“He can’t have a birthday”: Motherhood after Sibling-Suicide Loss

“He can’t have a birthday”: Motherhood after Sibling-Suicide Loss

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My brother and my daughter – together.

Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday. Having mentioned this as a little reminder at the family dinner table, my four-year-old said “But Martin can’t have a birthday because he is died and lives in the sky”. Yes, but…. What followed was a discussion that connected her uncle ‘being died’ with Inky the nursery fish also going to ‘fishy Heaven’… Just the latest in a string of scenarios where my daughter has begun to show how she is making sense of death in general, but also a conversation that tells me she’s growing older and sooner or later questions about the nature of her uncle’s death will be asked. My daughter never met her uncle, but through me entered ‘suicide survivordom’ even before conception. And from my perspective this adds another facet to the suicide bereavement experience and process (as in many respects I must manage it for her AND me). Consequently, herein lies an issue that I believe is largely overlooked in bereavement by suicide considerations – how does losing a sibling to suicide in adult life, the time when many siblings branch out to head their own families, affect parenting relationships with their own children?

Given I’m primarily at this point interested in connecting my own experience with literature comments, my concern for this post is specifically exploring some ideas about mothering and motherhood after sibling suicide loss, particularly as there are, “specific issues for female survivors shaped by the sexual politics attached to women’s identity” (Cline, 1995: 246-7). This is obviously not to say fathering and fathers’ experiences after sibling loss are irrelevant, and I do think they also need close acknowledgement attention, but from here on my focus at this time is the female parenting experience.

Becoming a mother after a loss to suicide adds a very complicated facet to an already massively-life-altering experience. Both these life events necessitate a huge rethink in terms of identity. As Chidley et al. point out, “Motherhood alone is a challenging, paradoxical and poorly understood period of transition” (Chidley et. al., 2014: 19). Add to this the “excruciating experience” (Chidley et.al., 2014: 19) of a major (close) death and you are landed with a big question; ‘what on earth do I deal with first?’ It is interesting that Dyregrov and Dyregrov describe the experience of bereavement by suicide as leading “to increased insight and personal maturity, the changes required great energy expenditure…substantial social and relational adjustment” (2005: 720). This also entirely applies to the experience of becoming a mother for the first time. Thus, arguably, the loss of a sibling to suicide can be very much entangled with conceptions of self as ‘mother’ as well as ‘sibling’.

The question then becomes how to manage double the energy-spend needed for one of these events alone, how to navigate grief and the enormous learning curve that is parenthood at the same time. Some studies give weight to the idea that motherhood is a ‘distraction’ from grief, that the ‘mother-identity’ is stronger than anything, providing the ‘affectee’ with, “a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Motherhood seems to have helped them to be less susceptible to prolonged grief complications.” (Chidley et. al., 2014: 19). This may be the case for many experiences, however there is also acknowledgement that a family death during pregnancy leads to negative experiences and thought (Chidley et. al., 2014: 24). From experience, it would be my contention that there is an entire mix of these two ends of the spectrum following an adult-sibling suicide, the mother processing “the suicide of the sibling from a different vantage point when having a baby” (Petterson et.al., 2015: 329), whilst also being thrown into a self-conflict, with sensations akin to riding the waves up and down in a perfect storm, in a rubber dinghy, without a life-jacket, centred around whether to look back or move forward. One sister shows this most clearly through the following recollection of an experience after the suicide of her brother:

“‘So I have all these memories of walking through a cemetery, y’know picking out a good space for David, while I push my son in his stroller, or walking through the store of caskets and pushing a stroller through that store, or sitting in the funeral directors, nursing my son while I dictate David’s obituary to him'” (Four Sisters, 2012)

