Roger, can you tell us a little of your story?
All our three boys were adults and had left home. We found out a couple of weeks before he died that Bryan had problems, but he didn’t confide in us. His intentions were well-planned and deliberate – he had even put his obituary on the internet. His best friend saw it and called the police, who visited him and stopped him from attempting to take his life that day. I called him the next day and we talked. The following day I tried to call him again but just got a voicemail message left on his mobile. He said that he was OK and that he would be back soon, however he had actually driven from Hampshire to Inverness, keeping an audio diary on his journey. He had planned to go to John O’Groats but was too tired, so he stopped his car in a quiet road near Inverness and killed himself. The police came to our house on Friday morning to tell us and we had to get a train up to Inverness to identify his body. The police looked after us really well and explained their procedures very clearly, giving us time by ourselves at the spot where Bryan had died.
You have both been Befrienders with Bereaved Parent Support for several years now and have spoken to many people in a similar situation to yourselves. What are the issues that are different for a parent who has been bereaved through their child’s suicide?
Pat: Speaking to other parents, we’ve found that a very big issue is guilt and self-recrimination. Many parents have said, “I should have been able to say or do something to stop him or her”, or perhaps, “We had just had a big argument and now I feel that it’s all my fault.”
We’ve also found that many parents struggle with the answer to the question, “Why?” If their child was receiving mental health care, there are sometimes issues as to why the professionals didn’t help keep them safe.
Although the Scottish police were incredibly supportive to us, sadly this is not always the case. Some people have also had very difficult experiences with other professionals and churches. We strongly believe that we are only able to help others today because our church and friends supported us so well. However, we have spoken to people whose friends have crossed the road in order to avoid them.
It’s good that you had strong support from your church and friends. Did you find your work colleagues equally supportive?
Roger: I didn’t have that problem as I worked mainly on my own, although my boss knew and was very supportive. However, Pat felt that about a year after Bryan’s death, that her work colleagues were thinking: “OK, you’ve done that – now move on.”
Pat: Yes, I was initially very angry, but then realised that this was mainly due to a lack of understanding. So I stood my ground and told them, “You’re not going to get the old Pat back!” I knew that I could never be the same person again. It’s OK to do that.
Did you find dealing with the coroner and inquest difficult?
Pat: That wasn’t something we had to cope with as Bryan had left a living will and papers to support what he had done, so the Scottish authorities were satisfied. But for many parents this is hard – a lady said recently that she’d found re-living events after reading the hospital report very difficult. However, they often find that the inquest itself isn’t the ordeal they had feared, as the coroner can be quite kind.
What have you learnt about supporting others whose son or daughter has died a ‘socially difficult’ death?
Pat: That it’s so important to be able to listen. Most bereaved parents, especially mothers, just need to be able to talk (even if they cry). You need to be completely non-judgmental with someone who has been through such an experience. When their child has deliberately ended their own life, their parents can feel a strong sense of shame, but a listening ear and a non-judgmental attitude can be a huge help in them overcoming that feeling. When you are supporting someone, it is important to give them constant reassurance that they did nothing wrong and can hold their heads up without a sense of shame.
At the first Bereaved Parent Support event that we attended there were six or seven people in our group who had experienced a ‘socially unacceptable’ death – it was such a relief to meet them – normal people! Realising that I wasn’t such a bad mother as I’d thought was a huge step in my healing process.
Roger: I’ve found that a number of the men I come across seem to cope with it better. That may be because they feel they have to be the ‘strong one’ or perhaps it’s because they grieve in a different way.
Finally, what would you want to change about society’s perception of this type of death?
Pat: We have found that a lot of those who have experienced a close ‘socially unacceptable’ death are guarded about what they say. That’s because people can accept your child dying from accident or illness more readily than if you say that he or she took their own life – they take a step back. So we’d really love to see people educated to understand that most families who have lost a child in this way are not dysfunctional – they are very often very nice and ‘normal’ people who desperately need the love, care, acceptance and support of those around them.
If you would like to be put in touch with a trained Bereaved Parents’ Support Befriender, please call 029 2081 0800 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are supporting someone whose child has died, download our resource sheet “How You Can Help Bereaved Parents”. We know that many have found this very helpful, so please print or email this to other supporters too.