OPINION: Emptiness, sorrow and unanswered questions: what it’s like to lose two family members to suicide

World Suicide Prevention Day takes place on September 10 every year

World Suicide Prevention Day takes place on September 10 every year - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Here the Second Half columnist Nick Richards explains how it feels to lose someone to suicide

As a man aged 45 I am starting to tick plenty of boxes. My hair should be getting greyer, I should be struggling to burn fat and I’ve also just arrived in the most common age group for male suicide in England.

Statistics from The Samaritans indicate that men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide and in England, it is most common in men aged 45-49.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day when the spotlight is shone on how we can prevent this harrowing and destructive life choice from happening.

It doesn’t need me to say anything about how tragic suicide is and how many lives it affects, but I wanted to write about what if feels like to lose someone to suicide - it’s happened to me twice in the last 20 years.

Two of my uncles took their own lives, one in 2001 and one in 2017. Both were married and were of a similar age - 63 and 64.

After 40 plus years of hard graft in their careers, providing for their families and with the lovely recent pay-off of grandchildren in their lives, they decided on a different course of action.

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Years apart, in different countries and without any direct link, they committed suicide.

In May 2001, at the age of 63 my dad’s brother Alan took his own life. He was at home alone. My auntie found him. Hours later the news had been relayed around the family and the hunt for answers to many, many questions started.

Travelling down to Berkshire for the funeral, it felt slightly strange that we were all taking time to gather for a funeral for someone who actually wanted to be dead.It felt like the whole day could and should have been avoided.

All that feeling of love for him was tainted by the complete shambles he’d left behind. On the day of the funeral I felt plenty of empathy for him, but little sympathy.

He’d left behind a wife, an elderly mother, his children, grandchildren and potential retirement in a year.

My uncle had worked in a technical industry for many years and was good at his job, but in the light of changing technology he felt under immense pressure to learn new skills and to make changes to his working life.

And, for whatever reason, he felt he couldn’t handle it.

We knew he had a form of depression, but we didn’t know the extent of it. And that is what feeling suicidal must be like. A slow-burning, lingering sense of doubts that can gather at great pace until time, circumstance and conditions mean there is no other way. Rationality vanishes and a black fog covers all other options. He’d been out for Sunday lunch the day before and, from the outside at least, everything seemed OK.

If only he’d talked about his worries I am convinced he could have overcome his doubts. But he bottled up his darkest thoughts and began a decline into a world were rational became irrational, something that seemed to happen at an alarmingly fast pace.

My uncle Nick took his own life in 2017. I knew him far better. He was serving in the US Air Force when he met my dad’s sister in the 1970s. His surname was Nicholas, but everyone in the air force called him ‘Nick’. The name alone gave us a connection.

He came in and out of my life until my early 30s when we bonded over American football. Once technology had sufficiently advanced I would watch live late night games in the UK and would chat to my uncle via Messenger in the US.

In early 2008 I spent a month in the US and drove down to his home in Tucson, Arizona to coincide with the Super Bowl which was taking place in nearby Phoenix.

We watched the Super Bowl together on his old airbase with hundreds of US air force personnel, which made for a great atmosphere. The next morning I said goodbye and never saw him in the flesh again.

Just under 10 years later he killed himself. The questions and answers started again. It’s poignant for me that today the NFL American football season starts. Early September was usually a time when the messages between us would fly back and forwards across the Atlantic in the run up to the new season. For the last three years there has been nothing.

Every time I think about my uncles now, I ultimately end up thinking about the way they left us. That’s perhaps the saddest thing of all, that their final action dictates their legacy and brushes over the 60 plus years of everything that was good in their lives.

For my uncles, on the day they died, it probably seemed like the easiest solution to cure the demons in their heads, but for my family that they left behind, it just opened up more and more questions that I don’t think will ever be answered.

So what do we do? We need to talk about our issues, our insecurities and our fears especially as we get into the post-45 danger zone. Life has to have a purpose and if you feel yours is fizzling out, if you’re feeling low, confused, mixed-up, unmotivated or you just feel you’ve had enough, it’s time to open up.

Suicide is the termination of hopes and dreams. It isn’t a brave move that will resolve all your problems, it will just open up never-ending questions for those that love you that will hound them for the rest of their lives.

Having felt what it is like to lose family members to suicide there is always another option. Always.

You may eventually find that yourself but it’s much quicker and easier if you ask for help.

Call the Samaritans on 116 123, they never close. Or see www.samaritans.org