SOBS London Support Day

SOBS London Support Day, Saturday June 18th, 2016

Not that anyone has officially been keeping count, but Saturday June 18th saw the London Group of Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide hold their ninth annual Support Day, in the familiar and welcoming surroundings of All Souls Clubhouse, at number 141 Cleveland Street. Since its inception in 2008, the Support Day has played host to many leading experts, practitioners and activists in the field of suicide loss and prevention, including Dr Alison Chapple, who researched suicide bereavement for the patient experience website Healthtalk, Paddy Bazeley, founder of Maytree, Dr Alexandra Pitman of University College London, Hamish Elvidge, Chair of both the Matthew Elvidge Trust and the Support after Suicide Partnership (SASP) and Co-Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA), and the late John Peters, who was such a significant figure in the development of SOBS, to name but a few.
As always, this year’s programme provided that mixture of support and informational content that makes SOBS support days so special, and the sixty or so people who turned out on Saturday June 18th were not disappointed. The local London SOBS team, led by David and Cordelia, ensured that everyone felt welcome and supported, and that the day’s proceedings ran smoothly from the welcome coffee and biscuits, to the concluding support meetings and beyond.
The first presentation from Sally May, former editor of the Compassionate Friends magazine, was a thought-provoking talk on strategies to cope with guilt, that “horrible squirmy feeling” that many of us experience for a long time following the loss of a loved one to suicide. That remorseful feeling of having done something wrong, of frustration and exasperation, of regretful “if onlys”, of failure, self-punishment and self-doubt. Sally highlighted the role of both memory, and the need to feel in control, in contributing to these complicated feelings of guilt that are so characteristic of suicide grief. During this highly interactive session, Sally encouraged participation from the audience and we heard of the many and varied ways that people have learned to challenge, accept and ultimately, let go of the guilt.

Hugh Davies QC OBE speaking at the SOBS London Support Day, June 18th, 2016.

The second talk by Hugh Davies QC OBE, Inquests: strengths and weaknesses of the system, addressed a topic that frequently comes up for discussion during support group meetings, that of the Coroner’s inquest. This was a very engaging talk on a difficult subject, enlivened by personal anecdotes and real life examples that many of us could relate to. Although the inquest process has been reformed in 2009, and now includes the role of Chief Coroner in maintaining standards, nevertheless the process is still highly variable and dependent on the individual Coroner. Many people present told of the delays, frustrations and anxieties they had experienced, or were experiencing, in going through this unavoidable process.
The next item saw a complete change of mood, with the very moving personal testimony of a bereaved mother on her journey following the loss of a beloved son. She spoke of her devastation, saying “I cry shamelessly”, but also of the support she has received from family and friends, and through writing, lobbying and volunteering, which give her life a new sense of purpose.
The buffet lunch was excellent, and provided a welcome opportunity to catch up with old friends and to make some new ones. The afternoon support groups, based on type of loss – whether child, parent, sibling or partner, gave us a very special space and time to share our sense of loss, and our glimpses of hope for the future. As always, there was laughter as well as tears.

Suicide Bereaved Network Home

© Suicide Bereaved Network 2016

Strangers on the Bridge

We’d all like to think that if we were to encounter a troubled person intent on doing themselves harm, we too would have the courage to stop, reach out and try to connect with that person, and potentially save a life.

Strangers on the Bridge

One of the most striking facts to emerge from The Stranger on the Bridge, Channel 4’s documentary charting Jonny Benjamin’s global search for “Mike”, the stranger who had talked him down from throwing himself off Waterloo Bridge, was the number of people who came forward with convincing stories of having saved someone in similar circumstances. We’d all like to think that if we were to encounter a troubled person intent on doing themselves harm, we too would have the courage to stop, reach out and try to connect with that person, and potentially save a life.

Sadly, bridge suicides are increasing in London, and in 2015 there were no fewer than 31 drownings in the Thames, twice as many people as lost their lives in cycling accidents. The City of London Corporation, while addressing the broader issue of suicide prevention, is also determined to focus on the local problem of high risk locations such as bridges, which sadly attract some people to travel to the Square Mile with the intention of taking their own lives.

In my years of running support meetings for the people left behind after a suicide, I’ve heard hundreds of stories of loss, and one of the recurring themes has been the question “How can we stop this happening to another family? How can we prevent further suicides?”. So any new initiative that aims to reduce or prevent suicide is to be warmly welcomed, particularly by those of us who have personal experience of such a tragic loss.

The Corporation has published its Suicide Prevention Action Plan, 2016-2019 in January this year, and more recently their Business Healthy initiative has produced an excellent leaflet Guidance on Suicide Intervention which aims to help anyone who finds themselves in a situation where they think someone may be at risk of taking their own life.

They are also currently providing a free one-hour training session, delivered by London Samaritans, for anyone interested in gaining the skills and confidence to help people in crisis. So I was glad to have the opportunity of attending the first of these training sessions recently, one grey, drizzly April morning, in an unostentatious but impressive building, tucked away in Montague Close, just south of London Bridge.

Boasting stunning views across the Thames, and redolent of a vanished London, Glaziers Hall is home to three of London’s historic Livery Companies. In addition to the ancient and eponymous Glaziers, the more recently founded Launderers, and Makers of Scientific Instruments are cited on the wall plaques at the entrance. For me, a beguiling touch was the design of the beautiful upholstered chairs, their backs emblazoned with designs derived from coats-of-arms of the three resident Livery Companies.

The mood among the dozen or so attendees who had gathered in the welcoming, light-filled London Bridge Room, was engaged, positive and even optimistic, despite the somewhat sombre subject of the session. The training itself was a two-hander, providing the perspectives of both the Samaritans (in approaching and engaging with the person at risk) and the emergency mental health nurse who described the triage process that is gone through when a person is brought to A&E.

We heard from some attendees of their own encounters with people deemed at risk. I was impressed at how vigilant, caring and courageous these City of London staff were in monitoring the wellbeing of vulnerable people they identify among the hustle and bustle of a city teeming with commuters, workers and tourists. Fortunately, in all cases they’d encountered, their interventions had a happy ending and the person was kept safe.

The training maintained a good balance between background information and common sense guidance. The main point I took from the training was the importance of staying safe yourself, while remaining calm and engaged with the person in need of help.

During the discussion towards the end of the session, came the hardest piece of advice to follow: that, if the person you’re trying to help carries out their suicide attempt, you must not feel that you’ve failed, because you haven’t failed. This person’s action was not within your control.

It’s also worth reflecting that, even if a situation does end in tragedy, those family members left behind will nonetheless be forever grateful to “the stranger on the bridge”.

Suicide Bereaved Network Home

© Suicide Bereaved Network 2016, updated 2018