How To Cope When Suicide Comes Knocking On Your Door
“My experience of suicide is that it is the equivalent of a bomb going off in your living room while you’re sitting watching telly. Afterwards you’re astonished you’re alive, but everything has changed and you have a million shards of glass embedded in your soul. Some of them are so big they fall out straight away leaving gaping wounds. But the little pieces, they can take decades to work their way up to the surface.”
At some point in your life you will experience the loss of someone close – it’s the natural order of life, it’s what makes us appreciate our own mortality, it’s an inescapable part of who we are as humans. How that person dies though, will determine the level of pain and anguish you feel and often the intensity and the duration of grief you experience.
Any death is sad but a life cut short, at any age, perhaps by illness such as cancer, heart failure or more latterly Covid-19, will intensify the sadness and pain you feel. You may experience a range of emotions, such as helplessness or anger, despair, guilt, shock or the notion that you have been cheated out of sharing more time with this person. The more sudden or traumatic the nature of the death is likely to intensify your grief, as you struggle to make sense of what has happened – your feelings might range from trauma, helplessness and bewilderment, to anger at the injustice of what has happened. Those known to the deceased will share your feelings, to a lesser or greater extent, dependent on how close their relationship was to the person who died.
When someone we love dies, time can often help heal the sense of grief felt – the deceased will probably always be missed and the continuing sense of sadness and even anger, depending on the circumstances by which the person died, may never disappear completely but there will often be some sense of closure.
But, when someone takes their own life, something changes, there’s an added dimension to the nature and magnitude of grief experienced – grief from suicide somehow seems different, it’s unlike anything encountered when a death happens by almost any other means. Perhaps the reason for this difference is because there is often no sense of closure. When someone dies at the hands of another person, for instance, we know why they died, even if we are uncertain as to the motives of the killer. But when someone takes their own life, we can’t ask them why.
Each year some 6,500 people die by suicide in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics. It is reported that each suicide impacts a further 135 people, this equates to conservatively 877,500 people who are impacted by suicide in the UK each year. These are startling facts and perhaps you’re like I was 14 months ago, blissfully unaware of these statistics and thinking that suicide will never come knocking on my door? I was very heavily shaken out of that blissful state one Wednesday afternoon in December 2019.
The reasons why someone chooses to take their own life are often complex. A lack of satisfactory explanation in the form of a detailed suicide note – perhaps no note at all – means, at best, we can only speculate but we can never really know what was going on in the mind of someone at the moment they chose suicide as a way out. Journals or conversations, reflected upon with the benefit of hindsight, may help put some of the pieces of this nightmarish jigsaw back in place but there will always be pieces of the puzzle missing – it is these missing pieces which create the ‘Ripple Effect’, a situation that often totally engulfs loved ones, family, close and even more distant friends, work colleagues and communities, all known to the deceased.
This article has 2 aims:
- For anyone considering taking their own life, not only as a way of escaping your own personal torment but because you believe ‘I will no longer be a burden to those who love me’, I want to share with you the ripple effect caused by my son Jordan’s suicide. I will describe the tsunami that engulfed us all in the immediate period following his death and how, 13 months later, after-shock waves continually threaten to drag many of those known to him back into the raging ocean time and time again.
- If you have been bereaved by suicide, I want to provide you with a sort of road-map, based on my own journey and the experiences of those I have spoken with personally or I have heard about through my research these past 12 months.
Some context first
You may have stumbled across my profile and my story only very recently. So, for some context, I’d recommend you read an article I published on December 16th 2019, just 3 weeks after Jordan’s suicide, the article is titled ‘The Day My Son Took His Own Life‘. This article achieved global reach on LinkedIn and generated personal responses from many LinkedIn users, including: psychologists; celebrities, such as Ariana Huffington; mental health professionals; those bereaved by suicide or worried that someone they knew might be considering taking their own lives, as well as the more unexpected messages from people who had either attempted suicide or were considering this as a route out of the pain and torment raging in their minds. It was this article which became the catalyst for me deciding to wind-up my 11-year consultancy and training company and devote the rest of my life to helping to improve the mental health of those who are struggling and prevent suicides, through the formation of The Jordan Legacy CIC.
