A loss you can’t imagine: young men and suicide

1992. Only a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday, our son David died in a fall from the top floor of a high-rise block of flats behind the Merrion Centre in Leeds. I  see it from the motorway every time I drive to Leeds .

Suicide prevention remains a universal challenge. Every year, suicide is among the top 20 leading causes of death globally for people of all ages. It is responsible for over 800,000 deaths, which equates to one suicide every 40 seconds.

Every life lost represents someone’s partner, child, parent, friend or colleague. For each suicide approximately 135 people suffer intense grief or are otherwise affected. This amounts to 108 million people per year who are profoundly impacted by suicidal behaviour. Suicidal behaviour includes suicide, and also encompases suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. For every suicide, 25 people make a suicide attempt and many more have serious thoughts of suicide.

September 10thwas World Suicide Prevention day. Anything anyone can do to raise awareness of the waste of life and the damage it does to friends and families, and to teach us how we can better look out for and look after those we love is timely.

For over twenty years I’ve wondered if I should have seen anything that would have told me how desperate our 21 year old son was when he took his own life. The sense that I bear a responsibilty for it will never leave me, or his mother, his sister, his brothers. All I can do is share the story. 

Just over five years ago, two people I love found their son dead in their living room. He was about the same age as mine was when he killed himself. I remember I wrote to them and said something like: people will tell you they can imagine what you’re going through. They are wrong. More thoughtful people will tell you they can’t imagine what you’re going through. They are nearly right. The fact is, you can’t imagine what you’re going through.

Three good friends of mine, all the same age as me or thereabouts, have died in the last 18 months. Two, apparently fighting fit and well, died of sudden catastrophic heart attacks. One died after a long and painful illness. We grieve for them, but we understand our grief. Their deaths are sad, they diminish us, but we understand this natural process. It doesn’t accuse us. But when someone you love takes his own life, when it comes without warning, it’s inexplicable, bewildering, devastating. It makes no sense. The world makes no sense. You are made helpless with guilt; you believe you are to blame, that you could have prevented it if only…..

This happens to tens of thousands of people every year. The statistics are terrifying. The websites you can visit will tell you:

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male.

Men and boys are often more vulnerable to taking their own lives because:

  • They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.
  • They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.
  • They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

Most suicidal people don’t actually want to die, they just want to remove themselves from an unbearable situation, and for the pain to stop.

There’s a lot of support and advice available for people who are worried that someone they know may be a suicide risk. Advice like this:

So how will you know? 

You ask. It sounds scary, but the best thing to do is talk about it.

Saying something is safer than saying nothing. Trust your gut and start the conversation

What to say

Not too much. Above all, LISTEN

For me, and for my family, it was all too late. Because we had no idea, because there was no warning sign we could pick up on. There was just the immutable fact that our David had killed himself. We are tight as a family, we comforted each other, but we go on living with the bewilderment and loss and overwhelming guilt. It never quite goes away. So I’ll dedicate this post to all the families who have lost a child, a sibling, a parent, a partner to suicide, and I’ll talk about the long long process of finding the serenity to accept what cannot be changed. I’ll tell you our David’s story.

Two of my five children were adopted, and our David was one of them. Against all the rules, we met his birth mother, who would have been no more than eighteen. She wanted a say in who would adopt him, and a wise social worker thought she had that right. That young girl trusted him to to a couple not that much older than her. She will be in her sixties, now.

our david c 2 copy.jpg

It’s a complicated story, but the core of it is that we were at yet another stage of the usually ponderous adoption process, which suddenly accelerated quite wonderfully and frighteningly, and we found ourselves sitting in the small living room of a foster-mum, and our David, who wasn’t yet Our David, four months old and surrounded by love, was having his bath. He wasn’t called David, either. He was Conrad Hamilton Gervaise Irving (no surname), and just Conrad, for convenience. When you adopt a child you’re not supposed to keep his or her given names. Since the truth is that the amazing and enlightened social worker short-circuited every due process that evening, and that we drove home up the M1 with Our David in a carry-cot on the backseat of a Ford Anglia, it didn’t seem so transgressive to keep Conrad as his middle name. David Conrad Foggin.

