Solace after suicide: How families find hope and healing after griefby Bill Ralston
This country has an extraordinarily high suicide rate for young people. Supporting those who’ve been bereaved by suicide is not just kind – it may save their lives and help them find happiness once more.
He had gone out at about 6pm on Sunday, March 5, leaving his wife, Zita, who was six months’ pregnant, home alone. A hard-working perfectionist with a first-class honours degree in law, she had been battling debilitating depression for years and seemed to be deteriorating as her pregnancy progressed. Concerned about her, he arranged people for her to call if she needed to for the few hours that he would be away. But at 9pm, when he arrived back at their Mt Albert, Auckland, home, she wasn’t there.
“I knew,” he told the Listener in 2007, 20 months after the deaths of his wife and unborn child.
What he knew, instinctively, was that she had killed herself. It was a call from the police that confirmed how and where. It was the funeral director who told Wilson his unborn child had been a boy.
Wilson had already had to cope with suicide in the family. In 1998, Zita’s older sister, Karen, who had been diagnosed as bipolar and was receiving hospital treatment, killed herself when she was 31.
Incredibly, and tragically, in 2003, Zita’s younger sister Megan, then also aged 31, killed herself. Like Zita, Megan had a first-class honours degree. Hers was in French, and she was a teacher. She had not been diagnosed with a mental illness at the time of her death, but Wilson told the Listener in 2007 that she had been exhibiting classic bipolar behaviour towards the end.
At her youngest sister’s funeral, Zita had been adamant it was the last time suicide would wreak misery on her family. “I’m sick and tired of organising funerals, rather than weddings,” she told mourners. Between the deaths of her sisters, she had become one of the founders of Solace, a voluntary community-based organisation and peer-support group for people bereaved by suicide.
There are places to find support for grief, but the grief of suicide is different, Wilson says, particularly because of the self-reproach felt by those left behind. The problem is recognising that there are a lot of unique factors in suicide bereavement. Stigma. Anger. Guilt. Families can be wrenched apart, he warns. Supporting the bereaved is important work, because they have a higher-than-average suicide risk. “You’ve had this terrible thing happen. It’s horrific; people spend time blaming themselves.”
As his wife’s depression worsened, Wilson took over her role in Solace, and he is still heavily involved. He describes it as “my “day-to-day grass-roots work. No funding, a handful of volunteers for people who have nowhere to go.”
Why do those people turn up?
“They can get the voice of experience. I can empathise with them going back to work and all that bullshit.” He talks about the difficulties friends and colleagues can have dealing with someone left bereft by suicide.
He tries to help them believe that they can get through their despair, that they should hang on to hope and that they can even rediscover happiness. For people overwhelmed by grief, those things might be hard to believe, but Wilson is an ideal person to deliver that message of hope in the face of despair.
Soon after his 2007 interview with the Listener, he got together with partner Annabelle, a lawyer. Happily, he is now the father of Clara, eight, and Martha, five. Wilson thinks Annabelle must have found being with him hard at first. The spectre of his late wife was lingering in the background, and his work in suicide bereavement is ongoing.
“It’s amazing, because she has to …” Talking about Annabelle, he pauses. “It’s a big part of my life, what happened. It must have been difficult at the beginning. It could feel like there’s a presence.” He adds, a little more banally, about when he disappears to do Solace work, “It’s probably annoying on a Saturday morning when I’m not at the netball courts.”
He says that people in the grip of such a bereavement can feel they will never recover.
“I had no idea I was going to meet someone new. It’s about giving yourself permission to do it.”
Wilson doesn’t mind the Listener’s questions that rake over the coals of a painful past. “I don’t mind talking. I’m all about that hopeful message out of tragedy. You can rebuild. It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about it. It’s a major part of my life,” he says. “I do suicide-bereavement work.” He is also on an advisory group that reports to Health Minister David Clark.
Also, he now works full-time for the Mental Health Foundation in its suicide-bereavement advisory group, a distinct change in direction from several months ago when he was a producer for Radio Live’s afternoon shows. He has taken a significant pay cut, but he’s doing something he feels is useful. Besides, he fortunately avoided the “night of the long knives” at Radio Live when it morphed into Magic Talk, moved from an FM to an AM frequency [in Auckland] and axed some of its staff.
He rationalises his shift from the airwaves to the foundation, saying that although he loved the people and the work, he probably needed to get out. “[MediaWorks] was plotting the takeover of that Live frequency, ramping up the Magic brand.” He tails off with an exasperated shrug.
Hope and happiness
The job change has been good for him. “I miss a lot of it, but I don’t miss a lot of it as well. I’m quite happy with what I’m doing now. It’s been a big shift mentally,” he says. “I’m used to doing stuff every day. Now it’s bigger-picture stuff, but I really believe in it.”
If it was not for his wife’s death, he concedes, he would not be working for Solace, listening and communicating with those who have been left behind. He understands only too well what they are going through.
“It’s just the most miserable experience, all that shit, but that’s what happens. For whatever reason, I managed to push through it. I look back and can’t figure out how I did it. I’m always asked how I got through it, and I go …” he shrugs again, with a bewildered look.