‘Tell your friend that in his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Wherever he goes, you also go. He will not be alone’. Jiddu Krishnamurti.
The tsunami that crashes over all of us
As I write this section of my article, I’m conscious that tomorrow – January 3rd – will be 12 months since Jordan’s funeral and cremation. It scarcely seems possible that a whole year has passed, the pain is still so raw, as is the expectation, even now, that he may still pick up the phone and call me or turn up at our front door and say “Hey Dad, I’ve been away but I’m ok and I’m back to stay”. This morning (January 2nd), I read an entry in my journal from January 5th 2019, which reads: ‘Woke this morning and have cried ever since – (names of Jordan’s mum, step-mum, sister and girlfriend) all feel the same this Sunday morning’
Jordan had a significant network of people who truly loved him, including 3 or 4 separate groups of very close friends, most of whom didn’t know the members of the other groups. Each cohort had at least one person who would tell you that they were Jordan’s best friend. Some of those friends read tearful eulogies at his funeral, others wept and one abiding memory I have, as the large crowd of mourners left the chapel car park, was that of a solitary young man standing waiting for me, with tears pouring down his face. It was a friend of Jordan’s from his primary school days. Although they hadn’t kept in touch as frequently as they might, they both shared wonderful childhood memories – this 6ft + man now stood in front of me totally bereft – we hugged.
More than 30 of Jordan’s work colleagues attended his funeral and recently, I received a package of letters, written by many of those who worked with him. Each shares a heartfelt message of sadness, along with stories recalled of happy and special moments, where Jordan’s unique cheerful and caring manner would always shine through. 12 months later his bosses and colleagues are running quizzes in his memory, they have renamed the tuck shop at their offices ‘Jordan’s Bar’ and they have numerous fundraising events planned in his memory and they all miss him.
Jordan’s girlfriend, Charlotte, who had her future mapped out 13 months ago – a loving relationship, a successful career and the thought of children along the way – she saw these ambitions all wiped out in an instant on December 4th 2019, the day she arrived at Jordan’s house to discover the most unimaginable experience of her young life.
I have spoken with and counselled a number of Jordan’s close friends, who have been equally traumatised by his death and the very nature of it – 13 months have passed and burly, 6ft+ male friends of his still break down at times when we message or speak about Jordan. Several weeks after his death, I received a letter from one of Jordan’s friends, who relates to Jordan as ‘my brother’. Such was the pain this young man shared in his letter and the guilt he felt also (like so many of us do still) that I collapsed in our dining room after reading what he’d written – my wife rushed home, aware I was struggling, to find me crumpled in a heap on the floor crying with physical pain.
And then there is Jordan’s family; his Mum, who struggles to find any joy in her life now, despite having a wonderful daughter (Jordan’s sister) and two amazing grandsons. Jordan’s sister, who, following his death, had to ‘be there’ for her boys, alongside their father Matt, both have barely had time to grieve – life doesn’t stop when you have young chidren but their sadness is evident. Jordan’s sister suffers an enormous sense of loss for a brother she grew up with and the recognition that she is now an only child – no Christmas or birthday cards will be given to or received from Jordan ever again, except those placed on his grave. Jordan’s step-mum, my wife, who embraced Jordan as if he were her own son, feels the sense of loss as much as anyone. Jordan’s Nana still struggles to get her head around ‘Why?’ and like me, she talks to photographs of Jordan regularly and asks him that question. And then there’s me.
My trauma manifested itself in various ways – on the outside, I took control, making arrangements for the funeral(s) and spent months dealing with Jordan’s affairs. 13 months on and we now have a buyer for Jordan’s house in Leeds – I know the day I hand over the keys will be yet another very difficult bump in an already very bumpy road.
As the months went by, I even managed to pull myself together to try and make something good come from Jordan’s suicide and established The Jordan Legacy CIC . Writing articles, such as this one helped – mostly they’re for the benefit of others but the process has been cathartic for me also.
