Seven years today

It seems like yesterday, it seems like forever. Seems like some days I never had an older brother, on other days he’s still the big brother who looked out for me when I was little. Memories and grief are layers of onion skin. Sometimes they make my eyes sting, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the wound rips open and I cry and cry and cry. Nights I sleep deeply, peacefully; others I close my eyes and open them quick to shut out the images flashing through my mind. The impact is nuclear, the fallout is far reaching and it would be easy, so easy, to close my eyes and end it all. But life is beautiful. The Sardinian snow that on closer inspection is almond blossom covering the hillsides. The shimmering turquoise sea. Snails that kiss on the pavement in the rain. A five-year-old that runs to hug you when you pick her up from school, a nine-year-old that makes you a wonky clay heart to keep on your bookshelf and 10-year-olds that tell you you’re the prettiest teacher ever. Fleeting moments of simplicity because in this brave new world post-suicide everything is measured differently. Career prizes, consistently scoring top marks in evaluations, getting commissions from big-name magazines once so important no longer matter. In the immediate aftermath of losing a loved one to suicide, success is simply having the strength to put one foot in front of the other and make it through the hour. Months later, it’s about functioning on the outside while learning how to knit yourself back together again, how to stretch your skin across your bloody, broken heart. And now, the biggest achievement of my life is being happy, thriving again, while knowing the frightening statistics that say the suicide bereaved have a much higher risk of dying by suicide themselves. It seems like yesterday, it seems like forever, but, actually, it’s seven years today. So today is all about doing yoga, hitting the beach, paddle boarding, feeling grains of warm sand between my toes, filling my house with freshly-cut flowers, baking cakes, reflecting, remembering, having dinner with some of my dearest friends, opening a bottle of red wine and celebrating my brother’s life.


Starting off the week – 2016/3

Perhaps because I’ve had a cold and been hibernating on the sofa, or simply because February is my least favourite month of the year, sandwiched as it is between the newness of January and the hope and beauty of March, I’m concentrating on poetry and magic this week.

The first link is An Understanding of Joy by my friend Dawn. It always resonates, no matter how many times I read it.

Next up is a poem by RM Drake on the beauty of moving forward – a reminder that if we stay still, nothing will change.

Then there’s this from Tyler Knott Gregson about allowing in the light.

I’ve just finished rereading History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky. As a poet, it stands to reason that her writing is beautiful, heart-breaking, and full of straight-to-the-point phrases such as “I suppose no one is truly dead when we go on loving them”.

And, to end, I’ve been going to yoga once or twice a day over the past month and I always hear this at some point during the class.

Have a good week  x

Starting off the week – 2016/2

Here are a few links which focus on suicide prevention that have been collected over the past few weeks when I’ve been busy doing other stuff:

What’s it like to be a moderator on suicide watch and is it really necessary?

I’ve read this story on the suicide of the Columbine killer, Dylan Klebold, on so many websites and seen it on the news, but that doesn’t dilute its impact.

This was also powerful reading on Slate, in part, I guess, because Italy is embedded in fierce debate over the rights and wrongs of civil partnerships.

And from the Times, this article on the rise in suicides among teenage girls. It was sent to me as a photo because of the paywall, which would prevent some of you from reading it. I teach so many pre-teens and teens that this really resonates. And it proves that governments really do need to make mental health a much bigger priority.


Starting off the Week 2016/1

A New Year, a new beginning. I’m not a big one for resolutions because they make me feel bad when I break them.  However, in 2016, I am determined to stay on track, posting my collection of links weekly as opposed to on a random when-I-have-time basis.

It shouldn’t be too hard. At the beginning of last year you really had to look hard to find stories related to suicide. Now there are stories published almost every day, both in the nationals and on popular lifestyle sites, and friends regularly send me links to things they’ve read that they know will be of interest. That’s a good thing,  because I continue to believe that the more suicide is talked about in the media, the more we (me, you, campaigners) can bring about change.

On that note, the first link of 2016 has to be this article from yesterday’s Independent which discusses how much detail needs to go into reporting suicides.  Those of you who heard me talk at the 2015 suicide bereavement conference know that I’m very much in favour of suicides being reported, but a lot of you disagree. So what do you make of opinion piece in the Independent?

Next up is this on Chris and Cliff Molak who wrote an emotional Facebook plea to end cyber bullying after their younger brother, David, killed himself.

There’s also this from a writer who found closure to her mother’s suicide by visiting a medium.

June Sarpong pays tribute to her brother who died after jumping off a bridge in Los Angeles in October last year.

