Long shadows

A few months after Day 0, at a SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) meeting at the All Saints near Euston, I met a father who said, “Eight years” when I asked him how long it had been since his son died. I looked at his face as if he was the most spectacular and wondrous impossibility of the world. Is it possible to live as long as that after the death of a child? He was proof. It was. I had never seen anyone who had been bereaved that long, standing and smiling and speaking sense.

Last Monday I joined the 3 dads on the last leg of their long walk to Westminster alongside many people who want the government to add suicide awareness and helpful resources to the school curriculum. We walked and talked in the rain. I said ‘Nearly eight years’ in response to how long has it been since my son passed. I got the same look from a young mum recently bereaved. She stopped and looked into my eyes through the thick rain drops. Past and future, face to face. “Gosh! Does it get any easier?” she asked. It does, I replied, holding her hands.

All these years I have tried to keep Saagar alive in every way I could – writing, public speaking, teaching Youth Mental Health First Aid courses, advocating for young people, working with various people, charities, NHS, Churchill Trust and other organisations, making films and so on.

I have read other people’s accounts of loss, hoping to lessen my pain and deepen my understanding. The latest book I read was ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion. She says:

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the Trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it easier to let go of him in the water.”

Eight years! No time at all.

Time is the school in which we learn.

Time is the fire in which we burn.”

  • Delmore Schwartz.

Random stuff

After many years, things are being taken out of cup-boards and off shelves, turned inside out and properly looked at. Dusty books, clothes, folders, boxes and sachets. Some familiar fragrances are escaping and some old scenes are playing out on the screen of the mind. Bits of stuff slipping out of other stuff and falling to the ground with a clink. Some stuff that was believed to be misplaced is being placed. Some that was believed to be forgotten is being revisited.

Sample 1

A nappy pin. Special feature – A white safety cap to prevent accidental opening up while the baby has his cloth nappy on. Commonly used in India and other developing countries. Original owner: Baby Saagar.

Sample 2

A business card. Special feature – Simplicity. An invitation to music and joy. Original owner: Saagar.

Sample 3

A Crisis Plan. Special features – Not worth two pennies. Highly ineffective. Not accompanied by a conversation. No detail. Not individualised. Not created in partnership with the patient. Not an alive document. Does not mention anything more than ‘self-harm’. Doesn’t tell us what ‘Crisis’ looks like. Doesn’t identify any helpful distractions, activities, friends or family. Doesn’t appear to know the patient, for example, a key fact – does this person have a key worker? Does not express any understanding or compassion.

Commonly used in developed countries.

Oops! The name of the GP surgery is visible. It doesn’t matter. It closed down years ago. We were it’s last few unlucky patients. Owner: Saagar Naresh (1994-2014).

(Resource: Safety Planning is essential to safety: https://stayingsafe.net/home)

No words.

Two years back, it could not be screened as scheduled. After a long wait, last weekend it was, at Clapham Picture house where Saagar often went with his friends. People came from Leicester, Salford, Cornwall, Cardiff and Birmingham. Some, I had only ever seen on screen. Others, when they were school kids. They brought their sisters, spouses, friends and colleagues. They stayed for hours afterwards, talking about themselves in a way they never had. They fell in love with Saagar’s big brown eyes and mischievous smile. They saw what a treasure had been carelessly lost. Everyone felt something. Many had no words but there was a profusion of overdue hugs all around. Many felt they knew him even though they had never met him. Some introductions were made to link up the leaders from various sectors of society so they could form stronger and safer networks.

That woman in the film was not just me. She spoke for the fifteen families in the UK, who are plunged into this harsh reality every day. More than 6500 every year.

That young man in the film was not just Saagar, but everyone who has ever blamed themselves for their troubles and felt shame for things that have happened to them, hiding behind their beautiful smiles. Unseen. Unheard. Each one who lost their tribe and couldn’t find a way back.

These were not just Saagar’s friends, but all those who are left behind, trying to figure out how this could happen to someone they loved. Wondering what they could have done then and what they can do now.

This film laments a future lost. It mourns silent suffering. It also illuminates a path that appears out of darkness. It also celebrates love and smiles. It also gives us permission to soften, lighten, loosen. It breaks open our hearts so we can hear the unspoken pain that lies behind the mask of another face and our own. It makes us one.

This is what it means to be human. Here, on this beautiful Earth, there is no other. Only us. Not us and ‘them’. Just us.

PS: International film awards: Eight.

‘1000 days’ is made by Me and Thee films for educational purposes. Hence it is not yet freely available on social media. It was screened in the ‘Lived experience’ section at Middlesbrough, for the Hartlepool and Stockton Safeguarding children’s Partnership and South Tees Safeguarding Children’s Partnership Conference on the 12th of July. It made a profound impact on roughly 350 attendees, motivating them to make individual and collective change so as to protect young lives and their happiness. Will keep you posted on the opportunities to watch it. Thank you for your love and support. Please do share any constructive ideas/ thoughts you may have for the film in the comments section.