During the early months I needed medication to help me sleep at night (most of Jordan’s family did) – Zopiclone being the family’s choice of sleeping tablet. I would also experience frequent involuntary head twitches and violent body contortions, which can only be likened to being forcefully punched in the stomach – these afflications, though eased now, still revisit me during times of stress, especially during moments of reflection, when I try and imagine what Jordan went through during his final moments.
The rituals and the memories gifted
When we grieve, we all do so in our own personal and unique way – sometimes we grieve collectively, such as when we all went away as a family to a remote mountainside cottage in the Lake District in February 2020. This photo shows one of the moments of joy, as we’d scaled a ‘mountain side’ in the freezing fog and mist and all screamed out “This is for you Jordan and we miss you”. The mood became much more sad and reflective at other times, such as when we were nestled by the fire in the evening, trying to make sense of what had happened, at a time when the news was starting to filter through about the suicide of celebrity TV presenter Caroline Flack.
As a family, we found some solace and sense of peace by coming together regularly, such as when we would go to Jordan’s house – his sister, Mum, step-mum, girlfriend (Charlotte) and me – to sort through his clothes and personal belongings. We would choose certain items, such as a watch or one of his favourite jackets, which we then gave to some of his closest friends. There was Jordan’s beloved Classic Mini Cooper which one of his closest friends accepted, very emotionally, as a gift from us – the two of them shared a passion for classic cars and they would often drive out together, his friend in his classic VW Golf and Jordan in his Mini – so many memories we have been able to gift to those who loved Jordan.
In the previous few paragraphs, I have shared just one percent of what we have gone through since Jordan took his own life. We are now beginning Year 2 of life without him – does it get easier? No – each date of significance is a reminder of what happened during 2019/20. Will it get easier? I don’t have a time machine to travel into the future, so that’s a question I’m unable to answer right now.
I hope my/our story has been useful in providing you with some insight into what bereavement from suicide is like. So what now?
“And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise and who knows what the tide could bring?”
Quote by Chuck Nolands, played by Tom Hanks, from the 2000 Movie ‘Castaway’
What is the impact on those bereaved by suicide?
In November 2020, I attended the National Suicide Bereavement Conference, an event, perhaps understandably, I was completely oblivious to before my son died by suicide. For the first time in its 9 year history, 2020’s conference was held online and attended by several hundred people from around the globe. You can visit this link and book to attend this year’s conference, which is scheduled to take place in Manchester, UK, on September 22nd 2021.
One of the most important aspects of this years Conference was the publication of the National Suicide Bereavement Report 2020. Led by Dr Sharon McDonnell, a team of researchers from The University of Manchester, in collaboration with Support After Suicide Partnership (SASP) conducted a national cross-sectional study examining the needs of people bereaved and/or affected by suicide. Data were collected between 26th September 2017 and 31st August 2018, via an anonymous online survey of more than 7150 people who had been bereaved by suicide.
Key findings from this report
82% of those who completed the survey reported that the suicide they had experienced had a major or moderate impact on their lives. Some of these adverse consequences included; a relationship breaking-up, loss of their job or experiencing financial problems, sometimes caused by getting involved in risky behaviours such as gambling or increased alcohol consumption. A fifth reported poor or deteriorating physical health and over a third of those surveyed reported mental health problems and this was particularly common for women.
The largest group of people completing the survey were health professionals, including doctors, nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, ophthalmic opticians, dental practitioners, veterinarians, medical radiographers, podiatrists and other health professionals.
477 (7%) respondents had experienced between four and 70 deaths by suicide, often this was due to the respondent’s work, usually health professionals (99, 26%), caring personal services (i.e. care workers, nursing auxiliaries and assistants; 43, 11%) and protective services (i.e. police, firefighters, prison officers; 35, 9%). The occupation with the highest exposure to suicide (70 instances) was a crime scene examiner. However, 40% of those who experienced more than four deaths worked in non-professional occupations such as caring and leisure services and administrative roles.
