Sunday 25 September 2016

'They were four and six when when I had to tell them how he died'- Suzanne Harrington on losing her former partner to suicide

When her former partner, and father of her two children, took his own life when their son and daughter were just three and five-years-old, Suzanne Harrington did all she could to help her kids grieve for the father they'd never know. Now in their teens, the writer is waiting on an explosion of emotions, but her kids are proving more resilient than she gave them credit for

Suzanne Harrington

Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30

Suzanne Harrington with her daughter (15) and son (13). Photo: Andrew Hasson
Suzanne Harrington with her daughter (15) and son (13). Photo: Andrew Hasson

Meet my kids. They are 13 and 15, and at the same state secondary school. One of them just got a detention for being stroppy to his teacher - he's up to his neck in testosterone at the moment - and the other one has just applied to be head girl.

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The 13-year-old likes hanging out with his pals at fried chicken shops, staring into his phone, and wishing he had a wardrobe full of Gucci T-shirts. Apart from football and drama, he thinks school work is boring, and would rather be on his Xbox. He is a keen fan of Lynx and Pot Noodle. He's bright and funny.

The 15-year-old rides horses and is a bit arty. She works hard at school, and is something of a domestic goddess when it comes to cooking and making clothes. She is not remotely interested in Gucci - she'd rather spend her money going to gigs with her friends. She does bake sales for Amnesty International. So far, so normal.

If you had to categorise them, they would be somewhere on the Bart and Lisa Simpson spectrum. So why am I telling you this? Why would the mundanities of two teenage lives be of any interest to anyone apart from me, their parent? Here's why.

Suzanne Harrington with Felix and Lola in 2011
Suzanne Harrington with Felix and Lola in 2011

For years, I was worried that they would hit puberty and explode. Not just the typical adolescent I-hate-you-give-me-a-tenner stuff, but properly derail. I worried that for years they would have been holding it all in, and the onset of teen hormones would unlock everything, so that it would blow up in their faces. In all our faces.

Their reason? "My dad killed himself." It's coming up to the 10th anniversary of their father's death by suicide - when it happened, they were five and three. There had been no warning signs. He was not addicted to anything, or had made any previous attempts - one day he just killed himself, because he had untreated depression.

But here are a few things which did not happen: we did not find his body; he did not kill himself in the family home; he and I were not a couple at the time of his death; he did not leave a note blaming anyone; his family did not disown us; his workplace did not distance itself.

Other surviving ex partners I have spoken with encountered some or all of the above, from the horror of finding a body in the house to being blamed by their in-laws for 'causing' the death, to simply being heartbroken for years and years because their beloved partner was dead.

One woman spoke of being ostracised by her entire community, and having to move away. No, my kids just lost their dad. He was coming to see them for the weekend, like he always did, and then suddenly he wasn't. In the aftermath, a blur of denial and minimisation - because the reality was temporarily too big to process - I was numb not with grief, but with shock.

First I had to tell my children he was dead, then a bit later how he had died - they were four and six when I told them that he had killed himself because he had been very unwell in his mind. They nodded and took it all in. They mirrored my reactions - I didn't lose the plot, so neither did they. And then time did its thing.

Time and some age-appropriate therapeutic work - they each went on a residential weekend (organised by a UK charity called Winston's Wish) with other kids whose parents had died from suicide, which helped them enormously, and the younger one also had some one-to-one play therapy; we did lots of talking about their dad, about the hows and whys of what happened, until it all began to fade. Or at least, it seemed to.

It wasn't callous, like they just tossed his memory aside, but being children, they were living their lives in the present moment. With every six months, every 12 months further into their own blossoming lives and away from his death, his memory receded. There were photographs of him in their bedrooms but they couldn't remember his voice. In those early years I watched closely for signs of dysfunction - were they torturing small animals, setting fire to their toys, biting their classmates? But they seemed to be alright.

Their teachers thought so too, and they both had plenty of friends. Nice friends - well-adjusted, happy kids, from all kinds of family backgrounds, not just the traditional nuclear model.

The teachers at their primary school knew what had happened to their dad, and kept an eye on them. Everything seemed to be okay.

But then they were going to a new school - big anonymous secondary school full of hormones and alcohol and drugs and peer pressure and fights and bitchiness and all the usual teenage drama that's tricky enough at the best of times. Would my kids get sucked into an undertow? Was there tons of unprocessed grief just waiting to rip out of them, and plunge them into all kinds of unknowable messy situations? The short answer is no.

