The International Association for Suicide Prevention conference was in Montreal last week. Like Dubrovnik, this conference re-ignited and re-inspired my passion for the work. There were a lot of amazing people there – generous-hearted and ridiculously clever. There is something very cool about being able to talk with researchers who you’ve admired from afar and find out that they’re wonderfully and brilliantly human.
It made me think though of why we do the research we do – so many of us there in the one place and still not even close to being everyone – and what drives us to keep going. How the passion stays vital even in a metaphoric winter. And this is something that, were I to generalise, would feel too broad – that I’d be assuming there was one voice. What being in Montreal did was crystalise my love for this work – and how the personal and the professional are so entwined, why they both matter, why (I think) for me the personal grounds the professional, as well as strengthens it. I’ve written about some of this in a previous post.
I have lost a close friend and a brother to suicide: I was 16 when Mark died and 21 when Michael died. Mark has been dead for more than half my life now, an anniversary a little while ago which shook me quite badly. I’m not sure how I’ll be when that milestone is reached with my brother, how my family will feel.
Initially, I didn’t speak about these things so much. I still don’t speak about these things so much, so this feels a naked thing to be doing. The language of grief felt too limited to try and articulate what I felt, when sometimes I didn’t know at all, and feelings sometimes fluctuated. And sometimes you couldn’t be sure of your listeners either – sometimes I didn’t want to have to comfort them as well. Sometimes I just needed to be able to sit in the sadness, just for a little – to acknowledge that these two boys are frozen now in the past and my memories will only dim from here on in, that is, assuming, I’ve remembered correctly in the first place.
Memories though can be bastards.
There are beautiful memories of them both. Mark was the first boy to tell me I was pretty – so important when you’re 15 and deeply awkward. I remember walking along a street with Mark when a gust of wind roared through so strongly that it lifted me off my feet – and Mark held my hand, anchoring me to the ground. Michael was my idiot little brother – I never imagined he would not be there even when we were fighting over who should do the dishes, or who the new kitten loved more. These were boys whose presence I never thought to doubt. There never seemed any reason to doubt.
And there are other memories. The aftermaths of their deaths. And here, I remember Michael’s more clearly (or less hazily) because I was in such shock after Mark, felt such guilt. Everything passed by in a slow, painful blur. All I remember of Mark’s funeral is standing outside the church not wanting to go in because, if I went in, then it would be true and he really would be dead. I fell into a depression after this, stuck in the grief and the guilt that I know now is so common in suicide bereavement. I didn’t know this then though. I didn’t know then how many risk factors Mark (and Michael for that matter) ticked, not that this would make any difference to the sadness really. I didn’t know feelings could be so strong that they could kill you. I was put on anti-depressants for six months, where all my feelings sank as though under water so they were no longer so visible and painful. And then I was taken off them and worried whether feelings would ever be safe again.
When Michael died, it was almost as if what I’d experienced after Mark protected me. I knew it wasn’t my fault, and so guilt didn’t haunt me. Grief felt – not easier, not lighter – but different in that I knew the pain of grief dimmed, even if it left a scar. I remember first being told of his death. My hair was still damp from a shower and there was brilliant sunlight pouring into the lounge room where my kitten was sleeping, her eyes determinedly closed against the light. It was such an ordinary morning. I remember crying and packing while my partner at the time chain-smoked cigarettes.
Mostly though I remember the flowers that came in abundance after Michael died. Bright gerberas and other bunches seemingly made for grief – not too bright, not too fragrant. They sat on the table in the darkened dining room. More flowers than I’d ever seen in the house before. For all their good intent and love, they seemed to loom in the darkness – for the first time, I felt close to understanding Plath’s issue with the tulips in her room. My grief stole my breath – I want to say ‘our’ but I barely knew what I was feeling then let alone anyone else – and these things gulped all the air that was left. They felt more alive than the rest of us, more present in the space.
