Losing my brother to suicide
It is with a heavy heart that I write this post.
I have been frantically reading article upon article relating to suicide ever since the day I lost my brother. Apparently, writing about my experience will help me process my feelings as a grieving sibling, provide me with a channel to focus my grief as well as offering help and comfort to others. I'm not sure that will be the case, but I will give it a go.
I'd like to start by saying that when someone dies by suicide, the aftermath opens up an immediate opportunity to talk about suicide as a public health issue that affects all of us. I feel I have now have a duty to carry out work in suicide prevention and decrease the stigma surrounding the issue by sharing my story with you.
The day my life changed forever
At 5.59am, on Wednesday 25th November 2020, my life was turned upside down. I had been fast asleep, blissfully unaware of what was about to unfold. My parents opened my bedroom door, turned on my light and sat at the bottom of my bed.
The bedroom light startled me, and I sat up, dazed and confused. "What's happened?" I asked my parents. They both looked at me with a blank expression, pale and bewildered.
"It's Josh", my Father said. "He's killed himself".
I looked at my Father in utter disbelief of what I had just heard. I turned to my Mother, who was staring into space. No tears, no screams. Just an overwhelming numbness consumed my body. I couldn't speak, I couldn't move, I didn't know what to say or do.
At that moment, it felt like time stood still. My Mother, Father and I seemed to be sat there, on my bed, for what felt like an eternity. In the immediate days that followed, we spent most of our time staring blankly at the television in silence. Our only distraction from this out of body experience we were feeling was a regular knock at the front door with another delivery of sympathy flowers. Our kitchen very quickly became a makeshift florist specialising in lilies. Lilies, a symbol of grief, filled the air with a strong smell which is believed to be the soul of a passed one going away from the body and entering the realm of the immortal.
The feelings that followed the news of my brother taking his own life have consumed me ever since. Each day, my Mother, Father and I experience a different emotion. We seem to take it turns to have 'bad' days, although, each day that passes always seems to be a 'bad' day. If one of us is struggling, the other two rally around to support, and vice versa. In the weeks that followed this devastating news, the same questions whirled around in my head.
How could he do this to us? (Resentment)
What if the Police identified the wrong person? (Denial)
Why didn't he come to us for help? (Confusion)
What could we have done differently to stop this from happening? (Guilt)
How could life have got so bad that he thought this was his only option? (Sadness)
Did he realise how much of a devastating impact this would have on his close-knit family and friends? (Anger)
How are we ever going to get over this? (Despair)
Grief experienced from someone who has taken their own life really is like no other. Over the last few weeks, many people have said to me 'I can't imagine what you're going through'. And they are right. Unless you have experienced this type of tragedy first hand, you will never understand the pain, sometimes actual physical pain, that lies inside of you day in, day out.
No one understands our pain, because their world didn't stop when ours did.
Each day I wake up feeling sad that I've opened my eyes. I dread the fact that I have to get through another long day filled with overwhelming sadness. I am so lucky to have an amazing network of family and friends around me, and I am grateful to have each and every one them in my life. But, the truth is, I just haven't wanted to talk. I often reject phone calls. Sometimes, I take days to respond. If any of my friends are reading this, please forgive me. I know you care, and I know you're there for me. At the moment, basic life tasks like washing, getting dressed and eating has become a mammoth task for me to do.
I've never really been one to talk about my feelings or emotions. Although I can come across quite 'hard' on the exterior, I am actually a very sensitive person. I realised I needed to seek support to deal with the grief and pain I was experiencing pretty early on in my experience, although this was not immediate.
I remember waking up on a Sunday morning and feeling the need to visit the location where my brother chose to end his life. I got up from my bed, picked up my car keys, and drove to the location in my pyjamas and slippers. I parked my car in the middle of a road, left it unlocked with the door open and stumbled towards my destination. I remember walking through a graveyard and a really pretty church which was holding their Sunday service.
