The Ones Left Behind – Stuart McFaull
October 15, 2019
It’s just over two years since Mum died. After years of burying her own trauma and internal torment, she finally collapsed under the weight of the world.
Her own struggles pushed her into a cul-de-sac of anguish and, so, with no viable solution to cease hers and her family’s suffering, she hanged herself in the garage. She was 54 years old.
Time, of course, has marched on. Time waits for no man nor does it care about grief; let alone a grief as complex as the one suicide bequeaths.
There’s the shock, firstly.
For my Dad this was a visceral reality: He found my Mum in the garage: writhing, wriggling, the whites of her eyes bulging with desperation; the body, clinging on to life while the mind had let go. He was valiant and fearless and literally fought against the impending grief that was to engulf him like an enraged tempest.
Dad wrestled with his wife, battled her demons head on and revived her. This resulted in Mum desperately clinging on in intensive care for 5 agonising days, virtually brain-dead and kept afloat by tubing and machinery. It was an agonizing ordeal, watching this cocoon, this hollow shell who was once my Mum – my Mum for fuck sake – spluttering and twitching and fitting; it was a purgatorial hell.
Worse still for my Dad I have no doubt. He still insists on entering his house via the garage rather than the front door. Grief makes strange demands of us all.
That shock is an injection of surreal, confused adrenaline. I felt utterly disconnected from my surroundings when Dad called me. I’ll never forget the moment.
I was in my 5 a side kit ready to head out the door for football and then he called. I was cool and calm and spent 30 minutes putting laundry away; a Stepford Wife numb to the short-circuiting occurring in my brain.
Mum had been in and out of Grianagh Court for the best part of a year and had made several bodged attempts at her life previously. Yet, there was still nothing to prepare us for that reality. That movie / TV soap plotline which seems so preposterous to you – “That would never happen to me” – was happening. It was impossible to fathom and I spent the ensuing days in a fog of disbelief.
Then there’s the montage of memories. A loop of all recent events and interactions plays out like a crappy detective show. You become Colombo and lose yourself in endlessly replaying every single minute detail. Did she look sad? When did I speak to her last? What were my last words to her? Did she know? Did she think about me before she did it? Why did she not leave a note?
Unfortunately, this has never truly left me. It’s an unruly tick in my brain that apropos of nothing likes to remind me of all the times I said hurtful things to her, or I hung up the phone exasperated by how difficult she – nay the illness – was. Yeah, that’s a real fun part of the process.
I could go into immense detail about the reasons behind my Mum’s pain. I could rant on about the lack of support in her life from people who supposedly loved her or the shitty hand that life dealt her. But, in truth, it’s wasted energy. She’s gone and that won’t bring her back.
What is worth discussing is the conversation of mental health and how, here was a woman who had clearly been experiencing a mental health battle for most of her life, but grew up in a time where that conversation was not possible.
Vulnerability and honesty about one’s fragility would be construed as weakness at best, certifiable madness at worst. She was a proud, gentle soul prone to deep bouts of introspection and selflessness – so much so, I wouldn’t even be acutely aware of her issues until I was in my twenties.
Yet, knowing what I know now, the signs were there. When we were young, my sister and I would spend long periods in the garden playing and look up and see her, sitting, cigarette in hand, lost in her own troubled thoughts.
Towards the end she was sleeping erratically, lost pride in her appearance, barely washed, distanced herself in isolation, becoming a cold, emotionless presence.
She lost interest in everything, she could not obtain pleasure from anything in life and she repeated what I now believe to be mantras that helped her close herself off to the love that could bring her back.
“I DON’T BELONG IN THIS WORLD”
“I WANT TO GO TO SLEEP AND NEVER WAKE UP”
“YOU’D BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT ME”
“WHAT KIND OF A MOTHER AM I?”
“I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM ANYMORE. I FEEL SO LOST.”
That’s heavy shit to deal with as a son, a daughter, a husband or a friend. There’s no guidebook for that. And I can truthfully say I tried everything I could to help her, to bring her back somehow. I can also say, with complete honesty that I got a lot of that wrong. I said awful things that I didn’t mean just to try and jolt her, to desperately plead for her to return out of her chasm of despair.
I said awful things that I did mean. I told her she was a bad Mother. That was never true. And I can never unsay that. I cried and wept a thousand tears into her as we embraced outside Nobles.
It was the first time she tried to kill herself. I didn’t cry again until I watched her pass away.
I think, in retrospect, I was grieving from that moment onwards.