This much
I remember:
the small neat creases, the crook of each elbow,
the crook of each knee, the soft place
between your neck and your shoulder,
and the tight whorls of dark hair
tattooing your skull, and the delight,
the wide pink of your open mouth
as you came shedding light and bright water
out of your bath, how you sank
in the fleece of a fat white towel,
and you lay on your back on her knee
and you danced,
how you pedalled and trod on the air,
and how pale the soles of your feet.
You were mangoes, grapes, you were apricots,
all your round warm limbs, your eyes.
How your name made you smile;
how we said it over and over, your name;
how we wanted to make that smile.
And I remember
how we would take you away,
and why your name could not come,
why we must leave it behind,
and how we feared for your smile.

When his face would cloud over, or when he seemed to turn inwards (as happens with all your children) it troubled us. And then it would be OK, and we’d forget.

Scan-110104-0097
Our David on a trike

Later, when he was nine or ten years old, he drew endlessly; meticulous battle scenes, some times on rolls of lining paper, so they stretched out like eclectic Bayeaux tapestries. I wrote a poem about them, years ago, and keep revisiting it, and rewriting it.

Untitled copy

Our David’s Pictures

In tracing the anatomy of war

our david’s concentration’s absolute.

He kneels in peace, head bowed. An acolyte.

His pictures conjure tiny armies on the floor.

All history’s invited to this fight:

Martello tower, pele, and launching pad,

heaps of Roman, Norman, Saxon, Panzer dead.

Drawn up, his minute cohorts. Black and white.

Each man’s accoutred – breastplate, chainmail, greaves.

Crusaders squint down Gatling sights,

or brandish spears with blades as big as axes,

and quivers jammed with arrows, bunched in sheaves.

Every shield’s a wicked chevron

or a bossed and studded disc;

the sky is bristling with a stiff cheval de frise

of arrows and everyman’s vulnerable, at risk.

There’s Agincourts of arrows, flight on flight.

The sky’s cross-hatched, and somedays almost black.

The sun’s crossed out. Eclipsed. Our David’s arrows –

they fly miles, out of day and into night,

they shift the whole perspective. What is it

he celebrates? Pattern? Power?

The living or the dead. I’ll never know,

his last bow drawn, and loosed, an age ago.

I wrote this when he was still alive, puzzled and perhaps mildly worried about the obsessive quality of the drawings. But mainly delighted. When he died, I changed the ending, and it was read at his funeral. We had a Bob Marley track in the service. Stop that train. It was an extraordinary service. There were dozens and dozens of young people who I’d never seen before, who I didn’t know, but who had clearly loved our David. For some reason he either never knew, or if he knew, he didn’t believe it.

It was a long time between being told of his death and his funeral. My wife and I had separated seven years earlier. We weren’t asked identify his body and I was too numb to wonder why I wasn’t notified of the inquest, and I was too numb to protest. The morning the police told my ex-wife of a death behind the Merrion Centre, the morning she drove from Leeds to tell me, the morning we went to the police station in Chapeltown was the morning I started to learn about the lovely boy I realised I didn’t really know. That he’d been smoking dope, that this may have triggered a suspected schizophrenia, that some time earlier he’d served a short prison sentence for a trivial non-violent offence, that he was being looked after by NACOS, that he was training as a painter and decorator (like his great-granddad). I know I could have known all this, and I should have, but I was too busy, too tied up with a new job, a new relationship, and deep down, because I was scared to ask. Most of those young folk at the funeral were young offenders on schemes like the one our David was apparently enjoying. Nothing made sense.

It was a morning like this

a Sunday morning. The sun shone.

