In October 2014, my husband Ian died by suicide. The chosen method was hanging. At this point, you may well be thinking that this now makes the title of this blog extremely sick and inappropriate and perhaps even offensive. It is not meant to be.
The day before Ian died, my sister and brother-in-law had driven down ‘south’ for a week’s holiday, but as soon as they heard about Ian, they started back home. Even though I was completely in shock, I remember my sis ringing halfway through their journey saying: ‘Hang on in there Hilary – we’ll be with you soon’. At that point she didn’t know that Ian had died by hanging, but I recall wincing at the choice of words and I knew then, with certain clarity, that this was one nightmare I was never going to be able to wake up from.
Up until Ian’s death, I hadn’t (fortunately) been affected by suicide. I ignorantly thought that people who ‘committed suicide’ (and I no longer use that term), were selfish, with no regard for those left behind and were cowards. I was one of those people (as was Ian) who when we were delayed in a traffic jam because the police were trying to prevent someone from jumping from a bridge over the road; would be thinking ‘just jump and then we can get on with our journey’! I feel ashamed to write that, but that’s how I was. That viewpoint changed forever when Ian died.
I suppose I better give a bit of background and context. Ian and I met in 1998 when we both went back to University to do full-time postgraduate degrees. Our friendship turned into something deeper and we bought our home together in 2001. It was the ‘2nd time’ for us both and neither of us were in a hurry to ‘tie the knot’ but we finally decided to get hitched in 2009 with Ian’s two daughters as our bridesmaids.
It all seemed to be going so well. Like any other couple, we had our ups and downs, but life was good. Ian was a perfectionist and set very high standards for himself. The only time we nearly had a big fall-out was when we needed to wrap one of the girls’ Christmas presents – an unboxed classical guitar. I could wrap 5 presents in the time it took Ian to do 1 as he had to have the paper measured with a ruler and cut using a knife. I had to walk away from that one as were never going to agree on how it should be wrapped! I occasionally suffered bouts of depression but would be helped through these by Ian. And then came a series of life events that, looking back on it, should have set alarm bells in me that Ian was having difficulty coping with them all.
The first and probably most damaging to Ian’s confidence and view of himself was being made redundant, when the company he worked for closed down. He hated ‘signing-on’ as he felt the system sucked the self-worth out of everyone.
A year later we decided to move to be closer to Ian’s parents. A few weeks before we were due to move, the sellers removed their house from the market. We found another house, which was actually better than the first, but 2 days before our moving date, our buyers pulled out and it all fell through.
There was also a lot of family illness and trauma and then, in June 2014, Ian’s beloved Newfoundland dog Tobermory died suddenly. He had a very aggressive spinal tumour and nothing could be done for him. Ian was devastated.
Throughout all these major life events, Ian felt responsible for them happening and he blamed himself. He felt that he’d forced Tobermory to go for a walk when he was in pain; and even though Tobermory had been running round the garden later the same day with his younger brother Tomsk (yes – there is a Womble theme here!), Ian couldn’t accept that it wasn’t his fault.
A few weeks later we went to Scotland for a much needed break and we spent a lot of time making plans for the rest of our lives, including a new business venture. Ian seemed so much happier, more enthusiastic and motivated than I’d seen him in ages. Occasionally he would say things like ‘I don’t know what you see in me or why you married me’; ‘Everyone would be better off without me’ but these were being said less and less and I thought that whatever ‘rut’ Ian had been in, he’d been able to get out of it.
And then there was more family trauma, which was difficult for both of us, and I went into a bout of depression myself. I sought help and was doing an on-line CBT course supported by the local community mental health team. I remember the week before he died, Ian was looking through the course materials and he said something along the lines of ‘That looks useful, I might try that’. I suggested he might be better off speaking to someone himself, but he replied that he didn’t need to because I could provide him with all the help he needed.
The day before Ian died everything seemed completely normal. As one of Ian’s daughters and her husband were with us for the weekend, Ian and I agreed between us that to avoid any guests going into the bathroom and tripping over a giant dog sleeping on the tiles that, on Friday night, Ian would sleep in the lounge with 2 of the dogs and I’d sleep in our bedroom with the other dog.