I'm not an overly religious person, but I felt an urge to enter the church. I walked in mid-way through the service. The congregation turned their heads and stared at me in disbelief. There I was, in the freezing cold, in my pyjamas and slippers. A kind man got up from his pew to comfort me, clearly acknowledging that I was in a state of distress. He sat me down at the back of the church. I stayed for the duration of the service, listening to the prayers, watching the choir sing hymns and staring intently at the stain glass windows with tears silently streaming down my cheeks. I took comfort from it. After the service, the kind man asked if I would like to remain behind to speak to the priest. I politely declined and continued to stumble towards the location where my brother took his own life.
Here, I sat on the cold, muddy concrete for about an hour. I sat there, sobbing, desperately trying to put myself into Josh's shoes on that night. Members of the public walked past me like I wasn't even there. Parents guarded their children from me in fear I would do something to put them in danger. I didn't care. I just needed time alone, in that exact spot, to feel my brother's sorrow. I write about this experience now in disbelief. I cannot get over my actions, it's like I was a different person that morning. Perhaps that demonstrates progress in dealing with my grief in comparison to my feelings and behaviour now? I don't know.
I'm telling you this part not to gain your sympathy. I want you to know that it took that incident for me to realise I needed additional support. Please, if you are grieving or struggling yourself, seek help immediately. Don't wait it out like I did thinking you can go it alone. I've put some resources I have found personally useful at the bottom of this page - please utilise them, they are of genuine use.
There is no doubt that Josh had his struggles. He was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome from a young age which, although not severe like the examples you watch on the television, was a very difficult condition to deal with. Josh was bullied consistently throughout school. Kids can be very cruel, and cruel they were. He was ridiculed for his condition, and he lacked friendships.
Despite his troubled school experience, Josh obtained a good selection of qualifications from school, left to attend college and secured a respectable job in the community.
As Josh's older sister, I always felt protective of my brother. I tried my best to look after him, wrap him in cotton wool and stand up to the school bullies on his behalf. I now feel like I've let him down. He didn't come to me for help when he needed it the most.
The Turning Point
I believe it is around the age of 17 that Josh's mental health really began to take a turn. Josh lacked motivation and chose not to put his obvious intelligence to good use, despite being very capable. My parents and I found his attitude incredibly frustrating. How can such a bright boy choose not to put the effort in to maximise his potential?
This became a common theme for the remainder of Josh's short life. If there was a short cut, a way to achieve something with minimal work or effort, Josh would go for it. In the years that followed, Josh chanced his arm at cryptocurrency trading as well as setting up numerous business ventures. It has since transpired that Josh had also found himself in financial difficulty, with a large amount of credit and loans in his name, despite having a well-paid job.
As Josh grew from a boy to a man, he became a real character. Everyone who met Josh loved him. He made some wonderful friendships with his work colleagues, friends who would go out of their way to offer him support and guidance. His friends were extremely compassionate towards Josh, who was very open about his struggles with mental health.
The statistics speak for themselves. There were 5,691 suicides in England and Wales in 2019, that is 321 more compared to the year before. But, it's heartbreaking to look at those statistics. They are not just charts or numbers on a list; each one is a person with a name, a story and a devastated family attached.
Josh was offered support numerous times from Occupational Health assessments, telephone consultations, chats with family and friends, counselling, psychotherapy, you name it. But, he didn't take up these offers. I feel so sad knowing that, despite all of these supportive outlets and everyone around him that loved him more than life itself, he chose to battle alone.
I guess I should count myself lucky that, at 29 years of age, I have never had the misfortune of managing a loved one's estate and organising a funeral before now.
Over the last 6 weeks, I have dealt with tasks and made decisions I never thought I would have to make. Going through his phone records line by line in the hope of finding answers, choosing which items of clothes to put my brother in one last time, liaising with the coroner and police surrounding the circumstances of his death, selecting which songs and poems to feature at the funeral, calls to his friends and colleagues, cancelling his bank accounts, cancelling his insurance policies, countless calls to organisations and companies whom Josh had accounts with, each one presenting a new issue.
I felt an immediate sense of responsibility that I needed to step up. I wanted to protect my parents from the horrific reality of the event to the best of my ability. I felt like, and still feel like, my grief is incomparable to my parents. After all, they have lost their only son.