It was July. It was a morning like this,

your ex-wife at the back door,

and why would she tell you

your son was dead, or had died,

or had been in an accident

on a morning like this still

not fully woken, a morning of sun

to drive into Chapeltown to drive

to a police station that’s called

The Old Police Station now, that’s

a bijou gastropub but then was just

a police station full of Sunday morning

sadness, and a morning something

like this and two young coppers

who thought we’d need somewhere

quiet at the back which turned out

to smell of smoke, that had a pool table

and coffee rings, and no-one knew

how to start or what to ask but

it was a morning much like this

they asked if we knew a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre or if

we had a connection to a tower block

and a ring with a skull and a brown

leather case and did we know if

our son had friends in a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre and

we might as well have been asked

about tree rings or chaos theory

or fractals on a July morning and

one young copper saying that

he didn’t think it made sense

for cannabis to be illegal and

what harm did it do really and

how it wasted everybody’s time

and I don’t know why I’d remember

that except it was a morning like this

I learned what waste might mean.

A couple of weeks after David’s funeral my good friend Bob Hogarth, the Art Adviser said: why don’t you do a painting of him? Why don’t you paint his life? I set out on a collage of maps of the city, photographs of his childhood, images of a small attache case and a strange ugly ring that he’d left on the top floor of that block of flats behind the Merrion Centre, an old atlas open at a map of Africa. Buddleia. Hydrangeas. I worked on it for a week or so. And then stopped. Just a layer of collage and thinned down acrylics. Every couple of years I’ll have a look at it, and resolve to finish it. But I don’t think I want to. I suspect I understand why. It took a long time…more than twenty years…to find out that for me the answer lay in writing. Maybe it started with a friend of a friend buying me Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers, and then started again with being told about Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. 

It started with rediscovering Greek myths, and particularly the story of Icarus. It was discovering, through the process of retelling the story, that the character no one pays enough attention to is Daedalus, or points out that if Daedalus had used his amazing gifts well, he would never have needed to build a labyrinth, would not have given away its secret, would not have been imprisoned in a tower with his son, would never have needed to conceive of making wings. I understood, through this that if you make wings for your children, it’s not enough to just watch them fly. Whether they fly into the sun or the heart of darkness, if they fall, then are you responsible, and how will you live with that.

Tony Harrison wrote that in the silence that surrounds all poetry

articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’  .

I believe articulation is healing, a way to atonement and to being able to forgive yourself. The serenity to accept the things you cannot change. Articulation can be confessional, too. You can’t change the past; ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ simply make you spiritually ill. We know this, rationally, consciously, but living by it needs help. Two poets have given me that help. Clare Shaw’s credo “I do not believe in silence” and her unwavering frank gaze at her history of self-harm, and psychological disturbance gave me courage. As did Kim Moore’s decision to use poetry to deal with her experience of domestic abuse. And, finally, one moment in a writing class that Kim was running that somehow unlocked suppressed and unarticulated belief, guilt, knowledge. I remember I wept silently all the time I was writing. It only lasted five minutes, that task. But an insight, an acknowledgement takes only a moment no matter how long the process that leads up to it. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine says Prospero at the end. I think I understand the release he must have felt in that split second.

A weak force

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;

the lives never lived by your children, or

by the one who simply stopped

in the time it takes

to fall to the ground

from the top of a tower block.

They say gravity is a weak force.

I say the moon will tug a trillion tons

of salt sea from its shore.

I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt

puddle out of shape.

I say gravity can draw a boy

through a window

and into the air.

There is loss no one can imagine.

In the no time between

falling and not falling

you learned the art of not falling;

beneath you burned

the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,

Briggate, Vicar Lane;

lights shone in the glass arcades,

on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes;

motorway lights trailed ribbons of red,

and you were far beyond falling.

Because you shut your eyes

because you always shut your eyes

you closed them tight as cockleshells

because when you did that the world

would go away the world

would not see you.

I remember how you ran like a dream.

I remember how you laughed when I swore

I would catch you.

Then you flared you went out

you flared like a moth and you blew

away over the lights over the canal

the river the sour moors the cottongrass

the mills of the plain

and over the sea and over the sea

and the bright west

and you sank like the sun.