It was my turn to sleep on the sofa on Saturday night. After eating a meal, we’d all sat and watched Strictly and then a film which we’d all laughed at. When the film ended, I started to yawn (probably the white wine!) and Ian said I should go to bed. I said ‘No – it’s my turn on the sofa and you should go to bed’. After some bickering, I ‘flounced off’ to bed and I remember being really annoyed with Ian because me having the bed wasn’t what had been agreed. About 10 minutes later, Ian came to the bedroom and asked if I was OK. I was really peed off with him and just told him to ‘Go Away’. Those were my last words to him.
The next morning I got up just after 8am. I thought it was strange that the lounge door wasn’t closed but assumed Ian had been to the loo and not closed the door properly behind him. The TV was on in the lounge and I just thought Ian had got up early to watch the Grand Prix. I couldn’t see Ian, so wandered into the conservatory to see if he was outside in the garden. I then noticed that the garage light was on so thought he must be in there doing some woodworking. I can only recall the next few minutes in slow motion.
As my right hand reached the garage door handle to open it, I knew something terrible had happened. I opened the door and found Ian’s body (I say 'body' rather than 'Ian' because the life force that was Ian had gone). The worst bit was that the dogs rushed into the garage and I remember screaming at them to get out. I remember feeling very nauseous and I just wanted to go back in time 12 hours to make everything ok again. I wanted to hug him, but I knew I had to call 999 (I have no idea how I knew this, but I did). It took me 4 attempts to manage to press the ‘9’ button three times, I was shaking so much. The call handler said I needed to get my son-in-law as we needed to cut the body down. I didn’t want to inflict that pain on my stepdaughter and son-in-law, but knew I had to go and get him. Rigor mortis had set in so there was no chance of Ian being revived. I remember standing behind Ian as my son in law cut the rope because I couldn’t bear the thought of Ian’s body just falling onto the concrete floor.
The paramedics arrived quickly (although it seemed an eternity) but they didn’t attempt anything. And then the nightmare officially began.
The police (who were fantastic) arrived and the garage became the scene of a crime. I felt I’d been transported to an episode of Silent Witness with people in white plastic suits and cameras. And, of course, that meant I couldn’t go and see Ian, touch him or say goodbye. Me, my stepdaughter and son-in-law all had to give statements. I have no idea how I managed to get through that, although I recall being given countless mugs of hot sweet tea.
I called a couple of friends to come over and sort the dogs out and give them breakfast. My husband’s just died and I’m arranging the dogs’ breakfasts out!!! My friend also started contacting close family and the police went to Ian’s Mum and Dad to inform them. Neighbours arranged to bring them over and Ian’s sister and other daughter also made plans to come up immediately.
That night my sister stayed with me (she stayed nearly 2 weeks until the funeral). I couldn’t sleep in the bed so I slept on the sofa in the lounge with my sister on a futon on the floor beside me. At one point I couldn’t hear her breathe and I started to panic and had to wake her up. I remember not being able to go to sleep that first night. I hadn’t known at what time Ian had gone into the garage so, for some reason, it was really important that I stay awake until dawn.
The initial visit to the Coroner’s Office was very hard as it was so clinical. It was about what would happen and the post mortem. We had to agree to what happens to any tissue or organs that may need to be removed. We gave our consent for any tissue to be used for research, but if any organ had to be removed, then we wanted it ‘repatriated’ to the body. Less than 72 hours earlier, Ian had been laughing and joking and now I was making decisions about bits of his body.
The human body is an amazing thing. The numbness and shock acts like a protective bubble, allowing you to function, but not feel the pain (yet!). I have no idea how I was able to make the decisions about Ian’s funeral, the flowers, the notices, etc, etc. In some ways I can recall every second and in some ways it’s all blurry. Ironically, Tobermory’s death a few months earlier made us talk about what we’d want at our funerals. So fortunately I knew that Ian wanted; a cremation, a non-religious ceremony and most importantly, he wanted Tobermory’s ashes in his coffin with him.