As the only remaining child of my parents, I also feel an overwhelming pressure to provide them with grandchildren. I am their only hope of that life event now happening. Whether or not I do that, I don't know. I am aware both my parents just want me to be happy, I know they would never pressure me to have children. But, it doesn't remove the feeling of expectation and the subsequent guilt I would feel if I did not provide offspring. Again, time will tell.
I can't help feeling that if Josh knew the agonising ordeal my parents and I have gone through in dealing with his decision, he may well have thought twice. But, I think when you're that mentally unwell, your rationale tends to slip away and the consequences of your actions may well dissolve into the background. Unfortunately, I'll never know what went through his mind that night, and that's the sad and painful reality of suicide.
The R;pple Effect
There is no denying that the passing of my brother has changed me as a person. I feel like nothing else that happens to me in this world will ever be as bad as what I'm currently going through. I've become distant, quieter, more subdued in nature. I'm not sure if that will remain the case for the short-term or the long-term. I guess we will find out in time. I know many of Josh's family and friends are feeling similar.
I have, however, become fixated and obsessed with ensuring that even one other family does not go through the utter devastation that is the loss of a loved one from suicide. I'm told by my counsellor that this is a common reaction to the death of a loved one; an overwhelming desire to campaign to help others.
When learning of the circumstances surrounding Josh's death, it became apparent that he had been researching methods and techniques to take his own life via online search results. I chose to visit these websites and search results myself in an attempt to enter Josh's headspace. What I discovered shocked me to the core. Harmful online search results add a level of vulnerability to individuals by reinforcing their feelings, legitimising their thoughts and providing users with the ways and means to act on their contemplations. The sheer volume of material available online and the lack of immediate mental health support following an online search of this nature is astounding.
“In a population survey of 21 year olds, of the 248 participants who had made attempts on their life, almost three quarters reported harmful internet use.” - Bristol University, 2016
I know I have to do something to change this and prevent other people from looking at this material online. My profession is in IT, and I've decided to utilise my skillset and connections to create an online monitoring tool to prevent individuals from researching dangerous content. I've called the tool 'R;pple' - it is estimated that for every suicide, more than one in 135 people suffer intense grief; a ripple effect. It is here that I need to make very clear to you that this concept is a non-for profit organisation. I have no interest in making money. I believe my purpose in this life is to now save lives and redirect people suffering with mental health struggles to the wealth of fantastic charities that can undoubtedly provide them with life-changing support.
R;pple will present a visual page on a user’s device the second they are flagged as searching for a harmful keyword or phrase relating to self-harm or suicide. The R;pple page is presented before harmful online search results are displayed, and act as an interception to encourage users to visit a mental health support page from charity partners as an alternative to viewing harmful online results.
“There are 1.2 million internet searches for ways to take your own life every month” - Suicide Forum, 2018
I have spent the last few weeks perfecting my proposal and pitching my idea to businesses and charities specialising in mental health. Lots of people have said "well done" or "I can't believe you have done this so soon after". All I want now is the opportunity to be heard, to display a redirection to people like you who may be struggling and to encourage you to seek help. The day I can say the R;pple tool saved a life from suicide is the day I am more accepting of hearing "well done".
Joshy - if you are watching me write this, please know that I love you with all my heart and I pray you are finally at peace. I promise I will look after Mum and Dad for you. Love you always.
I guess now, I am attempting to grow from my struggles and use my lessons from my experience to reduce the stigma surrounding suicide.
If you have read through my story and would like to support me with R;pple, help me deal with my grief, back me on my journey, or just would like to talk, please do make contact with me.
Please look out for each other. Make the time to check in with those around you.
Love to you all, Alice
Mental Health Resources
SoBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide): 0300 111 5065
Samaritans: Phone: 116 123. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
PAPYRUS: Phone: 0800 068 4141. Email: email@example.com
Mind: Phone: 0300 123 3393 . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
CALM: Phone: 0800 58 58 58. Webchat available