‘What Remains’ – thoughts on a creative peer support group
Among the inspirational presentations at our AGM 2018, held on 29th September in Manchester, was a showing of the remarkable and moving film, “What Remains”. Developed and co-written by Gillian Brooks and her children, the film is a courageous and deeply personal exploration of one family’s loss of a husband and father to suicide. The film now forms the basis of a creative six-week peer support group, held in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, and co-facilitated by Gillian, who is herself a bereavement counsellor, together with artist Sharon Marsden. Jeff Turner, of community arts company verd de gris writes: Continue reading “‘What Remains’ – thoughts on a creative peer support group”
After three years of making do with a logo ‘cobbled together’ from a random image of tree branches, we have decided it is about time for Suicide Bereaved Network’s image to have a complete makeover. We have engaged a talented professional designer to work with us, but we need your input to make sure our final design is the best it can be, and that it represents as broad a range of experiences and perspectives as possible.
A huge Thank you to those of you who have already taken our three-minute mini-survey. Your input is so helpful and has given us so many great ideas. It will ensure that the final logo will truly resonate with people who have lost a loved one to suicide.
A very special thanks to those of you who have shared your thoughts in the comments section of the survey. These comments really get to the heart of the problems of designing our logo. Just as the stigma around suicide makes it difficult to talk about it, it seems the same stigma makes it difficult to represent our shared experience in visual form.
Your comments so far cover a wide range of opinions, some of them contradictory – but that is only to be expected! Some of you prefer images of flowers, butterflies or doves, while others say the logo needs to express the pain of loss. Some want an image that expresses hope or recovery, while others emphasise the idea of a community coming together to support each other. Some mention the importance of representing the idea of ‘the big Why’.
What do you think our logo should include? If you identify as having experienced a suicide bereavement, and if you can spare two or three minutes of your time, please complete our brief anonymous Logo survey now.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and to mark it we would like to present an everyday vignette showing how suicide can present in the workplace, and ask what would your advice be for the well-meaning supervisor at the centre of the story?
You are a new supervisor in an office-based job, in which you are still finding your feet and uncertain of your role. Your line manager is proving difficult and unsupportive and generally seems lacking in the ‘softer skills’.
You notice that a young staff member, Becky, aged about twenty, seems withdrawn and vulnerable and you want to offer help. Becky reports to someone else on the team, and your chances of interacting with her in the course of the working day are slight.
However, you run into Becky during a quiet moment at the coffee machine which gives you an opportunity to have a word with her. You ask ‘How’s everything going?’ and add ‘If you ever need to chat or have any problems, anything at all, just pop by my office’. She never does.
You’ve also noticed Sarah, late thirties, who carries a small yellow rucksack with a big smiley face and exudes an intensity that may hint at some inner turmoil. One afternoon Sarah comes into your office.
She’s clearly troubled but hesitates to speak. Then she blurts out her worries about Becky who has just disclosed that she attempted suicide the previous night. Sarah adds that Becky fortunately didn’t know how to cut her wrists ‘properly’ and so has not hurt herself badly.
You desperately try to recall what training you’ve had to deal with a situation like this and realise you’ve had none. You realise that you must deal with this immediate situation on your own…
“Thirteen years ago my beautiful brother took his own life. He left a void that’s never been healed”
“Thirteen years ago my beautiful brother took his own life. He left a void that’s never been healed”
Personal stories of suicide loss can often be compelling in revealing the profound effects of suicide on those left behind, but they usually provide us with only one point of view, that of the narrator.
Directed and produced by
Oscar-winning team Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, the
remarkable documentary film Evelyn (2018) turns its unflinching gaze on
the experiences of a bereft sibling group, their parents, and their brother’s
close friends, as they each struggle to confront the devastating loss of their
brother/son/friend some thirteen years previously. Prompted by sister Gwennie,
Orlando resolves to use his skills as a documentary maker to resolve the
longstanding silence within the family. Evelyn loved hiking, and in his memory
the three surviving siblings, Orlando, Gwennie and Robin, would retrace the
steps they had taken together on childhood holidays. Along the way they would
be joined by their parents and Evelyn’s friends each of whom hold part of the
jigsaw that makes up the memories of this lost brother, son and friend.
Masterfully structured and with
stunning cinematography, the film brings very high production values to a
subject that is often overlooked or neglected, that of the subjective
experience of suicide bereavement. Dramatic views of the mountains and valleys
of Scotland provide an almost Shakespearean backdrop against which the family’s
journey into their shared past plays out. Their battle with this hilly terrain
and capricious weather seems to parallel their emotional struggles with their
collective and individual grief. Walking alongside each other they are spared
the discomfort of making eye contact as they tentatively explore their loss
together for the first time.
These outdoor vistas contrast with
intimate indoor scenes in which each individual reflects quietly on his or her
own personal experience.
Anyone who has lost someone to suicide
will recognize the themes that emerge: the traumatic memories and still
lingering shock of the day it happened, and of how we heard the news. The
inevitable regrets, the thousand alternative scenarios in which the person we
loved might have survived. In the words of Evelyn’s best friend: “…the what
ifs are killing me, the what ifs”. The hesitation around speaking of our loss,
in case we upset or embarrass other people. The reluctance to speak even to
those who share our loss, for fear of making things worse, of stirring up
feelings that are best, or easiest, left buried. The contradictory plight of
the suicide bereaved is epitomised in father Andreas’ exclamation: “The idea
that it could have been prevented is just too much to bear”. Another theme that
emerges is of how, as the family share their story with strangers along the
way, they discover that some of these others have experienced similar losses.