And finally, remember Jonny Benjamin? His online search to find the man who saved his life six years earlier was turned into the Channel 4 documentary The Stranger on the Bridge.  Read an update on his life now from yesterday’s Telegraph here.

From grief to celebrating: loving my brother’s would-have-been birthday

Like most people, I love the hibernation aspect of January.  Snuggling up on the sofa with a good book and a cup of coffee is usually exactly what I need in the post-Christmas slump.

But not this year. The rain (oh, the rain!) in England meant prolonged huddling on the sofa or under the duvet eventually led to cabin fever and now all I want to do is be outside exploring. I’m like my cousin/nan/parents/family’s dog, Rocco, whose tail starts thwacking the floor as soon as he hears my dad scrape the last spoonful of porridge from his bowl and clicks its time to go for a walk in the woods.

I’m back in Sardinia now, where I’ve swapped grey skies for blue; raindrops for sunshine, and with that comes absolutely no excuse for staying inside. Especially not today, which is a what I’ve come to dub a would-have-been day.  In other words, it would have been my brother’s 42nd birthday. Would have been, because he only made it to 35.

Today on Matt’s would-have-been birthday, it’s 20°C and sunny out so I’m off to the beach to gulp in lungfuls of fresh air, dream big, and listen to the waves inhale and exhale at the shore. Then, once I’ve finished writing and caught up with friends, I’ll uncork a bottle of red wine and celebrate my brother’s life and the magic (more on that another day) of being alive.

Christmas comes but once a year – or maybe not

A few days before Christmas, I found myself on Asos for a quick present-buying session. What actually happened is that for an hour or so jumpers adorned with Santa and Christmas puddings and snowflakes found themselves being added one after the other to my shopping basket. And let’s get one thing straight here: I am not the sort to pull on the obligatory festive sweater. Later on, driving to yoga, I realised that the chorus of Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine had seeped into my head and the tuneless singing was coming from me and not the radio. Conclusive proof that I was definitely in the Christmas mood.

I used to love Christmas. Catching up with friends over a Christmas Eve pint. Red-wine kisses under the mistletoe. Family together. Ripping open presents right after breakfast. The blow-out lunch,  with me eating nothing but a pile of vegetables because inevitably we’d forget to pop something vegetarian in the oven for me. The obligatory snooze in front of the tv, followed by our family Snowman tombola. The traditions were so solid, so entrenched, I never thought that one day they might change.

Except, as all good stories go, they did. On Christmas Day 2008, I had an argument with Matt and never saw or spoke to him again.  We celebrated Christmas 2009 with him in the ground. By Christmas 2010, my nieces and nephew had moved to Canada and seven months later my Nan had died.  By the time Christmas 2011 came round, my idea of family festivities had been nuked.

Then this Christmas my younger brother stayed at home with my sister-in-law in Spain, meaning the numbers dwindled to just four. But you know what? It was actually fine,  and although there wasn’t a Christmas sweater in sight, it was no less festive than it would have been with 20 guests around the table.

As it happens, I’m still humming Christmas songs, but that’s (supposedly) more to do with a dodgy iPhone that seems to want to play them on loop than any real desire to keep the festive period going. However, with a Christmas jumper or two snapped up in the sales, you just never know.

The antidote to death

More death in the last few weeks. A friend’s cousin, a friend’s dad. A student’s mum, a student’s dad. A friend of a friend’s sister. Five people no longer here, two of those down to suicide.

And when death grips someone I know, I do what I always do: I get in touch, I offer my sympathy, I send off my list of resources and check in regularly with the newly bereaved, after which I consciously snuggle into my own world of nourishment and wellbeing. I binge on art and cook up creativity in the kitchen. I hit the spa and have a massage; I do yoga and pilates. I walk along the beach to get my dose of sunshine and fresh air. I play peekaboo with one-year-olds and hulahoop with four-year-olds. I duck out of the rain and sit in coffee shops, drinking thick and creamy Italian hot chocolate, and carve out time to spend with friends who carve out time for me.

I no longer fear death. Somewhere over the past six years I’ve come to understand that it’s what gives value to life and use it as my personal benchmark. And now that my knee-jerk reaction to the emotional upheaval of others is to sink into the comforting embrace of my own life, I realise, not for the first time, just how far I’ve come.

Starting off the Week – 11

So starting off the week is actually starting off your midweek today.  Lots happening, lots of writing going on, lots of research taking place. It’s not an excuse but it is an explanation.  I’ll be back with a book review soon.

