Mrs Higson was a fearsome woman to behold. At least to me. With Margaret-Thatcher hair, heels and handbag (and a personal vendetta against the word ‘nice’ because “it is a word that means absolutely nothing”), she was an English teacher and a half. I don’t remember the specifics of the task set, but when I was fourteen or so, for homework I had pilfered the characters of Pride and Prejudice to write ‘a next chapter’. I also don’t remember the specifics of the text I produced; but I do recall that after hearing the work of others in my class, during an unexpected ‘read your work aloud’ session, I panicked. I subsequently didn’t read mine out as written because, basically, it to me sounded nothing short of diabolical. Consequently, I stumbled all over my words and all I really remember is mumbling something about Mr Darcy getting run over by a horse-and-cart, and standing isolated as my classmates, leaning back in their chairs behind their individual, wood-scratched, ink-welled desks, laughed raucously for longer than I really would have liked. And to top it off, I actually made Mrs H smile. Arms were still crossed, but she failed to stop the upward-curl of mouth-corner. I was dying inside, felt utterly humiliated. I struggled with the production of my own words from that day on.
It’s such a clear school memory for me that I can’t help thinking that it contributed to my need to find the words of others to express what I’ve really wanted to say since the death of my brother. Rather than writing them for myself, I’ve gone looking for those ‘meaningful quotes’ that people like to post on Facebook – someone else can always sum it up better than I. I’ve cried at the work of others as they’ve ‘really nailed it’, ‘it’ being the account of the emotions of losing a sibling to suicide, of grief, of living with loss etc. I’ve never felt capable of ‘really nailing it’ for myself.
Today marks the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death, and I’ve decided this year that instead of seeking some kind of spokesperson, or minimal quote, I would quite like to try and use some of my own words to express what that means.
The thing about anniversaries is that in the common mindset they consist of just one day. Birthdays, Christmases, wedding anniversaries – the focus is on the one-day nature of the occasion each year. With loss, the same is true. There is certainly that one day where the person who was becomes gone. And the related assumption can then be ‘well it’s just one day that you need to ‘get through’’. But here’s where I think a loss anniversary is different – often it can be the build up to the anniversary that is the hardest part, not the ‘day of death’ itself.
Imagine the build up to Christmas, the exciting, warm, mulled-wine and citrusy-smelling, glittery and shiny, event-filled, family and friend-loving month, (maybe two), that culminates in that one day labelled ‘Christmas Day’. Despite the willingness to partake and enjoyment experienced, think of the energy needed to keep up with the to-do list, decorating, event schedules etc.
Now imagine this; the memory-revisiting, visual-recalling, nightmare-enduring, question-re-asking, emotion-resurfacing, photograph-gazing, social-avoiding, circumstance-analysing, guilt-reminding, confidence-and-concentration-inhibiting, restlessness-feeling, and overall person-missing month, (or maybe two, or three, or four…), that culminates in the day that is labelled ‘the day [my loved one] died by suicide’. Despite not wanting any of these aspects, think of the energy required to just juggle (even hide) them alongside everyday ‘normal’ life demands.
What ‘Martin’s anniversary’ on 15th December means for me is a series of rumblings, and then explosions, of emotions and memories relating to his (and our) entire lives that begins in (according to a now recognisable pattern) late October. I recall him as ‘baby-unreasonable-and-downright-annoying-brother’ all the way through to ‘man-decent-to-converse-and-drink-with-brother’ before dwelling, as the date approaches, on the truly awful manner of his death. I don’t specifically devote time to look for the memories to recall – they pop up when they do. No warning, no asking. Welcome, sometimes worth a laugh, but simultaneously just so very, very sad.
And then what this ‘anniversary’ also means is an accumulation of time minus him, another mark of a year of ‘a different me’, the one ‘after him’; another year of his being frozen in time while more memories (that can’t be shared) have been made in his absence.
There is a broad sense that ‘the first anniversary is the hardest’. It is. But so is the second, third, fourth, fifth, to infinity. Each anniversary is ‘the hardest’ for different reasons because emotions endure beyond the immediate aftermath (especially in the case of traumatic losses) into the longer term. A person has to continue to live but forever has that pull to the past that the loss exhibits to them. With a loss as tragic as suicide, it is hard not to have every day as a form of anniversary given the weight of it on mind. And having said I want to not use the words of others, I kind of need to…. Rosenblatt noted in 2008 that, “bereaved people rarely say that they have recovered” (cited in Gibson, J. et.al., 2010: 525) – it often appears it is ‘outsiders’ who seem to use the number of anniversaries passed as a means of judging ‘where the bereaved is (or should) be at’ in relation to the loss they’ve experienced.
So rather than mumbling through my words for shame in them, I would like to this year make a clear plea from what I’ve learned from Martin’s death:
People after bereavement are simply at where they are at, regardless of anniversary number. If you know someone who has experienced a major loss or difficult/traumatic day (in any form that matters to them, not just through suicide), please be aware of how they are called upon to live with it beyond that one day each year. Be wise to how their bereavement may affect them, often in waves, across different times and years, and that their grief will continue as long as it does. Ask how they are and (if they want to tell you), listen to them. Don’t judge. They don’t need someone to fix anything; they just want some compassion and openness to be able to grieve and remember as they feel is necessary for them.
Can’t help wondering what Mrs H would have made of this….
Martin Andrew Sutherland, 11th August 1984 – 15th December 2011.
15th December 2017:
Hi little bro, I am still mad at you, I still love you, I’m still so very, very sorry, and I will always, always miss you. Me xx
Gibson, J., Gallagher, M. and Jenkins, M. (2010). ‘The Experiences of Parents Readjusting to the Workplace Following the Death of a Child by Suicide’ in Death Studies, 34:6, 500-528.