I’ve recently attended the memorial service of a friend I’ll refer to as B, who committed suicide towards the end of last year. He hanged himself with his belt in a hospital room, just an hour after being sectioned following previous attempts to take his own life. Having had an intimate funeral at a crematorium, his memorial service was a bigger gathering in a church, and was followed by drinks at his club.
Perhaps more than after premature deaths by accident or illness, the mood swings of those left behind are complex after a suicide, both at the public send-offs and during private grief. Regret is tainted with anger and incomprehension at the person’s decision. There’s also guilt that we were powerless to change things.
The memorial service and party came three months after B’s death, time enough to lessen the intensity of fresh grief. He was remembered in speeches, prayers and music. Causing both tears and smiles, the tone was respectful and affectionate. At the social afterwards, guests chatted freely, neither obliged to share good memories especially, nor to articulate feelings about the awful circumstances of the death. That he is missed is a given.
The event got me thinking about what can and cannot be said on such occasions. Initially, my response had manifested itself by constantly asking, why? A sensible friend, who was chosen as executor, was more practical. As well as busying himself with funeral arrangements and financials matters, he investigated a case for negligence at the mental institution. Why leave someone alone with a belt when on suicide watch?
I had no taste for such wrangles. I just wallowed in private misery. I considered posting a blog but couldn’t string a sentence together about something so personal. I was freed from this solitary numbness by what started as an unrelated phone conversation. To my surprise, a casual chat somehow gave me permission to let it all out. I ranted and sobbed with uncharacteristic abandon.
However, I also had a slight disagreement with the executor during a conversation about the ‘whys’ of B’s suicide. I mentioned B had talked of serious money worries, something the executor promptly denied. He should know, I thought, and decided never to repeat the ‘money angle’ lest I was indeed spreading false information. Certainly a no-go subject at the memorial gathering.
This was nevertheless my impression from my final conversation with B. The last time I saw him was after he’d just been sectioned for the first time after overdosing on pills. Briefly allowed out of care before curfew, we met in a bar early evening, him sticking to soft drinks as he was on lithium. I told him how shocked I was by his situation. He’d always seemed so together, not just because he was successful and popular but because he exuded an inner calm. The swan was clearly peddling like crazy beneath the water’s surface.
Did he realise how loved and admired he was? Was it a genuine attempt to end it all or a cry for help after concealing his demons for too long? Would he promise never again to hide his troubles as if vulnerability was somehow shameful?
He shrugged nonchalantly, his gaze still. Was he being evasive? Was he medicated beyond feelings? I persisted. So what were the triggers? People say depression needs no fuel, that it’s a mental disorder that can consume regardless of external forces. But could he identify any preoccupations that caused his predicament?
Had he been diagnosed with any serious illness other than depression? No. Had he been heartbroken in love? No. Had drink or recreational drugs escalated into a problem? Not really. Did he have money worries, having gone self-employed after years as a salary man at a big firm? I thought I’d identified a catalyst here as he claimed that establishing his own company was the biggest mistake of his life, that business was slow and not covering the overheads of office rental and staff salaries.
I tried to offer a positive spin. We’d admired his entrepreneurial spirit but career defeat was no big deal in the greater scheme of things, even in a buoyant market let alone a recession. He could walk away and become an employee again. Besides, he also owned homes in London and the country. Far from being broke, he could easily regain solvency with a few lifestyle adjustments.
He looked sheepish, saying he was closer to bankruptcy than I imagined, his properties mortgaged to the hilt. I wanted him to see a light at the end of the tunnel regardless. He could downsize to release the profits and start with a clean slate. At the end of the day, wealth was relative, and all any of us needed for physical comfort was a roof over our heads, a bed, shower, fridge, computer…
The direction of this dialogue now started to reveal a side of B I’d never previously encountered. He alluded to affluent mutual friends, and the need to keep face among privileged company. I brushed aside this self pity. Come on, B, you’re surrounded by loyal friends who adore you. We all know people who are both richer and poorer than us.
I didn’t judge him for seeming insecure, I was in fact thankful he was opening up to something that seemed so simple to remedy through reason. Other more visible character traits were now falling into place. He had always been extravagantly generous. Was he a pathological people pleaser, better at giving love than receiving it?
As we said goodbye, I reminded him many of us were there for him. When I next called, we arranged to meet over the weekend. He then cancelled by text saying he’d had to leave town. It transpires he was in fact attempting to jump off an infamous ‘suicide’ bridge in the home counties. He was caught behaving suspiciously on CCTV camera, and picked up by the police. This time, the sectioning didn’t work. Whether or not his belt had been confiscated, he was clearly intent on dying.
As I dwell on the executor’s dismissal of financial matters as a cause for the clinical depression, I realise the whys are not so important. We can ask whether life determines demons or demons determine life, but we’re all different things to different people, and some things go with us to the grave.