Before I do, here are a few miscellaneous links for those of you that haven’t seen them elsewhere.

To kick things off is the new Support after Suicide website. Head on over and click on the updated version of Help is at Hand. It contains lots of practical information and is especially useful if you’ve recently been bereaved by suicide.

Something I didn’t know is that suicide is higher among people who underwent surgery for weight loss.

Switching focus, 16-year-old Mary Stroman killed herself last year as this report shows.

Then there’s the suicide notewriting workshop in New York. Earlier this month, a teacher in the UK did a similar activity and gave students the task of writing a suicide note for GCSE homework – except they were only 13 years old. Bearing in mind Mary Stroman, is  writing an effective suicide note what we should be teaching in schools?

And finally, make sure you catch Professor Green: Suicide and Me. In the candid heartbreaking documentary, the British rapper talks about the effect his dad’s death has had on his life. It’s on BBC3 on Tuesday October 27 at 9pm.

Coping methods in the aftermath of suicide

*Right now it’s raining. Hard. Pouring. The roads are flooded. We’ve been instructed by Civil Protection, the police and the town council to stay indoors above ground level. I couldn’t leave this apartment block even if I wanted to. The power has also cut out and I’m writing this in the glow of four little tea lights.

I’m the only one in the house, I can’t read because I don’t have enough light and I can’t make any phone calls because I need to keep what battery there is on my phone should an emergency arise. Which means a lot of mulling over things, meditating and doing yoga in the semi-dark.

That’s not necessarily all bad. I’m an introvert. I like time on my own. Just as I like having time to think. It’s doing it in darkness and without being able to make a cup of tea that’s the killer.

Conversations with friends and preparing for my conference talk by going back through articles I’ve written about losing Matt has meant focusing on those initial months and years after his death and the coping strategies I adopted.

Here are some of them:

  1. I accepted that life as I’d known it was gone. I didn’t fight it. I embraced it and let go of any expectations. I went easy on myself. For a perfectionist, that was a pretty hard lesson to learn.
  2. After weeks of broken sleep, I went to my doctor and asked for sleeping pills. He refused to give them to me. He said I had to work through the trauma otherwise it would surface down the line once I stopped taking the pills. I learnt to snatch sleep whenever I could. A lie-in in the morning. Forty minutes between lessons. A snooze after lunch. Napping definitely helped.
  3. At the same time as refusing to prescribe sleeping pills, my doctor also summoned me for weekly check ups to monitor how I was doing and even started English lessons with me. He wanted to understand how all of me was doing as opposed to what I told him in his surgery. Like so many others, he was looking out for me.
  4. I rolled out my yoga mat every day. Sometimes I did ten minutes, sometimes I did an hour and ten minutes. Sometimes all I did was sat on my mat and cried. But the very act of committing to yoga steadied me. It was my safe space in what had become a scary world with danger everywhere.
  5. I meditated. I still do. I sit cross-legged on my bed and allow my breath to slow down and I count to ten and I do it over and over until 30 minutes are up. It’s calming and gives me the quiet perspective of knowing whatever happens, it will all be okay.
  6. I pounded the streets and walked off my anger. Sometimes I listened to music but more often than not I allowed the thoughts in my head to churn and whizz and I walked until they ceased. That could be after two kilometres or five kilometres or 20 kilometres. Walking is one of the few physical activities which defuses the stress bomb in me and makes me a much nicer person.
  7. I wasn’t embarrassed to cry, but then again I cry easily when I feel strong emotions even when it’s deemed socially unacceptable to do so. I’ve cried in front of bosses at work, I’ve cried in the queue in the supermarket, I’ve emptied pubs with my tears. A good cry makes you feel so much better. Well, it does me.
  8. I knew my sentiments were better out than in and that keeping them locked inside me wasn’t healthy. I wrote in my diary every day and got down on paper what I couldn’t express orally. So stashed in volume after volume of my diaries are pages and pages of chronicled grief and the slow unsteady steps I took towards finding myself again.
  9. As I wrote in my article I screamed silently – what about me?, I was deliriously happy before Matt died and knew that I would be again. Gratitude is always good and before I went to sleep each night, I made it my aim to reflect on what had made me smile during the day.
  10. I relied on my friends. Big time. I told them what I needed and asked them to support me. Some were up for the challenge, others found it more difficult and backed away. At the time I was angry. Now I realise that some people are only meant to be in your life for a short time, no matter how important they seem at the time.

*Written last night. Posted now with the electricity and wifi back on.