Therein lies the complication of suicide and the tangled web of grief it weaves. The chances are someone suffering from suicidal thoughts will try to kill themselves a few times before they fully ‘commit’ to use a blunt, possibly misplaced expression. So from then on, you are locked into this edgy psychodrama where you lose complete trust in this person you love, this person who you are trying to help get better.
Then, when they eventually lose that battle, you are still taken aback because you still clung on to that flickering glimmer of hope. Then you feel like an idiot for ever thinking you could help. Then you feel relief for the gut-twisting anxiety that churned away inside of you intensely for a year. Then that makes way to overwhelming avalanches of sadness. Then a side order of guilt and a mild dose of uproarious anger.
Two years on. What have I learned?
Firstly, the advances in mental health awareness have been staggering. Truly staggering. The stigma is being crushed. I truly believe that. Yes, there is much work that needs to be done – the day we see businesses accept bad mental health days to be as valid a reason for a sick day as physical illness will be the next critical breakthrough in my opinion – but the notion of mental health being weakness appears to be on the way out.
And what of the ones left behind? My Dad, my sister and I are changed now, forevermore. The world is still a beautiful place but its light is dimmer and its skies are darker. What is left is a new world; a colder world without a Mum, without a wife, without a friend.
Sometimes, it feels like I’m trapped in this harsh, foreign landscape with no clue on where to go next or why I’m heading there. But I just keep walking. And sometimes, I stare out at the vast, all-encompassing space and see nothing but a ceaseless void. A coyote gnaws on desert bones tracking my every move, just waiting for that blistering heat to bring me to a standstill. 2 years gone and the coyote is still there; a symbolic reminder that as aimless as I may feel, pain and suffering will catch up to you and make you feel something again. But I keep walking towards something new, something good.
The loved ones reeling from suicide’s jagged, unforgiving blade must not allow such thoughts to consume them. Studies show that a bereaved person affected by suicide is increasingly likely to experience suicidal thoughts too. Such resilience and contagious nature of mental health are maybe less well documented but I can confirm during Mum’s ordeal, her anxiety became mine and when she died, her depression transferred through to me, even if the fire was less fanatical.
Simple things that return to you such as the ability to experience joy without feeling guilty are bittersweet too. If only you could see this.
What has kept us going is family, friends and respect.
Respect for her and for each other. Keeping her memory alive by laughing and loving. And talking. Always with the talking!
It is cliché’ but fuck me it is important: TALK.
Mum did talk but I suspect it was too late. She had spent four decades burying her anxieties and what she perceived to be horrible secrets. When they eventually came out, it was too late to make sense of them or the world her tortured brain was exposed to.
Go for a coffee with a friend. Join a book club. Go for a run. Volunteer. Chew the fat with a mate over a pint. Take the dog for a walk. Put your feet up and watch Netflix. Phone your Mum. Keep a diary. Tell everyone that matters in your life that you love them.
I confess that has been a side effect of my Mum passing. I was always a pretty forthright person and certainly a big softie but, now I can’t stop replaying the last time I saw her.
For once I didn’t hug her and I’m still unsure if I said, “I love you”. I almost always did. In truth, I don’t think I said it. That will continue to haunt me forevermore.
So now, I tell my friends, my sons, my wife and those dearest to me all the time. Especially after a few wines. Yes, I’m that guy who sends the tipsy WhatsApp messages. Whilst I may cringe a wee bit that next morning, I know I won’t regret it like I do with Mum.
I found a strange, demented release through Facebook. I reactivated my account and, consumed with the narcissistic nature of grief – documented my thoughts, my anxieties, my memories and my photos of Mum and I.
I was stripped raw of self-awareness and inhibition. I added everybody I vaguely knew as a friend. I would drink whiskey and pour my heart out onto the page. I would wake up and feel deep shame for showing so much of myself. It was a continual cycle for some time. Eventually, when the initial madness subsided, I found peace of a sort. Writing had always been my release.
Recently I trawled through writings I had finished during the deepest throes of her illness and was flabbergasted to see such unnerving prescience find its way onto the page. I think some part of me always knew it was going to end this way.
Still, I had found my muse. And as heavy as my heart is with her passing, I know each time I think of her, the heaviness is borne from the resplendent love she gave me, her only son.
If you know anyone experiencing symptoms similar to the above or if that person is you, please seek help. It can get better. You are vital, your voice does need to be heard, you are loved and you are deserving of love.
If you are facing a time of crisis, do not wait, contact your GP, A&E or the Crisis Team on 642860.