Invitation to the Circle of Remembrance

Towards the end of 2020, a series of phone calls with mums and dads from the USA, Australia and the UK resulted in the formation of an on-line peer support group that has met every other Saturday evening for an hour and a half. The first meeting was held in the middle of January 2021. We’ve recently had our 32nd meeting. The group provides a warm space for sharing and offers non-judgemental listening and understanding. It provides a fertile ground for post-traumatic healing and growth. We call it CORe: Circle of Remembrance.

The loss of a child is different from other losses. The purpose of CORe is to honour our children, to create an opportunity for sharing our inner and outer experiences and to seek tools and mutual understanding for establishing a firmer ground of compassion, from which to live our new lives.

Over time, I have come to appreciate my need for a tribe to belong to. Other people who are also living through the loss of their child validate our experiences, witness our pain and help us feel less alone.

After many years of trying to make sense of something so treacherous, I now know that it is impossible to make any sense of it. However, I also know that it’s possible to create a new path for ourselves. A path of learning and peace.

It has been an honour for Si and me to facilitate the CORe group of roughly 20 friends and witness their journeys. The rich, life-sustaining conversations and friendships within the group are a delight to be a part of.

It therefore gives me great joy to invite bereaved parents to a new group that will meet on alternate Wednesdays from 7.00 – 8.30 pm (UK time). Please visit the website of CORe (link below) for more details and testimonials and sign up if you would like to join.  In our experience with the Saturday group, the upper limit to attendees is 25. Once we have about 15 members, we’ll get started. The tentative start date is 4th May 2022.

https://www.core-community.com/

Two lessons

“He loved me in the purest sense and I loved him. That’s how he kept me alive.” says Marsha about Ted, a catholic priest.

This relationship taught her two important things that she applied to her work as a therapist for seriously suicidal people. She wrote about these things and taught them to her students, the future generation of therapists.

  1. ‘I was unable to say thank-you then. Now I can.’

If you’re giving unconditional love to help someone cope with the hell they are in, if you’re holding them emotionally and physically, don’t interpret their absence of ‘thanks’ as a sign that you are not giving them what they need. You probably are.

2. ‘Keep loving them.’

When someone sees no point in living, they are like someone walking in a mist. They don’t see the mist. They don’t see that they are getting wet. If you’re walking with them, you may not see it either. But if they have a pail of water, you can collect the water that was mist, in it. Each moment of love adds to the mist, which adds to the water in the pail. By itself, each moment of love may not be enough. But ultimately, the pail fills up and the person in hell can drink that water of love and be transformed.

Like Marsha, I know this to be true. I’ve been there and drunk from that pail.

(Inspired by Marsha M Linehans’s book: ‘Building a life worth living’.)

I was so wrong.

I thought that if his doctors would have recognised how sick Saagar was, they would have known that the best thing to do was to refer him to the Psychiatric services. They would admit him to the hospital, look after him and keep him safe.  He would recover fully, return home and resume his life as normal – play the drums, read and speak French, play cricket, go out with his friends, go to the gym, make me laugh till I had tears in my eyes and soon, return to University.

Now I know, that I was so wrong at so many levels.

  1. Recognise?

The GP didn’t think his condition was life-threatening, even after he told him it was. How much more obvious did it have to be? They didn’t believe him. If at all they did, they didn’t take him seriously. Or maybe they simply didn’t know what to do.

GPs are not trained or supported in looking after suicidal patients.

  • Refer?

If they would have made a referral to the Mental hospital, he would have waited for a long time to be seen. Maybe he would have died while on the waiting list, like many others.

GPs are dis-incentivised to make referrals to specialist services in various ways.

  • Admit him to the hospital?

No chance! That would not have happened as there would have been no beds. If there were beds, there would have been others much sicker than him, ahead of him in the queue.

Hospitals have very poor capacity and very high thresholds for admission to inpatient beds.

  • Keep him safe?

490 patients died while detained under the Mental Health Act in the year up to March 21. At least 324, for non-COVID reasons.

Ref: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-59336579

Being an inpatient does not mean –  safety.

  • Recover fully?

Many patients report traumatic experiences while admitted to mental hospitals. The treatment is often not conducive to recovery. Concerns include coercion by staff, fear of assault from other patients, lack of therapeutic opportunities and limited support.

There is little understanding of what the patient needs, to recover.

(Ref: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/experiences-of-inpatient-mental-health-services-systematic-review/C5459A372B8423BA328B4B6F05D10914)

I am presently reading a book – ‘Building a life worth living’ by Marsha, M Linehan. She is the psychologist who developed Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, to help suicidal individuals to build their lives. Much before she did that, she was a seriously suicidal and self-harming young adult.

I am learning so much.

