Alex lost her husband Damien to suicide eight weeks before she gave birth to their daughter. As today marks World Suicide Prevention Day, she shares her story.
When my husband took his life in December 2008, I was ripped out of a world that made sense and thrown into one that didn’t. I existed outside of my body for those first few days. When the shock wore off, I was awake and disorientated in a nightmare of grief. My husband had a history of depression, but I never thought this would happen. Not now, not when we were weeks away from the birth of our first baby. I hadn’t seen it coming. What could I have done to save him, and how had I failed to save him? Surely if I could work it out, I could undo it all and bring him back in time to be at the birth? I had eight weeks.
Our baby girl arrived safely into a world of love and grief. He wasn’t there. I loved our baby and absolutely could not take my eye off her. But I rejected a lot of other things. I was anxious, and I found it difficult to go into crowded places. I cocooned my baby and myself at home. I had wonderful support from family and friends. But I felt I had lost everything and the thought of having to rebuild my life was incredibly daunting. I couldn’t face it. I lived from one minute to the next changing nappies, feeding, loving her and pining for him.
The one-year anniversary of his death sent me into a hellish spiral. I felt out of control with grief. People kept telling me that it would get better with time. But the cruel paradox was that I didn’t want time to continue, as it would only move me further away from the last time I saw him. Passing over into a new year was like crossing a threshold that would further separate us, as though his death wasn’t enough. When summer turned into autumn, I felt it so acutely and painfully.
One thing I needed was to talk about Damien’s suicide, over and over and over again. I conducted a forensic examination of the days and hours leading up to the event, and our entire relationship. I analysed everything and searched for answers, seeking logic that wasn’t there. I sought out all of the times where, if I could go back and do things differently, I was certain I could change the outcome. I had convinced myself that his life was my responsibility, and that I had failed. My family and friends listened patiently and without judgement. They didn’t purport to have the answers. I thought that in my search I was finding a way to save him, but instead, by being able to talk, I was actually coming to terms with the reality and finality of the suicide.
I was so fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who spoke openly about my husband’s suicide. We all attempted to understand the pain that led him to the desperate act, and I took comfort in this because it reflected our deep love and respect for him. In many ways, it was the last and most significant thing we could do for him.
When Damien died, I was heartbroken not only for myself, but also for him and our baby. He was a doting father-to-be. I wondered how I was ever going to put his suicide into words for her. How would she possibly survive losing her father before she was even born? I was projecting my pain onto her, and because I was without hope I could not feel hope for her either.
Before I could exhaust the compassion of those around me, my counsellor referred me to a program where I met other parents who had lost a partner, and were left to raise children alone. I met mums, dads, daughters and sisters who had lost a loved one to suicide. These were good, kind and nurturing people. Together we were nervous, teary and raw. We dreaded going to the support groups, but were unable to not go. I would watch these people smile. I observed and deduced how they managed to go about their days. I marvelled at their strength. We talked both deeply and about trivial things. People cried or laughed. I felt like I belonged - the love and acceptance of strangers, who didn’t stay strangers for long, gave me permission to breathe and to find my independence again.
Today marks World Suicide Prevention Day, and I am proud to say that I don’t consider suicide to be a taboo topic. I now have the tools and language to talk about suicide and mental health with my five-year-old daughter. I have participated in creative writing workshops and written about my grief. I’ve read poems in public and spoken on the radio about suicide. It has given me a safe place to delve into the darkest aspects of suicide, and I hope that my story can assist even one person to navigate their grief after a suicide by encouraging them to talk about what they have experienced.
These days, waves of grief can still render me breathless. The difference is now I know how to recover, that I will recover. Family and friends help me to remember the person who lived so passionately and generously, and not just how he died. This is so difficult following a suicide, but I owe it to him and to our daughter. She brings me light and love. In those early months, I recall thinking that ‘suicide grief’ had taken away my freedom, and I felt incapacitated by the overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Today, I marvel at even the smallest ability to exercise my autonomy each day and the moments of unexpected pleasure. I still feel the change in the seasons acutely, but I know how to manage the feelings that come with it.
If you, or someone you know, needs help please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. For more information on bereavement support, visit www.supportaftersuicide.org.au