At the timing of writing this article, I want to give thought to all those front-line NHS employees, doctors, nurses and other care staff who are working under huge physical and mental duress looking after Covid sick patients
5,499 participants provided information about their relationship to the one significant person who had died by suicide, which showed that the most common relationship was the death of a friend (19%), followed by a parent (16%), sibling (16%) or a son/daughter (14%). There were 206 (4%) respondents who reported the significant death to be someone known through their occupation (i.e. a colleague or client).
I would recommend you taking a look at the report here. This is what we need to understand: the majority (77%) of respondents reported the suicide had a major impact on their lives. Whilst the majority (95%) of those who had lost a family member reported a major impact, around a quarter (23%) of those who had experienced a suicide of a patient or client and 24% of those affected by a death of a stranger also reported the death to have had a major impact on them.
Suicide has a ripple effect, it not only affects those directly related to the person who dies by suicide, the tsunami reaches far and wide. According to the ONS, each suicide costs the UK economy £1.69 million – most of this money is spent on supporting those bereaved by suicide. Now the biggy – many of those who have been affected are also at risk of dying by suicide! 38% of people bereaved by suicide state having suicidal thoughts, whilst 8% actually go on to attempt suicide.
“ The death had a vast impact on all areas of my life […]. My guard is always up. Financial life is a struggle. I feel that I am constantly trying to juggle things our son, work, money, housework. Many times you feel like you’re losing control and things are crashing down around you. I know I will be mentally scarred forever from my experiences. I will never be the same person again as I was. A part of me was shattered that day.”
How do you recover when you’ve been bereaved by suicide?
From my own experience, the journey toward recovery meant simply functioning – I had lost my son, a grown man yes, but he was still my little boy, who I first held on July 11th 1985, when the nurses on the maternity ward thrust this tiny, slightly bloodied bundle into my arms, as they had to urgently care for his mother following Jordan’s birth.
There is no roadmap for how to cope following the death of a loved one by suicide and your experience will be different to mine. What I did find lacking, in our own case though, was guidance. Who did I want guidance from? Well, the professionals for a start, the first responders, in particular the police. This a short summary of our own experience.
Following the immediate aftermath of Jordan’s girfriend discovering his body at his home and her call to me at 4:11pm on December 4th 2019, my first contact with anyone in a professional capacity was with a female police officer (WPC) who was attending the scene. By now, I was undertaking a 3-hour drive home from a client, in rush-hour traffic, knowing that my whole world was about to change. The WPC called me using Jordan’s girlfriend’s phone, introduced herself and calmly asked “Mr Phillip, do you have a funeral director or would you like us to arrange one for you?” Do I have a funeral director?! Really?! Does everyone have a funeral director, like they have a doctor, dentist, hairdresser, had I missed something here?! And where was the line “I’m sorry for your loss”?
There was no offer of a contact number provided to me by the WPC and no real explanation as to what would happen next – I just kept on driving.
During the next 24 hours, we all gathered together as a family and I visited Jordan’s house. Questions needed answering, the most important of which was where was Jordan? It took calls to the funeral directors and then in turn the coroner’s office (the number provided by the funeral director), to be told that a post mortem would be required and the process could take 7-10 days, possibly 2 weeks! But where was he, I want to see my son?! When, finally, we had an answer to that question, it took an incredible amount of pursuassion, on my part, to get the coroner to agree that myself and Jordan’s family could view his body in the mortuary chapel at Leeds Royal Infirmary, the day before his scheduled post mortem and 4 days following his death – 4 days felt like 4 months – all that time he’d been alone.
At Jordan’s home, the day following his death, we discovered an empty wallet on his kitchen table – was this the wallet he used regularly, if so, where were the contents, his credit cards, drivers license and where was his mobile phone and importantly, amid the chaos that day, Charlotte had noticed Jordan had written a suicide letter in a note book, where was this now? Receiving the answers to these questions would take 8 days.
I’d obtained the mobile number for the WPC from Charlotte and left voice and text messages without reply. I even starting phoning local police stations in North Yorkshire, unaware that it was West Yorkshire Police who were dealing with ‘our case’ but no one was returning my calls. Once I’d discovered which police force was handling Jordan’s case, I drove to a station, which was closest to where Jordan lived, in the hope of getting some answers and it was there that I was finally pointed in the right direction.
