My dearest Rob,
On 28 May, it will be the fifth year I’ll light a candle in your name, to mark the day you left this world. The symbolism matters: light to replace the darkest place you were in.
Five years seems like a long time to some, but on the astral highway of grief, it can seem like five minutes, a day, a month. The grief that comes with suicide has changed over the years – it is no longer like being continuously plunged into fire – but the thing that hasn’t changed is how much you are loved.
It feels important to say this because I feel one of the reasons why you took that final, irreversible step was because you thought our lives would be easier without you in it. Dear heart, that was not true for a moment – but your depression, and the shame you felt around your addiction, convinced you that it was.
Five years ago, I wrote an open letter to you after you died. In part, it was to release the shame around your death that people assumed surrounded it, because that is the taboo and stigma of suicide.
In the aftermath of a suicide, we listen to people calling it ‘selfish’, when many of us know it was a death of a thousand cuts – a growing, unbearable state of mental anguish that was likely hidden while trying to be a good partner, child, sibling or friend.
“Death is never the answer, and however remote recovery seems it can, and will, happen.”
Now, as we find ourselves in the strangest period of our lifetime, a time exerting massive pressure on our mental health, it seems more important than ever to remind people that if they are struggling, to hold on. To remind them that things change, that death is never the answer, and that however remote recovery seems it can, and will, happen. And that they are not alone.
A few days ago, clearing out some old voice recordings on my phone, I came across one that didn’t sound familiar. It was hard to place because at first, it was just background noises. But I grew very still as I heard the clink of cutlery, of papers being shuffled around, of breathing as familiar to me as my own and realised that it was you – that at some point, you must have borrowed my phone to record an interview.
Such ordinary sounds, but in the absence of hearing you breathe, and with every recording and photo of you accounted for, it was the most precious gift. For a brief moment, the weight of my reality temporarily lifted. But the moment it stopped, the dense black hole cut to the size and shape of you returned. This is the price of suicide.
Since I wrote that letter, some things have stayed the same and some things have changed.
The conversation around mental health is now a completely different thing altogether, with people talking about their own battles, and campaigning around suicide prevention. Much still needs to be done but when you and I were going through this, alone at home, hiding it from our loved ones, I could never imagine the world could change so much.
When you and I spoke about what being a man meant, you said how you felt torn between the narrow expectation of being strong and silent, but knowing that’s not how you felt inside. It changed everything I thought I knew about men, and made me realise how messed up that shorthand for masculinity was, and how all of us – whatever gender – suffered as a result.
After you died, it seemed necessary to educate people about the things that are moralised, such as addiction, and to explain that the judgements and labels we give to people with mental illness, are not correct or helpful. Your story was part of a wider movement to change the thinking around this; because while you were a statistic that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, you were a living, breathing 6ft man who loved Dolly Parton, punk rock, and Crystal Palace. You enjoyed pints in the sun and a smoke while walking the dog, and you were the cleverest person I knew.
“Although you felt you had to carry your burden alone, through speaking about you at many events and telling your story I know you were far from alone”
Although you felt you had to carry your burden alone, through speaking about you at many events and telling your story I know you were far from alone. I’ve had many messages from people saying quietly: ‘I was that man’. Without fail, someone will pull me aside and tell me a part of their story, either someone they’d lost, or the moment they almost lost themselves.
The other day, I received a message from someone who said that the depiction of the man you were, made him feel seen and reflected in the man he was. He said it made him “not feel alone in a world that makes us feel nothing but.”
While I know that you were responsible for your own life, there are so many things I wish I could have said to you.
I wish I could have told you to stay – that it might feel hopeless now, but that if you stayed, there was hope. I wish the little ones in our family got to know you as they grew up, because their lives would have been richer for it. I wish I could have told you that what you thought was a mountain you could never climb, was possible if you had let others walk alongside you.
But above all, I wish you had known that your worth was not measured by how much money you earned, by being free from depression, or by not making mistakes. That there would only ever be one you, and that alone made you priceless, unique and irreplaceable – as it does for anyone grappling with their worth and place in the world.
Once gone, you were gone forever. But know that whatever spark remains has been fashioned into a torch for others to find their way out. So one last wish, wherever you may be in the universe and beyond: light it up, Rob, light it up.
Poorna Bell is an award-winning journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter at @poornabell
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service available at https://www.thecalmzone.net/
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.