Chidley et al. describe this as mothers ‘oscillating’ “between their need to grieve and their responsibility to ‘be there’ for their children” (Chidley et.al., 2014: 25). Such is the pressure of the navigation of these peaks and troughs that actual grieving can get neglected. I know of myself that I tended to choose a focus, namely my immediate baby concern, to the detriment of the other elements that needed equal attention, simply because the energy expenditure of ‘managing it all’ was too much. Whilst some mothers affected by a death by suicide have spoken of how they did not “skip the grieving process, but were really mainly focused on the day to day needs of a small child” (Four Sisters, 2012), I recognise full-well that I did ‘jump over it’. Whilst I thought of my brother all the time, I did not engage in the actions of grieving throughout the whole of my pregnancy and the first year of my daughter’s life. Such suppression has implications. It is often spoken of in the tone of an old wives’ tale, but there appears to be much actual truth in the idea that grief always finds a way to show itself – as Dyregrov and Dyregrov describe one research respondent commenting that grief, “‘may come in different ways, for example, physically – I have been sick a lot, especially the last six months. So that’s the way it has manifested itself’.” (Dyregrov and Dyregrov, 2005: 718-9). Other examples of this also appear, such as the following: “Immune system response has been shown to be disrupted by the acute stresses of bereavement…The stress of repressing so much feeling had lowered my resistance and I was miserable with ‘flu.” (Gambotto-Burke, 2003). Mental health is a concern too – ‘is that postnatal depression/anxiety or are they mental health issues stemming from your bereavement?’ Women in the extraordinary situation of becoming/being mothers after losing a brother or sister to suicide should most certainly have access to support that would enable a clearer answer to this particular question.

When the flurry and overwhelmed-ness of the squirmy-blob baby-stage evolves into that of living with a little person of mega character, curiosity and voice, I would suggest that that is when the big regrets following suicide-loss can really begin to set in. It hurts me greatly that my brother will not know my daughter, and that she will only “have memories [I’ve] told [her] about” (Four Sisters, 2012). As other sisters in the same boat have said before me, “he would’ve been a great uncle to [her]” (Four Sisters, 2012). And further to this, the energy renewal that comes with nights slept through allows other thoughts to appear. A big concern for me, for instance, is ‘how do I tell her what happened?’ I am fortunate in that I do not feel shame or the need to hide my brother and his actions away as a secret; I want to talk about him and I want my daughter to know about him. And there are charities like Winston’s Wish to help…But the question still arises; ‘how do I explain his absence in such a way that does not cause harm?’ Others who have agonised over how to refer to the aunt or uncle’s death emphasise ‘illness’ as the cause: “She told her son that his uncle ‘had an illness in his brain’ and that was what caused him to die by suicide.” (Linn-Gust, 2010) And I found this particular explanation very moving:

“‘When Uncle Matt died he became all spirit. Our spirits are the parts of us that love and smile inside. Our spirits help us laugh and listen and care about each other. Living in his body was hard for Uncle Matt beacause he was sick. He wasn’t sick like with a cold or a stomach ache; he was sick in a way that the doctors were not able to make him well. That doesn’t happen very often but it happened to Matt. So he decided that to become a spirit would be a better way to live.’” (Four Sisters, 2012)

Importantly though, in reference to this issue, the broader discussion of mental illness as having parity with physical illness comes into play. Respect for mental health as being akin to physical illnesses, such as cancer, is unlikely (despite tremendous hope and effort) to be soon fully achieved (especially given unsupportive governmental policies and the lack of awareness in media reportage). Allowing a judgemental and stigmatised view of death by suicide to persist certainly makes telling my little one all about her uncle and how he died all the more difficult. An often overwhelming preoccupation with the need to protect is present, and this fosters in me a strong (perhaps even stronger than those not affected by suicide?) sense of duty and responsibility towards my daughter. In this I share affinity with Bialosky who describes how (after her sister’s suicide) “it wasn’t until just a few years ago, when my own son…reached the age at which Kim’s life began to falter, that I knew I had to try to understand what happened to my sister. My responsibility as a mother made it imperative.” (Bialosky, 2015). In effect, whilst I may never fully understand what a parent goes through in losing a child (at whatever age) to suicide, I have to approach my brother’s death as both a sibling and a parent. It is a complex notion to explain, but in effect my brother’s death could be seen as contributing to the formation and development of my parenting style. Bialosky similarly explains this, telling how she has approached mothering after her sister’s suicide by being wary of the question “What might go wrong if I [am] not paying close enough attention?”, describing herself as being “a vigilant mother, perhaps at times too overly conscious of the effects of the actions of my life and my husband’s life, the state of our marriage, on our child” (Bialosky, 2015). So, whilst motherhood following other forms of death is not as likely to be much defined by the loss (Chidley et.al., 2014: 22), for me (and others) it could be the opposite – my identity as a mother is inextricably linked to the suicide event, and therefore is (to quite a significant extent at least) defined by my sibling relationship.