The ease with which bereaved strangers identify with the family’s story
demonstrates the profound bond that shared experience can create.
Amid the grief that is never far
from the surface, we glimpse the normal tensions and emotional undercurrents
among family members. There’s laughter too, providing relief at the most
unexpected times. When words fail, as they often do, there are many hugs and
The film is bookended by hauntingly
poignant home video sequences which give a sense of the lively teenage boy that
is now so missed. As we see him interact with the younger selves of the film’s
three protagonists, we get a sense of that
“always-there-and-always-will-be-there” presumption of the sibling experience.
We hear of his smile, his laugh, his twinkling eyes, his intelligence and
caring nature, his ambition to become a doctor, yet Evelyn himself remains an
enigmatic figure. Almost as tragic as the suicide itself is the mental illness
that affected him from the age of fifteen, worsening in the last months of his
life, so that as his mother describes “… all his happiness disappeared…”, and
“it was so ‘not Evelyn’ to be who he was being”.
As a study of the effects of suicide within a family, Evelyn is a breathtaking achievement. Orlando von Einsiedel has transmuted his family’s suffering into a tragic but ultimately uplifting film and he and his family are to be commended for their bravery and their honesty in inviting us to witness their journey. In living their lives they honour the memory of their lost brother and we should be thankful that they have given the world this invaluable documentary film which will promote understanding of suicide and suicide bereavement for years and decades to come.
Christmas always makes me think of Niall, my brilliant, quixotic, sensitive and troubled partner who died by suicide in the year 2001. He died in early February, traditionally the beginning of spring in the Celtic calendar, when memories of Christmas and New Year still linger in our minds. For me this time of year inevitably brings memories of our last Christmas, which we spent together in our rented London flat. I begged that we might visit my family for the holiday, but Niall insisted that he would not be able to cope with the travel and the hurly burly of my large, boisterous clan. I knew this was true, and to leave him on his own would have been unthinkable. So we two spent Christmas 2000 together but alone.
Niall had always hated Christmas. The questions from
colleagues and friends about where he would spend the holiday – the expectation
that we would go ‘home’ to Ireland. But that final Christmas, he did try to get
into the festive spirit. He bought a tiny tree and decorated it with two
strands of tinsel, one white, one red. He also bought a silly Santa toy, on an
elasticated cord, which went ‘ho ho ho’ when twirled around. We exchanged cards
and gifts and shopped for festive food. We had duck with all the trimmings, followed
by mince pies, pudding and cake.
After Niall died I gathered up everything he had, every letter, every note, every knick-knack, and stored it all in boxes. Every item, however trivial while he was alive, now took on a new and profound significance. The compass he used for our occasional hiking expeditions; his medication dispenser; his travel card. So it is that I still have the strand of red tinsel that he bought for his little Christmas tree. To me it forever means Christmas. I smile to think of him going to the Pound Shop to buy in the things that would make us a Happy Christmas.
In the past few days I’ve found myself remembering another
aspect of that last Christmas with Niall – the last Christmas card he had given
me. I remembered that it had a beautiful, but very lonely, image of a snowy
woodland path. Reflecting on this memory, I wondered how on earth anyone had
designed a festive card with such a lonely theme. Searching through my boxes of
Niall’s things today I found the card. The image was as lonely and as lovely as
I had remembered: a deserted snowy woodland path. But for the first time, I
noticed that it was not, in fact, a Christmas card. It was a blank-for-your-own-message
card that happened to feature a beautiful snow scene.
I remember the moment when Niall gave me the card. I opened
the envelope eagerly, but instead of feeling joyful, I was overwhelmed with
dismay and fear. I blurted “oh it’s lovely Niall thank you!”, as I hastily placed
it on the mantelpiece with the other cards. Perhaps strangely, I then
completely forgot about its existence. A couple of weeks after his death, it
occurred to me that he must have given me a Christmas card, and I searched for
it, to see what his final Christmas message might have been.
On re-reading the message, I understood why I had reacted with confusion and dismay on being given the card. The tone of the message was as bleak and alienated as the snowy image. Instead of the intimate or silly message that I’d expected, I found a formal, stiffly-worded note, like a letter from some distant uncle. Niall wrote “I wish you a year 2001 in which you consolidate your already impressive career achievements,…” He signs off with the awkward words “From the husband you didn’t think you would have, who is a lucky man himself. With much love”. When we first met, I was in my thirties and had told him I had been happily single and had decided I wasn’t “the marrying type”. This seems to be what Niall is referring to here, but it’s also possible to see a hint of what was to come.
Reading these words again, written in Niall’s familiar sprawling handwriting, I’m struck by the fact that nowhere in this brief message does Niall use the words “we” or “us” or our”. He hopes that “2001 is truly your year” instead of “our year” which is what he had said for every previous New Year we spent together. This card was almost certainly the last card Niall ever gave me, as his suicide happened some weeks before my birthday, and a couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day. I now see it as his farewell to me, the woman he remembered having once loved.
I think of Niall every day, and today is no different. He changed my life utterly, twice. And he left me some tinsel.