When my parents died (not at the same time), I didn’t want to see either of them at the chapel of rest because I wanted to remember them as they actually were and not how a funeral director thought they should look like. But I had to go and see Ian. I couldn’t allow my final image of him being how I’d found him in the garage. I’m glad I went as he looked peaceful and I was able to personally place Tobermory’s ashes next to him.
All ‘unexplained deaths’ are subject to an inquiry at the Coroner’s Court. The formal inquest came 4 months after Ian’s death in February. Anyone can attend an inquest and I was dreading the media being there, but fortunately they weren’t. Although the proceedings are very formal, my experience was as positive as it could have been. We were treated with respect at all times and more importantly, so was Ian. The police and the pathologist had to give evidence and the Coroner was keen to establish whether the wine Ian had drunk that night would have affected his judgement. The pathologist was clear – Ian would have been fully aware of his actions. Unexpectedly, I was asked to give evidence and had to be sworn in. I’d just got my voice back after losing it earlier in the week, so I managed to croak my way through the questions about Ian, our life together and the final evening, But I fell apart at the end when I told the court that my final words to Ian were ‘Go Away’. The Coroner’s verdict was ‘suicide’ which I was actually relieved about as I didn’t want Ian’s death to be the result of an accident due to alcohol.
Later that day, reality started to hit. I was in Tesco, surrounded by Valentine cards and gifts and I remember that inside my head I was screaming ‘I’m never going to see Ian again, am I?’ I’m amazed I haven’t been banned from Tesco as the waves of pain often hit me there. I’ve become quite adept at grocery shopping with tears rolling down my face.
In April I decided I needed some time out from working. I was having difficulty coping with Ian’s death and my tolerance levels were non-existent for dealing with what I considered to be people’s petty problems. I’m still proud of the fact that I didn’t tell some people where to go!
I had counselling from Cruse which was very helpful especially in terms of giving me strategies for dealing with those images that would suddenly appear of finding Ian in the garage.
So, is being bereaved by suicide any different from losing your soulmate in another way? Fortunately I have nothing to compare my experience with, but from reading and talking to people, I think there are some subtle differences that make it more complex.
The most obvious is people’s reactions. When you mention the ‘S’ word, the majority of people unconsciously recoil, avoid eye contact and either say they ‘have to go’ or change the conversation to something completely different. People will often give you THAT look that says ‘But you’re his wife, you must have known something was wrong’; but the absolute worst is that accusing look that says ‘You’re his wife, what did you do that made your husband kill himself?’
Suicide is regarded by many as something shameful and I’m still shocked by how many people still think attempted suicide is an offence, even though it was decriminalised 55 years ago! I was very determined from the start not to pretend or lie about how Ian had died. I was always proud of him and I’m not ashamed of his manner of death. If people find that difficult, then it’s their problem.
The hardest times happen in your own head when you’re visited by those 2 little pesky demons ‘abandonment’ and ‘guilt’. When you lose someone to suicide, you will always ask yourself why they ‘chose’ to take their own life. The day after Ian’s death someone asked me if I’d be asking the question ‘Why?’ if Ian had died from a cardiac arrest. I said ‘Of course not’. Their response was ‘Suicide is the mental health equivalent of a cardiac arrest’ And for me, I think this is very true and was so, for Ian.
I believe that, at that particular moment, Ian felt that he had no choice. There was no other option open to him to end the pain of that moment. In the previous 3 years, we’d had to cope with many of the top stress-inducing life events and Ian felt himself responsible for many of them. Although I will never know, because the only person who can tell me is Ian;, I think he had severe depression but kept it well hidden from everyone around him. I doubt he knew himself – he probably thought that it was ‘normal’ to regard himself as a person of little self-worth and that his family and friends would be better off without him. So I don’t believe suicide is a selfish act in any way. To me, it’s selfless.
But in those darkest moments, I can’t help but occasionally feel that he chose to leave me. And if he chose to take his own life, then what does that say about our relationship? It can make me question everything I thought I knew about Ian, our relationship and me. It makes me question whether he loved me. And did he die thinking I didn’t love him? But the very worst is when I wonder if he died because I told him to ‘Go Away’.