I count myself lucky. Lucky to have had our son for 21 years. Lucky to have learned to live with the loss of him and to have learned how to make amends to myself and to his memory. Lucky to be able to articulate it.

A year ago we we were told we now have a Minister for Suicide. She has no budget, no staff, no office, no brief.  A disproportionate number of young men and women will take their own lives in the coming year. Some of them will have been made desperate by being stripped of benefits, being made homeless; some will have been denied the recognition and appropriate treatment they desperately need for their mental health issues. Whatever their circumstances, there will be parents, siblings, partners, children, friends who will be numb, full of unassuageable guilt. There is loss no one can imagine.

Bridges and troubled waters. Gráinne Tobin [1]

(This last appeared as a post in The Wider Web on the Write Out Loud poetry site)

I’ve reached a point where I can hardly bear to listen to or watch news programmes, when politicians lie effortlessly and without shame, and when total strangers spew bile at each other on what we call, without apparent irony, ‘social media’.

So I thought it appropriate to devote two posts to a poet I met in the most divided community I’ve ever spent time in, because right now I need all the hope I can get.

There’s a Bob Neuwirth song that I can’t get out of my head . Venice beach.It doesn’t stand up as poetry. It’s sentimental, in the way of good Americana. But I’ve always loved it, especially the second verse:

Broken promise on the beach, empty feeling heading home

with that sense of being free that’s only all alone,

and as the water reached my feet, I looked down into the foam,

and lying just beyond my reach lay a perfect heart-shaped stone.

It does that thing that a good song does, of matching a mood, and putting a tune to it that won’t leave you. It’s how I felt when I woke upa couple of years ago to find that I wouldn’t be a European anymore, and nor would my grandchildren. And if this sounds sentimental, I’m not apologising.

So what’s that to do with the image of a squaddie patting down a guy on a shopping street where no one seems to find it unusual or a matter for concern? Well, this was Belfast in the early 80’s, where for the first time in my life I was stopped by two young squaddies who jumped out of an armoured car and pointed loaded weapons at me, and demanded ‘Eye dee’. 

I was a visiting tutor for a week at Stranmillis College, and I was walking back from the theatre on my own. I’ve never got over the culture shock of that week, the business of routinely having bags searched at shop doors, the barbed wire, the breeze-block defended pub doorways, and, above all, the way everyone went about their business as if it was normal. 

This is where social and religious and political division will take you.

The course I was tutoring on was in-service for all the heads of English in Northern Ireland. One afternoon I ran an optional poetry workshop (badly enough, but I didn’t know better then) and met today’s guest poet,  Graínne Tobin, who was even younger than me, and who wrote a draft that has always stayed with me. It was about the small town where she lived. It’s a Protestant town, and then she was one of the few Catholics in the community. And she was married to an Englishman. The Orange Lodge boys had come round to say they’d be hanging their bunting in the street and on her house. When she told then they couldn’t, she was subject to a campaign of menace. Eventually, the bunting was hung up.   It was unnerving to finally read a finished version of that draft, earlier this year, 30 years later. The poem is ‘Rural retreat’ from Banjaxed [2002]. Here’s the town.

It’s a beautiful place at the foot of the Mournes. What’s not on this photo is the graffiti telling Bobby Sands to get on with his dying, or the boys who followed a careful distance behind us, whistling The Sash. I was more scared there than in the middle of Belfast.  It stuck hard did that visit to Annalong with Graínne in 1981.That’s what nationalism and sectarianism does.

But I didn’t have to live there, and I came home. I kept in touch with Graínne for a time as she set up a N.I. branch of N.A.T.E., and then life got complicated, as it does, and that was it until three years ago when I met her again in the largely wonderful virtual world of Facebook. She sent me her two poetry collections, and the bilingual anthology she collaborated on, and told me all the amazing things she’d been doing. I fell for the poems, and asked her to be a Cobweb Polished Gem. And here she is to speak for herself, as she always has.

“Gráinne Tobin (she writes) is believed to be mostly harmless. She was born in 1951 in Portadown, in a maternity home which later became the local HQ of the Orange Order.. She was brought up as Catholic but has been an atheist for the last 49 years. She and her parents belonged to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in its innocent early days. 

