Here is a story not very many people know.
In my third year of university, when I’d just turned 21, I came home for the Easter holidays.
On the Saturday, my Dad and I washed my car together, (or rather, he washed and I tried to look like I was helping), then he bought us all ice cream which we ate in the sunshine.
On the Sunday, we had an Easter meal with the whole family, and he made me laugh with funny stories about something embarrassing that had happened to him in the supermarket. Later I went on a night out with my best friend from uni who was visiting, and he sent me a text at about midnight to say he’d made up the spare bed so we didn’t need to do it when we got back.
On the Monday morning, he told my mum they’d have breakfast on the patio because it was a beautiful day, but instead he went into our garage and he took his own life. He was just 49.
I have never written about this publicly before, quite frankly because I am terrified, but it would be hypocritical of me to encourage others to be open about mental health and never acknowledge why that’s so important to me.
I don’t even know how to begin to write this because I don’t think I’ve ever made sense of it, not really, or made sense of the world without him in it.
So I’ve written it to him instead.
Dad, here are some of the things I wish I could tell you about your suicide.
1. Sometimes, I’m mad at you
…and them I’m consumed by guilt because I shouldn’t be mad at you. No one gets mad at people who die of cancer. No one would have said “How selfish of Kevin to have that heart attack, how could he?”
I know, of course I know, that yours was an illness like any other. And yet there are times – like when I bought my house and realised how desperately I needed your help with the DIY; my graduation day only two months after you died when your empty seat was so apparent; Becky’s wedding when mum walked her down the aisle and it should have been you; every time one of her children, your wonderful grandsons, makes us smile and it breaks my heart because you never met them and you’ll never know – yes, there are times when I feel angry with you. Times when I wonder how you could do it to us, why you made that decision in spite of what it meant for the people you left behind.
But I suppose it’s okay to be angry sometimes, understandable perhaps. Even if that’s just to highlight what a mountain there is to climb before we can truly understand mental illness. Because mental illness really IS just like cancer and other physical illnesses. Just like cancer, it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care how many people love you, or how big your house is, or how much money you have in the bank.
And just like cancer, mental illness can be terminal. You can fight it with everything you have and you can still lose. So I understand, Dad, that what might feel like a choice to other people, was not a choice for you.
2. There was nothing anyone could have done
It is perhaps the thing I have struggled with most. Why didn’t we spot the signs? What if I’d just got out of bed earlier that morning and made you a cup of tea? What if the last thing I ever said to you wasn’t “I’ve got my keys,” but “I love you” instead? Would any of it had made a difference?
Maybe it would. Maybe I could have caught your life by the tips of my fingers. Maybe I’d even caught it several times before. Maybe I’d have saved you for another day, and maybe another day was all you needed to get better.
Or maybe not.
The heartbreaking truth is that when it comes to depression no one can ‘save’ anybody else, not really. We can offer help and love and support but no one is responsible for another person’s life. In the end, Dad, your depression was bigger than me, bigger than you, bigger than all of us.
3. I wish more people asked about you
Death makes people uncomfortable however it happens, but if there was a hierarchy of the kinds of deaths people don’t like to talk about, it’s fair to say suicide is somewhere near the bottom. So maybe that’s why people don’t ask me about you very often.
I wish they did, because then I would tell them that you were funny and clever and selfless and kind.
I would tell them about the time you were called a hero on the front page of the Blackpool Gazette because you stepped in and saved 50 people’s jobs. I would tell them how you dressed up as a member of the Village People and took part in our local dancing show just to make us laugh. I would tell them of the many times you got out of bed at 4am to pick me up from a night out because I couldn’t afford a taxi but you didn’t want me to miss out on having fun with my friends.
I’d tell them how you loved The Office and Alan Partridge, how you supported Leeds United, how your record collection was wonderful and eclectic and ranged from Madness to Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the soundtrack from The Last of the Mohicans.
I’d tell them that you were an identical twin, how I used to cringe because your ringtone was The Apprentice theme song, and how I still put tomato ketchup on my cheese and toast because of you.
I’d tell them how every year on my birthday you’d send me a text at the exact time I was born, 08.46am. I’d tell them how, on my 21st , you signed that text off with: “Happy birthday Lo, here’s to the next 21 years xxx.”
Only the next 21 years would never come for us, because six weeks later you would be dead.
And I even want to tell them about that, Dad, because it’s important that we talk about it. It’s important that they know that it happens to men and women as wonderful as you.
4. I am so proud of you
Suicide is not considered a hero’s death, but you are a hero to me.
To some people, the method of your death might suggest selfishness, weakness. Which is so wrong, because I know how deeply you loved us, and how hard you fought to stay in this world.
You might have noticed that I don’t always tell people how you died, and I feel so terribly guilty about that. I don’t want you to think I’m ashamed of you. I’m not, I could never be. It’s just I’m scared of their reactions, which can range from embarrassment to complete and utter shock. Because we were ‘normal’, weren’t we? Nice, even. Suicide doesn’t happen to families like ours.
Except it does. It happens to lots of families. More than 6,000 in the UK every year, to be exact. 6,000 nice, normal families, just as broken-hearted as we are and probably feeling, just as I did, so terribly terribly alone.
Because we don’t talk about mental illness, and we especially don’t talk about suicide. It is the kind of death that is spoken about in whispers when we really we should talk and shout about it and then talk some more, because that’s the only way we can even hope to make people try to understand.
But then who could possibly understand your reasons, Dad, when no reason would be good enough? The thing is, suicide is never about reason. It’s about a person’s pain and suffering being so great that it feels like there is no possibility, no hope. Depression is often called the Black Dog but it is more of a black hole; one that swallows people up to the point they think their only solution is to disappear altogether.
For that reason and so many others, Dad, I think you were the bravest man who ever lived.
And perhaps other people thought so too, because at your funeral the church was so full that there were people standing at the back.
5. I am proud of me, too
For a long time I was frightened that, because of how some people view suicide, they saw me differently to how they did before. I was terrified that people might think I was damaged; that our story made me the kind of girl people didn’t want to be friends with, or have a relationship with, or employ. I was wrong, of course, and I am forever indebted to all the wonderful people who helped put me back together when my world fell apart.
But here’s the thing: I’m stronger than I realised, Dad. We all were. Your death – heartbreaking and unbearable and incomprehensible as it was – showed me inner strength I never knew I had.
In some ways, I think what happened made me a better person. I am more compassionate, more understanding, more empathetic than I was before. I am more driven because I understand that life is short. I treasure moments because I have seen first-hand that we have no way of knowing whether or not we’re on rations.
Importantly, Dad, I think your death gives me an opportunity to speak out about the terrible, silent illness that killed you. To bang a drum and raise awareness about mental health, because that’s what you would have wanted, isn’t it?
I’m not saying I have it all figured out. I don’t have the answers, or even a plan. But I do know that people with mental illness need kindness and understanding, not judgement and stigma. And more than ever, I know that mental health, as the biggest killer of men under 50, desperately needs funding; it desperately needs to be de-stigmatised; it desperately needs to be talked about.
And I must lead by example. So this is me. Talking about mental health, the way I’m forever urging others to do.
This is our story, Dad. I hope I make you proud.