Perhaps the principal element as to why this is the case relates to the idea of ‘legacy’. Many siblings bereaved by suicide suffer from “constant feelings of approaching disaster.” (Petterson et.al., 2015: 328). Such levels of concern, responsibility, anxiety have their roots in the ‘knowledge’ presented that seems to suggest “suicide runs in families”, and this “creates fear of another family suicide that complicates the grief process.” (Powell and Matthys, 2013: 322-3) In specific reference to new-motherhood, the mortality of both mother and child is thrown into the spotlight by a bereavement, meaning that “women…experience[d] specific anxiety related to future losses of their children and their own mortality.” (Chidley et.al., 2014: 26) Essentially what it comes down to is that there is an “unspoken fear” and anxiety “about which member of the [family] household will be the next to die.” (Cline, 1995: 267). One participant of a research study highlights this very clearly in their comment that,

“‘You worry so much about your children. Does depression run in families? What about suicide? Will this happen to my own children? You don’t even dare to talk about it but it is a constant question in the back of my mind.’” (in Petterson, 2015: 328).

Needless to say, this is a hideous thing to live with, especially as a new mother, when you are supposed to be revelling in the idea of new life, but the fact is a sudden and traumatic death throws the real insecurity of life into your face, highlighting the unfairness, torture and inescapable nature of loss as being an everyday reality.

This is certainly something that needs to be discussed with women affected in this way. Address the issue head on, quite frankly. Plenty of arguments relating to suicide and suicide bereavement state ‘post-vention is prevention for the next generation’; I have both read this (e.g. Schneidman, 1972), and heard it declared at academic conferences etc., but so far I fail to see concrete action when it comes to adult siblings, many of whom are or will be parents to the ‘next generation’. Following a suicide loss, adult siblings who became/are mothers in particular have demonstrated that they foster an “ongoing sense of responsibility for their children”, which Cline argues “gives ground for optimism.” (Cline, 1995: 277). Such women may “show our children how to celebrate existence in all its beauty, and how to get up after life has knocked us down, time and again.” (Gambotto-Burke, 2003), but they will need the support to do so. As Linn-Gust advocates, “By helping the bereaved through their losses, we support their efforts to find life sustaining hope again. By providing this support we are breaking the legacy of suicide in families.” (Linn-Gust, 2010). It seems to me there is a case to be made that such adult-sibling-young-family-mothers (parents) affected by a suicide loss should be given due attention and support in their bereavement, to aid both their own recovery and their ability to be positive in life in such a way as to enable a role as ‘preventors’ against future losses.

Bialosky, J. (2011). History of a Suicide: my sister’s unfinished life. Croydon: Granta.
Chidley, B., Khademi, M., Pilar Meany, K. and Doucett, M. (2014). ‘Bereavement during motherhood: a mixed method pilot study exploring bereavement while parenting’ in Bereavement Care, Vol.33., No.1, pp.19-27.
Cline, S. (1995). Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying. Little, Brown and Company.
Dyregrov, K. and Dyregrov, A. (2005). ‘Siblings after Suicide – the “Forgotten Bereaved’ in Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour, Vol.35.,No.6, pp.714-723.
Four Sisters, 2012. Available at https://vimeo.com/93890459 [accessed 5th November 2015]
Gambotto-Burke, A. (2003). The Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide. [Kindle Edition]
Linn-Gust, M. (2010). Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief. Albuquerque NM: Chellehead Works.
Pettersen, R., Omerov, P., Steinbeck, G., Dyregrov, A., Titelman, D., Dyregrov, K. and Nyberg., U. (2015) ‘Suicide-Bereaved Siblings’ Perception of Health Services’ in Death Studies, Vol.39., pp.323-331.
Powell, K.A. and Matthys, A. (2013). ‘Effects of Suicide on Siblings: Uncertainty and the Grief Process’ in Journal of Family Communication Vol.13., No.4., pp.321-339.
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