At university in Canterbury, she met an English student, Andy Carden, when they were both part of a social action group visiting the high security Borstal in Dover. He became her husband and moved to Ireland with her, against the 1970s flow of people fleeing Northern Ireland for the safety of Britain. Both worked in the education service – Gráinne taught in further and adult education and then in Shimna Integrated College – and are now retired. They have been closely involved in the movement for integrated education and have helped to set up two integrated state schools.

In the 1980s when they had a young child and another on the way, they ran into sectarian trouble in their idyllic-looking fishing village and were under some threat in their home  (which is when we met)They have lived since then in Newcastle, Co Down .

She was a member of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective which offered encouragement to female poets locally through readings and poetry parties; it ran for 25+ years, until it affectionately decided to wind itself up in June 2016. 

Most members went on to publish individual collections. The group made a connection with some Russian women poets which led to collaborative translation projects, and readings in St Petersburg and Belfast. 

Gráinne Tobin’s books are Banjaxedand The Nervous Flyer’s Companion(Summer Palace Press) and she contributed to the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective’s anthology of translations from five St Petersburg women poets, When the Neva Rushes Backwards(Lagan Press).

Her poems have been published in anthologies, and in literary magazines such as Poetry Ireland Review and Magma.. She has won the Segora Poetry competition in France, was long-listed for the UK’s National Poetry Competition and the Fish Poetry Prize, ….and a lot more.

 Her poem, Learning to Whistlewas made into a sculpture and is on display in Down Arts Centre. 

…………………………………………………………………

I would happily sit and read poem after poem to you, relishing  their clear-eyed honesty, their range, their verbal and rhythmical sure-footedness. Hearing the voice, like the one in Scabies 1970 (from The nervous flyer’s companion)..

The whole town knew someone in the prison –

pinpoints of blood on the children’s sheets

were not from hives or the strawberry harvest.

How’s that for an opening line? And how’s that for the resonances of ‘hives’ and ‘strawberry’…there are two words that really pull their weight. I’m also envious of the way that Graínne can look steadily at atrocity, and its dazed survivors in poems like Bad news from home. (from Banjaxed)

There’s an emptiness in the scattered street

where women wander, talking to the wind,

blood on their faces, looking for each other.

If you’re looking for the image that fixes the moment that makes a poem a poem, how about this from Mortal sin…..

Grown to the age of reason and her first confession

she runs into clean air like a sheet

drying in the wind of absolution.

It’s moments like this that always make me think the Irish have the unfair advantages (in poetry) of accent and of Catholicism. But enough. You’ve waited patiently, and here comes Graínne’s selection of her poems..and, which is nice for me, her commentarires on them. Which means I can now put up my feet and just enjoy myself. First up, the seaside.

Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle

 The air’s washed now,

last night’s sad leavings

swept up and away.

Van drivers park outside the bakery

with fried eggs held in breakfast soda farls .

Arcades of slot machines

lie berthed between spent streams

that slip downhill to a tideline flagged with pebbles,

faded wood, wrecked loot, rubber gloves, broken glass

abraded to droplets by the tumbling waves.

The daily walker on his coatless course

between youth and age,

observing wading birds and children’s games.

Up for a trip, out for a drive,

dandering down the promenade.

Loudhailer hymns, crusaders’ tracts

warn of strange temptations

offered to ice- cream lickers,

candy-floss lovers.

In the chip-shops’ wake the street

opens to the sea

which is the reason for everything,

shingle bank,

shops and houses,

foundations sunk in marsh,

confined by a shadowed arm

where mountains lift out of the water,

growing darkness like moss

over the forest where the young

roost with beer and campfires.

Heron pacing the harbour at twilight

stiff-collared in clerical grey,

squinting at coloured lights

edging the bay.

Far out, the lighthouse signalling

Good – night

chil – dren.