It tends to be at these moments that ‘Guilt’ likes to join the party. How could I not have seen how bad Ian was feeling? Why did I not force him to go to his GP when he said he was feeling down? Why did I not do something about it, when he said the world would be better off without him? Why, why why …
It’s normal to be occasionally visited by ‘abandonment’ and ‘guilt’. The trick is to make sure they don’t unpack their suitcases and take up permanent residence.
People often assume I must get really angry at Ian because he died by suicide. I no longer use the phrase ‘committed suicide’ as that’s a negative throwback to when the act was illegal and I just feel that using that term reinforces the stigma for those bereaved by suicide and, most importantly, may prevent those suffering from suicidal thoughts from being able to reach out for help.
I have been angry with Ian, but I don’t think it’s any more that it would have been if he’d died in any other way, although there has been the odd moment when I’ve been furious at him for taking away all my dreams, hopes and plans and not giving me any choice in the matter. But I tend to be more angry at myself for not being able to have prevented his death. I remember telling my counsellor this and she said “But there may have been other times you did prevent it – you just didn’t know it”.
All the research evidence indicates suicide is very complex and is unlikely to be linked to just one event or incident, so although my final words to Ian can never be unsaid and I will always wish that they were different; I refuse to let those words define me, our relationship or the love that Ian and I had for each other. If I spend the rest of my days just existing and beating myself up, then Ian’s legacy becomes his manner of death and he was so much more than that,.
Ian wouldn’t have believed the number of people who came to his funeral because of the difference he’d made to their lives. I’m well aware that I’m biased, but he was a very kind and gentle man. He had no time for people who weren’t honest or decent or were two-faced. He hated people being treated unfairly and he would always stick up for the underdog. He would help you if you needed it and he had a wicked sense of humour and massive capacity for love. It’s these values that are his legacy. I feel very fortunate that he chose to spend the rest of his life with me.
Ian would be horrified to see the devastation his death has caused and I wonder if he’d been able to realise what we’d all be going through, perhaps he could have got through his mental health equivalent of a cardiac arrest.
16 months down the line and I’m starting to accept this new life that I find myself in. In my simple world, I have two options:
- I spend the rest of my life constantly beating myself up, and being miserable to the end of my days because of what I no longer have.
- I accept what I now have, make the most of it and learn to love life again, because of what I had with Ian.
If I choose the former, then in my opinion, it’s like me putting 2 fingers up to Ian and he’d be furious with me for wasting my life. I want Ian to be proud of me. He believed in me 100% and he helped me believe in myself, so although it’s bloody difficult, I’m going to make us both proud.
The last 16 months have shown me that life can change in an instant. It’s too short for wasting my finite energy and time on people and things that don’t appreciate it or make me unhappy and miserable. I’ve lost some family friends but some relationships are much stronger, particularly with Ian’s sister and my own sis. And I’ve also made new friends. I make sure I tell people all the time how much they mean to me and how much I love them.
I’m also determined to reduce the stigma attached to suicide. Phrases like ‘man-up’, ‘boys don’t cry’ and perceptions that men should be the breadwinners only create unrealistic expectations. If these don’t change then we’re making it increasingly difficult for men to be able to feel that they are able to talk when they feel they can’t live up to the ideals that society places on them.
I’ll never know if the outcome would have been different if Ian had felt able to open up to someone as to how he was feeling but I’d like to think it may have helped.
Writing this down has been very cathartic for me but its only true value comes if it is useful and helpful to another person, because that will be a very fitting tribute to Ian.
Thank you for reading this.
I think you'll agree, it's an incredibly powerful story. We'd like to thank Hilary for the strength she has shown in writing this for us and wish her and her family all our very best. The collage was put together by Ian's sister Sara. She's an artist, but found herself unable to paint after Ian died. She started making crepe paper flowers and she made me one using the montage of photos. She went on to exhibit an installation of all the 'tears'. Her Facebook page is, naturally, called 'Tears' and is linked here; I'm sure she would appreciate a 'Like' on her page. She's currently doing some paintings based on some childhood photos, Sara & Ian grew up in the Soloman Islands, but with blank spaces where Ian used to be.
If you've been affected by anything in this story, there may be some organisations on our Where To Turn pages that can help (including a link to Cruse in the UK).