On bereavement, grief and what comes after - a personal view by Jill Baker
Jill Baker, Vice-President of the Methodist Church 2017-18
All death is messy, all bereavement is difficult, but bereavement by suicide brings its own particular, painful challenges. When our younger son, Peter, took his own life at the age of eighteen we entered a wilderness of grief and confusion. Maybe that is where the word ‘bewildered’ comes from – it certainly felt like it. We didn’t have the signposts to navigate this wilderness; we wondered if there were any signposts in this bleak new world.
We were not alone in our confusion. Our family and friends were similarly thrown, and members of our church, where my husband was minister and Peter was well known as a steward, actor and IT operator, were shaken and appalled. People wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what we wanted them to do. The single most helpful sentence I have ever read about bereavement I found on a website in those early days; “I just want people to treat me normally, but I get so angry when they do”. In a few words, the writer has captured my core emotion - there is no right way to deal with something which is so utterly and horribly wrong.
So how can we react? Five years on from Peter’s death, how do I react now, when others are bereaved? I try not to ask “How are you?” I try instead to say “It’s good to see you” – for even leaving the house is a major achievement when you are carrying the weight of grief around your neck, so simply recognising and affirming that someone has made that supreme effort is a kindness. I never say “At least…”.
Definitely I write. Definitely I send cards. Although these too can be potential minefields they are a tangible sign of love and thought and they don’t demand anything of the griever (except grace and an ability to smile wryly when people, despite the best of intentions, write things which are irritating!). I remember with thanks those who wrote letters which were not about the greater purposes of God or about how Peter might now be enjoying heaven, but were about how Peter had lived his life and how his life had touched theirs.
I imagine that everyone affected by a suicide is already asking themselves “What if…?” “What could I have done differently?” “Where did I go wrong?” They may need to talk through those unmentionable thoughts. That can only be done in the safest and securest of relationships where a close loving friend might just be able to help the mourner face the abyss of guilt – and maybe even hold their hand until they come out the other side; for there is no life, no future, no help to be found in that route. But it isn’t helpful for a comparative stranger to say; “You must ask yourself where you went wrong as a mother?” Not helpful at all, and I still wish I had slapped her.
I didn’t slap her because I’m a Christian and Christians aren’t supposed to do that! However Christians are supposed to have lots of helpful beliefs and faith at times of crisis. I became weighed down with the responsibility for my own survival implied by the oft-repeated phrase, “Your faith will see you through” and I remember the sheer relief one morning when it struck me (in the bathroom) that it wasn’t my faith which would see me through, but entirely, only and absolutely God’s grace, and there was nothing I could or needed to do about that.
On balance I’d say casseroles are better than flowers, although both are welcome, silence is better than words, happy remembrances are better than sorrowful predictions but best of all is someone who recognises that the whole situation is awful and doesn’t bring with them the burden of trying to be the person who will make it better. You won’t. Only time will; just hang on in there.