Remembering a suicide: outward appearances and inner selves

Charles 9 Comments


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.


  1. Charles


    I agree there’s much to say and indeed do about suicide and assisted suicide.
    World Suicide Prevention Day is on 10 September. If Funereralworld has any role to play, individuals should perhaps get planning.

    Norman Lamb, our Government’s minister for care and support, and Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk, has the responsibility, among other things, for reducing the UK’s rising levels of suicide (although he’s for assisted suicide).

    Funding research is one thing but, to paraphrase Tony Blair on crime, we need to be ‘tough on the causes of suicide’, whether it’s better psychiatric and palliative care, improving the economy after the Brown years or tackling bullying.

    We hear the stats. Globally, an estimated million suicides each year, one every 40 seconds, more than by murder or war, and a figure most certainly brought down by under-reporting for reasons of social stigma. Many suicides are also hidden among other causes of death, such as road traffic accidents.

    In the UK, we know that, of over 6,000 suicides a year, there’s a much higher proportion of men than women, and while there are worrying figures regarding under 25s and indeed over 80s, the highest rates are for the 35-55s.

    One of many starting points to address this issue could be a critique of how it’s covered in the media. People searching the internet for suicide help are more likely to find sites encouraging them rather than offering support. Alt Suicide Holiday, Satan Services and are examples.

    In the mainstream, the BBC should curb its bias, with the likes of John Humphrys acting as a cheerleader for assisted suicide. All I ask is that both sides of the debate are given equal air-time by our national broadcasting service.

    Among the WHO’s international guidelines on media portrayal of suicide is avoidance of language which sensationalises or normalises suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems.

    1. Charles

      You talk about suicide, Richard, as if every suicide was the same – as it was when it was a criminal act I guess, or a sin. Yet I’m struck, reading this, by the different motives people have for taking their own lives – or wanting to.
      Some, clearly, kill themselves for the worst of reasons – bullying, lack of care or support, revenge, momentary despair. Of course we should do all we can to spot risk, take precautions and offer help and support. More power to the Lamb elbow, I say, if he’s able to do anything about it.
      In the press round here more than one person has been reported as killing themselves because their housing or other benefit has been removed, so he might start there.
      But should we treat everyone thinking of killing themselves in the same way? If you are terminally ill or trapped in a body damaged beyond all use, doomed to continue because medicine can keep you alive beyond all natural expectations, is the desire to end it all so unnatural?

      1. Charles

        Vale says: ‘You talk about suicide, Richard, as if every suicide was the same – as it was when it was a criminal act I guess, or a sin’.

        Where do you get that from? Sorry, although I’m ensured you’re a thoroughly good egg (and I believe it), you sometimes strike me as a bigoted, loony leftist, militant atheist who will be prejudiced against whatever I write, simply because I’m Tory and Catholic. You need to chill out. Nothing I said above or below the line here conformed to any of your fatuous accusation.

        The two posts, above and below the line, are completely unrelated. One is an emotional response to a personal tragedy. The other is an intentional trigger for a socio-political discussion about practical ways to reduce suicide rates.

        I know good readers would respond with humanity to the post above the line. However, I’m not optimistic this is the forum for the wider socio-political disccusion about suicide or assisted suicide. From experience, debate is unlikely to go beyond the banal, ‘How dare you disagree with our lefty consensus, blah, blah.’

        Moving on… not being a soap opera viewer or tabloid reader, I have only just heard of Coronation Street’s Hayley, a transsexual who downed poison to avoid death by pancreatic cancer, and then had a humanist funeral including a floral print cardboard coffin.

        I’m assured Corrie’s producer and directors handled transsexuality sensitively over many years. They then courted viewers by promising to address the assisted suicide issue equally well. In fact, they copped out: it was a suicide with husband Roy not assisting in any way. As for the representation of a humanist funeral, it was totally banal and sentimental. Having just attended something to compare it against, I know exactly where I’d rather be.

        1. Charles

          I touched a nerve, seemingly.
          Richard, I was not commenting on your original piece – which was sensitive moving and thought provoking. My reply was to your ‘trigger for a socio-political discussion’ and it was written in socio-political terms. Provocatively perhaps but, I thought, quite reasonably.
          I don’t think I misread you when you threw points in about John Humphrey’s cheerleading for assisted suicide as though all suicides were to be regarded in the same way, or indeed the throwaway line about Gordon Brown’s economic failures. Both spring from a worldview and political philosophy that, particularly in this context, will be disagreed with. Or did you not anticipate that?
          Pax Richard. I’m sorry I irritated you so thoroughly. I’ll try not to provoke you again, but, of course can’t promise not to disagree with you.

          1. Charles

            Pax tuo also, Vale! Yes, the below the line comment was socio-political. Humphrys can believe what he wants, as can you, as can i, but the BBC should not be baised and give air-time to all side of any debate.

            As for the Brown aside, I included it as I didn’t want the gist to be ‘Stop Cuts Now’ when touching on people becoming suicidal for economic reasons. Socialism makes society poorer every time, and therefore adds to general suffering. It’s not just Tory cuts aiming to clear debts (caused by Labour fiscal irresponsibility and sucking up voters), that causes suffering.

        2. Charles

          PS Am I alone in being reminded with the fairytale about the Emperor with no clothes when thinking about Hayley’s floral coffin? It’s ugly, no? If it was Bett Lynch’s, it would be leopard print. Corrie designers are very good at visual characterisation but it’s usually affectionately tongue in cheek.

  2. Charles

    Suicide is a hugely complicated issue and still something we, as a society, tend to wish to sweep under the carpet and ignore.
    It is clear that suicide due to depression or personal circumstances and suicide due to terminal illness are two entirely different issues and need to be talked about separately. Assisted suicide I will leave to one side for now, as it muddies the issue, I think.
    Ultimately it comes down to this…does an individual have the right to take his or her own life? Yes, I think they do. If fact both the law and more recently, the Catholic Church (I believe) acknowledge this fact.
    Does that then mean that each individual is an isolated unit which is and should be totally self determining? Does anyone else, for example, have a stake in ‘me’? Yes, I think they do, and that is what makes this such a complicated issue. To use the Coronation Street example, Roy was angry. Did he have a right to be? in a sense, yes. Hayley deprived him and her friends of what might have been a rich and useful few weeks or even months. She had the right to that and ultimately it may well have been the right decision for her…but that brought a set of consequences which are real and I would not like to see suicide (assisted or otherwise) be seen as the social expectation or as the thing widely perceived to be the ‘right’ option. If ethics were always black and white there would be no difficult decisions. Sometimes there is no ‘right’ decision, only the least wrong. It sucks.
    We need a more open attitude to mental illness, to suicide, and its survivors. We need a lot of things. But, its a conversation (particularly the one about assisted suicide and euthanasia) that cannot be usefully had if one side constantly vilifies the other.
    With a few exceptions, people wish to make things better and to do the ‘right’ thing, regardless of religion or politics. We may disagree on what the ‘right’ thing is or how to achieve it but that, essentially, is where we are all heading, if we acknowledge that in each other we might get further.

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