I’ve only begun to be able to bear flowers since – putting flowers from my ramshackle garden in milk bottles in the house. Flowers from florists though are still, to me, funerals and fuck-ups. Give me a bunch of flowers and I will automatically assume someone needs to be mourned, or something forgiven.
Sometimes the ghosts that linger are very stupid ones.
The only thing I remember of Michael’s funeral though is sitting in the front row, watching the coffin, willing it all not to be true, that is was all some fantastical mistake. I couldn’t grasp properly that my brother lay in there and that it was the end of him. I want to say that my heart hurt but I felt so numb and fractured, that nothing and everything hurt all at once, and none of that made any sense.
And in the aftermath of losing Michael, scared of falling apart like I had after Mark, and after being told by my then partner he was afraid ‘I would change’, I focused on being strong. I went back to uni and ended up with the best marks of my undergrad degree. I was untouchable because I pushed all the feelings aside to not let anyone know, still wary of these feelings that I knew from grieving Mark.
A year later though, I realised just how stupid this was, just how much I was hurting myself in being ‘strong’. I almost missed Michael’s anniversary and, in realising this, all the grief that I’d pushed aside fell over me like an avalanche. I realised just how much the death had left a wound, how little it had healed. And so I had to embrace those feelings of grief – the sadness and the anger and all the ones in-between. I had to rage about Michael’s death (here, Dylan Thomas felt more apt) and, as all my baggage became apparent, rage about Mark’s death as well. That their light had died, that it had just slipped away, nothing to could be done anymore.
And these losses stay with me still – healed scars but scars nonetheless. One of the things though – one of the positive things – is that I am very peaceful about feeling all the feelings. I accept that my heart is well and truly beating on my sleeve. I am very good at poker simply because people rarely believe my poker face can be so non-existent. A Brazilian poem called ‘The Almost’ inspires because it argues that you can’t live in the grey and the almost – that sadness exists so you can feel happiness, heartbreak for love, hopelessness for hope.
I didn’t enter this field because of Mark and Michael though. In many ways, it has made me more careful of how I research and what I do. It keeps me honest to what the purpose of this research should be, and that this job should be one of constant learning and questioning. I want to be passionate about this work because that passion is grounded in respect of those who share their stories, of the grief that those who work with me in projects have experienced.
I’ve sat down once before and written about Michael – encouraged by a brilliant Irishman I’d just met , and who is still a friend, to talk about the emptiness. I’ve not written about Mark before. That first piece took me months to write because I wanted it to be a perfect reflection of what had happened and how I felt – and nothing was perfect enough. But how could it be? All it could be – all this piece can be – was how the story came out in that moment. And in acknowledgment that this story differs depending on who I’m talking to, when I’m talking.
It also needs to acknowledge that these memories don’t tell the whole story, aren’t the whole story, can never be the whole story. There are things I know I don’t remember well and tell awkwardly because things are hazy. There are things I don’t know. My brother’s life and death were more than a fear of flowers; Mark’s more than standing outside a church. They are far more – far far more – than my grief. They exist now as a collective memory almost, shared between all of us who knew them, as we weave all our memories together.
I wonder though, will they exist after we’ve forgotten?
The majority of people in my life now have only ever known me in the after-time of these deaths. They will only ever know of Mark or Michael if I speak of them, and then only the memories I have or the stories told that day. It is strange sometimes to have something that I feel still in the pit of my stomach, that still seizes at my chest and stops my breath, that others don’t understand completely. And this is not in the sense of suicide bereavement and grief – this is shared with far too many people – but in that we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, and lost in a haze, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories.
In all of this though, after all of this, I have finally found a voice, a niche, which feels right to who I am and to who I’ve lost. That they would laugh at my Sylvia Plath work because neither of them understood my continuing love of poetry but they would be proud of what the work otherwise, of the stumbles which have led to so much learning and, eventually, some success. That they would understand the drive behind work that sometimes leads to be the purchase of cat hats (and long story) but has also led to some of the most important friendships and mentoring of my life.
And for this, my work is always, will always be, in memory of Michael and Mark.