8 days following Jordan’s death, I finally received a call from the WPC; “Good morning, it’s (Name withheld) the police officer who attended your son’s house. Sorry I haven’t returned your call, I’ve been on annual leave” No “Hello Mr Phillip, I’m sorry I’ve not been able to reply and by the way, how are doing?” Where was the empathy and consideration and if she was annual leave, why didn’t another officer take on the family liaison role?
I wanted to share those few exchanges with you to emphasise a point and the point is this; when someone attempts suicide and the police are called to attend the scene, one, possibly 2 officers will turn up. When someone dies by suicide, a whole team of police attend the scene and yet there appears to be no specific resource dedicated to looking after those left behind, especially during the immediate aftermath.
What support is available post-suicide?
Some weeks after Jordan’s death and the publishing of my article on LinkedIn, I was approached by Andy Chapman. Andy is Suicide Prevention Lead at City of York Council and was with North Yorkshire Police for over 30 years, 11 of which he was a Hostage and Crisis Intervention Officer. Andy had seen my article and wanted to help – we soon became friends.
Early on in our conversations, Andy asked me what support we’d received as a family following Jordan’s suicide? I told him none. He then introduced me to a guide, produced by Public Health England, titled ‘Help Is At Hand’, you can download a copy here.
If you have been bereaved by suicide, this guide will help you:
- understand what you may be feeling and the importance of talking to someone
- what may start happening – such as letting people know / people you might meet in the first few days / contacting various services and organisations
- understand how the suicide may affect you, depending on how you are related to the person who died i.e. Partner, Parent, Sibling, Friend etc
- support someone who has been bereaved by suicide
- understand how to simply get through each day and then how to face the future
- by providing additional help and support resources.
This really is an excellent guide and I only wish we had been given access to a copy in those early days following Jordan’s death.
“My circle of friends and I were young (in our twenties/early thirties) and were not well equipped to deal with our friend’s suicide. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, self-medicated, partly because it was a cultural norm. While we felt supported by each other, we didn’t seek help or advice, and were all in a state of shock for several months. There were some positive aspects, for example a sense of putting things in perspective, but the effects were largely negative, and quite traumatising.”
There are many wonderful organisations out there, providing support if you have been bereaved by suicide and a number of these are listed here on The Jordan Legacy CIC’s website.
So, what is life like after you’ve lost someone to suicide and is it different to when you’ve lost someone by any other cause? I can honestly say for me, the answer is yes, it is different and it would seem that others I’ve spoken with feel much the same. In addition to the sadness and feeling of loss, other emotions can often surface, such as: anger, despair, fear, guilt, searching, shame, stigma, anxiety, numbness and confusion. You may or may not experience any or all of these emotions and feelings but if you do, you’re perfectly normal as far as being bereaved by suicide is concerned.
Where to now? Well, to requote Tom Hanks and his character Chuck Nolands: “And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise and who knows what the tide could bring?”
And I will keep breathing and keep putting one foot in front of another, moving forward and in my son’s memory, embrace his many incredibly wonderful traits and help provide a legacy of hope for others who are struggling to find reasons to continue living.
In closing, I invite you to join me online on Thursday, January 21st as I announce the launch of The Jordan Legacy CIC’s #HopeForLifeUK Day 2021, which is scheduled to take place every December 4th, from this year, the day my son chose to end his life.
Details of launch event can be found on our website here. During this 90-minute session, we will share our vision for #HopeForLifeUK Day and how you can help us in our mission to move toward a Zero Suicide community – we will also hear amazing stories of hope from a number of speakers on the day.
I hope you can join us.
For regular updates on developments at The Jordan Legacy, you can opt-in here and to donate and help support causes supported and managed by The Jordan Legacy, you can donate via our website here. Thank you for any support, which will be put toward services to help prevent suicide and the development of The Jordan Legacy Retreat.