Marsha M Linehan – Author of ‘Building a Life Worth Living’

Grey day

I didn’t light his candle today. Not because I forgot. But I just couldn’t be bothered. He left without saying bye. I know it’s silly to bring this up now, after so many years. He needed to do whatever it was he needed to do. He needed to go. I understand. But the missing makes my heart crumble again and yet again. How is it possible to keep going after its smashed so many times? It feels like the old yellow rubber duck in his bath, being stamped heavily upon, by a topless angry Arnold Swarzenegger wearing big black military trousers and boots. What is this thing that pretends to drum in my chest, tattered and torn?

He broke the rule. Saying good-night was our ritual for many years. After settling him in his bed, I religiously kissed him on his chin, both his cheeks, first left and then the right, his closed eyes, first the left and then the right and then, once on his forehead. He put his little arms around my neck and we both held each other for a short while before I switched off the light and went to my room. We loved it and slept peacefully.

He didn’t respect our little rule. Maybe he couldn’t. But, I deserved at least, a proper good bye. But then, can anyone truly know who deserves what?

all my love,

endlessly

black and white portrait.

Thank you Prime Minister.

Recently, our highly respected Prime Minister declared there was a need to treat ‘problem drug users’ with ‘compassion’ by investing in rehabilitation. In the same breath, he said that his government would  ‘wage a war’ on drugs by removing passports and driving licenses from drug-users to tackle drug-related crime. He rightly emphasized that drugs were really ‘bad for society’.

Little surprise that he said absolutely nothing about the invisible drug that is freely available in shops and restaurants and can easily be found in homes, clubs and pubs. Many of us use it everyday even though it causes severe social, financial and health damage. As good friends, family and colleagues we often encourage each other to use it, while thinking nothing of using it ourselves. Some of us go as far as taking offense, when someone declines our offer to use it. Yes, alcohol is a drug. It is a depressant, even though it can fool us into thinking and feeling otherwise. It causes more than 60 types of diseases and injuries.

[Courtesy: Science Direct : https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/ethanol-effect%5D

Alcohol use, particularly heavy use and dependence is directly associated with suicide in three ways:

(1) through its dis-inhibiting effects, it emboldens people to attempt suicide

(2) individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders are at an increased risk of suicide as compared to the population at large

(3) alcohol consumption co-relates with suicide rates, all over the world.

Thank you dear PM for giving us a chance to think about our relationship with ‘drugs’, especially at this time of year which can be difficult for some and over-festive for others.

I wish you good company, much fun and laughter now and always. May you be blessed with lots of cake.

(by Charlie Mackesy from “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”)

Ref: Suicidal Behaviour and Alcohol Abuse:  

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2872355/#b26-ijerph-07-01392

A report and a film.

A report published last month by National Child Mortality Database (NCMD) identifies common characteristics of children and young people who die by suicide between 1st April 2019 and 31st March 2020. It investigates factors associated with these deaths and makes recommendations for policy makers.

Every child or young person who dies by suicide is precious. These deaths are a devastating loss for families and can impact future generations and the wider community. There is a strong need to understand what happened and why, in every case. We must ensure that we learn the lessons we need to, to stop future suicides.

Key Findings:

-Services should be aware that child suicide is not limited to certain groups; rates of suicide were similar across all areas, and regions in England, including urban and rural environments, and across deprived and affluent neighbourhoods.

(No one is immune.)

-62% of children or young people reviewed had suffered a significant personal loss in their life prior to their death, this includes bereavement and “living losses” such as loss of friendships and routine due to moving home or school or other close relationship breakdown.

(Saagar was unable to return to his life at University due to a new diagnosis of a mental illness.)

-Over one third of the children and young people reviewed had never been in contact with mental health services. This suggests that mental health needs or risks were not identified prior to the child or young person’s death.

(Saagar had been in contact with Mental Health Services but they discharged him as soon as he showed signs of improvement. They did not follow him up. His GP was unable to identify his high risk of suicide despite his Depression scores being the worse they could be for at least 4 weeks.)

-16% of children or young people reviewed had a confirmed diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental condition at the time of their death. For example, autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This appears higher than found in the general population.

(Saagar did not.)

-Almost a quarter of children and young people reviewed had experienced bullying either face to face or cyber bullying. The majority of reported bullying occurred in school, highlighting the need for clear anti-bullying policies in schools.

(At his Primary school in Belfast, his peers called him ‘Catholic’. He didn’t know what it meant but he knew it was not right. This went on for more than a year before I found out. When I spoke to his class teacher about it, she denied any problem.)

The film ‘1000 days’ tells us about Saagar and what we have learnt from his life and death. I am not sure what or how much the policy makers and service providers have learnt or changed but we have learnt and changed a lot and here we talk about that. The film is presently available on-line at the Waterford Film Festival (Short Programe 6), till the 15th of November at the link below. Please take 20 minutes to watch it if you can. You will learn something too. Each one of us can make a difference.

https://waterfordfilmfestivalonline.com/programs/collection-jlvwfxb8ctq