“For the bereaved, it is about getting back to a normal life. I feel like a fraud sometimes. You tell people, ‘you will find happiness’, and that stuff. It’s how you do that – you can read books, do therapy – that’s where I feel a bit of a fraud sometimes, but I tell people you will find hope and happiness.”
He has no need to feel fraudulent in holding out such a promise. After all, he did exactly that. “I had people. I brought people around. Not everyone has that. I just had good people. I was fortunate.” Some others are not so lucky.
“People are generally good [at being supportive] at the time. But, as the weeks and months go by, they drop away. People think, ‘I don’t want to hear another story about it.’”
That’s where Solace steps in. It has monthly meetings at the Community of St Luke in the Auckland suburb of Remuera. “I’m not a counsellor. It’s based on life experience. There are people who come to the group and say, ‘I’ve learnt so much more from talking to the group than any therapy session.’”
Therapy usually costs money and many cannot afford it. Solace offers, for the price of a gold-coin donation, a cuppa and the chance to tell your story to people who have already been through what you’re suffering and to hear how they have coped with the suicide of a loved one. “All I can do, when I hear those stories, is listen and not judge,” Wilson says.
He is not a spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation and cannot speak on its behalf. However, the foundation’s suicide bereavement advisory group, of which he is a member, made a submission on the Government’s draft Suicide Prevention Strategy in 2017 and that document is publicly available.
Stating that the suicide-bereaved are a significant at-risk population, the strategy lists five key action points:
- Recognise people who are bereaved by suicide as a priority population.
- Recognise suicide postvention as essential for effective suicide prevention.
- Learn from lived experience.
- Provide support options for those bereaved after each suicide death.
- Incorporate strong national leadership and co-ordination, including lived-experience voices.
“Postvention” is what Wilson is trying to do at the foundation and is doing with Solace. There’s demand for it. The paper baldly states, “Given that New Zealand has around 500 suicide deaths a year and between 20 and 50 people are affected by each suicide, there is a significant number of people in New Zealand who experience trauma and grief after the suicide of a loved one.”
The foundation submission goes on to succinctly state its case. “Given that those bereaved by suicide are at increased risk of suicidal behaviour, ‘postvention is prevention’. In other words, supporting people after a suicide death is not just about healing their loss and trauma through the grief process, but also minimising the risk of further tragedy.”
It asks the Government to listen and learn from people with experience of suicide loss, and calls for more support for friends and families after a suicide.
Sadly, there is no shortage of need. Provisional data released by the Chief Coroner in August 2018 showed that the number of suicides was the highest since records began, with 668 deaths in the year to June 2018.
It was the fourth consecutive year of increases. With 142 deaths of Māori in those 12 months, it was also the highest number of Māori deaths by suicide since records began. The highest number of suicides by age was in the 20-24-year-old group, followed by those aged 45-49. Overall, suicide among women has increased.
The Ministry of Health’s website notes that, compared with other OECD countries, New Zealand’s 2011 suicide rate for males and females was towards mid-range (16th highest for males and females). New Zealand’s youth suicide rate in 2011 for both males and females was the second-highest in the OECD. For 15-to-19-year-olds, New Zealand’s rate was the highest in 2015.
Last December, the Government released its Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry report, which journalist Jessica McAllen, who specialises in mental-health reporting, described as a “vague document”.
She commented: “The suicide prevention section is a particular weak link. The main recommendation is to finish the Suicide Prevention Strategy.” McAllen also noted that that particular strategy was put on hold in May 2017, just after the draft went out for public review, when advocate Mike King, who was on the advisory group, quit, calling it a “masterclass in butt-covering”.
Health Minister David Clark had released the relatively fast turnaround 15-month Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction report, saying it “represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how we handle some of the biggest challenges we face as a country”. The Government will shortly reveal details of how it plans to meet that “once-in-a-generation opportunity” when it releases its response to the inquiry’s 40 recommendations.
One of those recommendations is a target of a 20% reduction in the number of suicides by 2030. But, although he promised mental health would be a “key priority in the next Budget round”, Clark was reluctant in a recent RNZ Checkpoint interview to commit to a suicide-reduction target.
This is not only contrary to what he said during the 2017 election campaign, but McAllen says it also contradicts a statement by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Public Service Association’s “Yes We Care” campaign to raise suicide awareness. At that forum, she said she wanted to bring the suicide number down to zero. “Because anything else suggests we have a tolerance for loss to suicide in New Zealand.”
Ask for help: Need to talk?
- Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
- Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
- Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
- Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or online chat
- Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (0800 KIDSLINE) for young people up to 18 years of age, 24/7
- Samaritans: 0800 726 666
- Healthline: 0800 611 116
- Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 to talk to a trained counsellor, or visit depression.org.nz
- Anxiety New Zealand: 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
- Supporting Families in Mental Illness: 0800 732 825
- Solace Support Auckland: Call 09 425 6750 or 021 998 949 for information on monthly meetings
- In an emergency, call 111. For more information, visit mentalhealth.org.nz
- Additional specialist helpline links: mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines/
This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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