(Happy Days in Sunny Newcastle was a banner above a local seaside joke and souvenir shop. There is a local eccentric everyone knows, who walks the roads every day in a tweed jacket. And when our son was tiny I used to tell him the lighthouse was flashing goodnight to him though his bedroom window. )

[Me…I love the ‘sea that is the reason for everything’, the business of protestant tracts, the textures…at the same time there’s something slightly disturbing going on. And even more so in the next]

Migrant

Tell me a really story.  Tell me what it was like

when you were small, which way you walked to school,

the garden where you tried to dig to the other side of the world,

your uncle’s rows of leafy plants to eat,

the orchard tree you climbed to hide,

the old lady waving from the window, the bags of coloured sweets

and the house you were told you’d inherit.

Apricots and lemons.

If you go there, pick some for me.

Tierhogar, Spelga, Qatamon.

The names are spells.

When you shovelled soil aside with your scaled-down spade,

did you know you’d come out where you are now?

That your children would save cereal boxes

to reconstruct your home in sticky-tape and cardboard?

Tell me what happened. Exactly.

(This was written in 2006 well before the current refugee crisis. It was prompted by going to an art exhibition while on a teacher fellowship in Oxford – two women photographers, Israeli and Palestinian Arab. One photographed the family lemon orchard a friend could no longer visit because of travel restrictions on Palestinians. So Qatamon stands for such places. Tierhogar was sold and demolished, my mother’s lost cottage of childhood, for which she always longed. And Spelga is a drowned reservoir-valley near us in Co Down). 

The next one nails it for me in one couplet:In her neat suburb of the dead / you’ll need no A to Zed

The Catholic Graveyard in Armagh

Push away the feather quilt,

alert for the small hours review.

Here comes the siren, whoo, whoo,

to rattle your dazed heart.

Now the compulsory tour

of the raw trench where you left her,

wearing her navy dress as waked at home

among chrysanthemums, china cups

and a murmur of rosaries in her own back room.

Neighbours in sequence are addressed

as if they live here: Mrs So-and-So?

Third on the right.The sister and the father

under their slab in the new vernacular,

polished black marble, inscribed in gold,

carried from China for twelve weeks by sea.

She’s two plots away from the tidiest grave in town.

Fresh flowers always, though it took a year

to find a lad his executioners hid.

In her neat suburb of the dead

you’ll need no A to Zed,

killers and killed housed side by side

when booby trap or bullet

levelled their last breath.

Weeds came up over her while your back was turned.

Geraniums from Cemetery Sunday,

candles in plastic holders and a varnished cross

maintain old decency until granite

can name her true and final death.

(My mother’s death left me reeling, and recalibrating everything. I am the only one of 7 siblings in Ireland. The rest are in England and Wales. So the day-to-day elder-care, and the funeral and grave arrangements, mostly fell to me. Cruse Bereavement Care helped me to hold on to sanity at the point when I wrote this poem. The title does stick its tongue out at Lowell. That graveyard has the neighbouring corpses of my best friend’s police constable dad and his INLA murderers. Plus everyone else on the Catholic side of the town. It was the subject of a nasty snobby chapter in Kate Adie’s memoir in which she misses several vital points. Cemetery Sunday is when there is a three-line whip on families to clean and decorate graves and stand beside them for an open-air Mass. Ugh! I used to bring my father to attend, beside my mother’s grave in which he would remark that he would also be buried, and after both parents died, my sister heroically came over from England to relieve me of it. Oul’ dacencies can get too much at times.)

It’s not all dark, though it’s always serious. The last one takes you on a busride you weren’t quite expecting. Fingers crossed that WordPress will let me keep the layout as it should be. (of course it didn’t. So let’s see what converting to a jpeg will manage. Yayy. It works )

(This was partly prompted by a poet friend’s objection to current Irish poems which ignore modernity in favour of bogs and swans. There is a backlash against all this rural Oirishry, which amuses me, since so many of us really are still rural, but I’m also drawn to the idea of a debunking nature poem.)

So, there we are. Next week we’ll get up to date on what Graínne did next. See you then.