide bereavement? What do I find difficult to communicate to my friends?
Two years ago, when I mentioned my dad’s death, I was without exception met with kindness, compassion and sympathy (sometimes a little too much, but that’s another story). Whilst I don’t think any of my friends or family would outright tell me that I “should be over it by now”, small slips of the tongue, knee jerk reactions, or just plain awkward silences all serve as a stark reminder that some people genuinely do not understand that the loss of a parent, particularly to suicide, is not something you can ever truly ‘get over’.
I want to talk about this in the context of COVID-19. Of course, I can’t speak for everyone who has lost a parent to suicide, but I want to shed a light on what some of us are going through in these really tough times. Like many, I was terrified of the unknown virus spreading throughout the world. The fear was not so much about falling ill myself, but at the thought of my remaining family members (especially my mum) becoming ill and dying. As many of my friends know, fear of those close to me dying has been nothing short of an obsession since my dad died. Someone is late to meet me? Dead. No reply to my message. Dead. Haven’t been online in 10 hours. 100% dead. With COVID-19, suddenly all these fears became rationalised. And they don’t go away after a few hours. Instead, they linger until the threat of COVID-19 is gone.
While I’m sure this isn’t unique to those who have lost parents, the debilitating way I experienced this – what I have come to call “emotional flashbacks” – could only be experienced by those who have lost a parent. I spend hours and hours and hours in a trance-like state thinking about what will happen if my remaining family dies and I am left alone. Although I am in the present in these trances (i.e. I am thinking about my mum, brother and COVID-19) emotions are right back in the place where I had first heard that my dad had died, reliving all of that trauma on an endless loop. Compounding this was the knowledge that should my family fall ill, I would not be able to travel home. Similar to my dad’s suicide, the last time I would see my family (in my mind) had already passed without my knowledge.
Acutely aware of how rapidly my mental health deteriorated during COVID-19 and the associated lockdown, another thought dawned on me: if I’m suffering this much, how are those who are more vulnerable coping? It did not take long for statistics to show that the implications of lockdown (such as isolation, lack of access to services and uncertainty around income) were leading to worsening mental health and, sadly, suicide. Without debating the need for a lockdown (it undoubtedly saved thousands of lives), it angered me that mental health had been overlooked in how the lockdown was implemented. Strangely, my former dissertation supervisor wrote exactly what I had been feeling about this recently in a short piece (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1469-8676.12890): Suicide is one of many neglected and poorly treated epidemics, yet it was not considered in the management of the current pandemic.
Everyone had been so sensitive and sympathetic towards me two years ago when my dad took his life. Yet, discussing my feelings in the context of the pandemic has been really tricky. Unfortunately, I quickly learnt that to protect myself I had to distance myself from some friends. This was especially distressing when people who viewed themselves as progressive and sensitive towards mental health issues reacted awkwardly to my feelings, sometimes even contesting them as if they were a part of a political debate and not my own feelings that are mine to have. For all the upset that came from these interactions, an absolute gem of a lesson here was my new-found understanding that my feelings were valid.
Those who don’t have such an intimate experience of grief, particularly traumatic grief, likely don’t realise that grief over time is not a downward sloping curve but rather a chaotic mess of ups and downs that interact with current events (fans of The Good Place, think of it as a Jeremy Bearimy of grief).
COVID-19 is just one of those events that moulds our grief into new configurations. At the same time, I feel my grief evolves on its own and, as it does, it colours the way I view the world. This chaotic mish mash (for lack of a better phrase…) makes grief so difficult for us to understand, let alone communicate to those who have never been in our shoes. That said, when we do find those people who can empathise with us, it fosters a closeness that you know you can trust.
I want to dedicate this blog post to all those who I have met through LSBS and the Parental Loss Group at the University of Leeds.
In loving memory of James Maton.