In fact, it seems to be the opposite. It's as if having a huge trauma so early on in life, and having to deal with it head on, via honesty and openness and an awful lot of talking about their feelings, has left my kids with a kind of emotional maturity beyond their years.

"Everyone gets a wake up call in their lives," says the 15-year-old. "We just got ours early."

As their peers self-harm, get wasted on alcohol and drugs, and experiment with other risky behaviours (because that's what teenagers do - it's their job), she is the one holding her friends' hair as they throw up at parties.

The 13-year-old is so typically teenage in his door slamming and moodiness that it's actually reassuring. Overall, it's still relatively early days for my kids. How will it impact on their adult selves?

I know a woman in her 60s whose mother killed herself when she was a small child; emotionally, the woman has never recovered. She remains shadowed by an event that happened over half a century ago - I suspect there was not the same therapeutic help available back then.

A recent American study from the University of Pittsburgh shows that children of people who attempt suicide are four-to-five times more likely to attempt it themselves, irrespective of any mood disorder diagnosis. More a case of a monkey see, monkey do - if a parent kills themselves, does it validate suicide as a get-out option when things get tricky? This is a horrifying thought for any surviving parent, but what can you do?

I ask my kids, who roll their eyes and tell me not to be insane. (Children do however kill themselves - in Ireland in 2013, eight children aged under the age of 14 and 36 young people under the age of 19 took their own lives). We know that the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK and Ireland is suicide - more than heart attacks and car crashes.

"There is a higher risk of suicide in those who have had a suicide in their immediate family," confirms John Duffy, clinical director of Console, Ireland's national suicide charity. However, he also confirms that all of us, adults and children, can fully recover from grief and loss.

"The key thing is honesty with children," he says. "Secrets are not a good idea. We would encourage parents to tell children what happened in an age-appropriate way. And sometimes it's the parent who needs support. If the parent is coping, the children cope much better too."

In 2013, there were 6,708* deaths from suicide in Ireland and Britain; in Ireland, this meant the deaths of 396 men and 79 women. The highest rates were in Cork city and Limerick city, the lowest in Dun Laoghaire. The peak time for men is aged between 45 and 49 - it's the ultimate midlife crisis (the peak time for women is a bit later, between 50 and 54 - could this be linked with the menopause and in some cases, its sudden onset of anxiety and depression?)

But mostly it's men who kill themselves, and mostly it's by hanging. And mostly it's the female parent who is left to bring up the children. I ask my kids if they miss (a) their dad and (b) not having a dad. They are entirely sanguine.

"You can't miss what you don't remember," says the 13-year-old. "It would probably have been harder if we'd been older when he died," adds the 15-year-old. "But we were young enough to accept what happened and get on with it."

John Duffy says that the concept of death differs depending on the age of the child. Very small children tend not to understand the permanence of death, whereas adolescents affected by sudden bereavement are already in transition and trying to forge their own identity.

"They are already dealing with these challenges, which makes dealing with death more complicated," he says.

The importance of peer identification - meeting with other kids who have lost a parent to suicide - can therefore be very helpful. For the surviving parent, it is far less complicated to support your bereaved children if you are not grieving yourself. This, I absolutely acknowledge, made my job much easier.

For those who are simultaneously grieving for their own lost love plus trying to parent bereaved children, the necessity of outside support for both yourself and your kids is vital.

* Helpful contacts: Console, the national suicide charity - console.ie; Living Links, outreach support for people bereaved by suicide - livinglinks.ie; Irish Childhood Bereavement Network - childhoodbereavement.ie

* All stats from the Samaritans

What Suzanne did

• Realised very quickly that 'protecting' my kids from the truth would ultimately be harmful and detrimental to their recovery.

• Took professional advice on how to tell them how their dad died when they were still very young, rather than waiting and springing it on them years later.

• Answered every question honestly and calmly about his death, right down to the ins and outs of hanging.

• Informed their teachers of what had happened, and arranged age-appropriate therapeutic sessions outside of school.

• Didn't (visibly) flinch when they acted out his death in play.

• Crucially, got them in contact with other kids who had experienced the death of a parent by suicide - in a safe and supportive environment, the benefits of doing this cannot be overstated.

• Knew that they would mirror me, so that if I spun out with alcohol or drugs, loss of routine, or erratic behaviour, they would interpret this as how to cope with sudden trauma - so I (mostly) kept consistent when I was around them, and let off steam when I was away from them.

• Looked after myself by taking time out, leaving them with loved ones.

• Did not become their slave, or allow what had happened to give them permission to behave badly. I tried to keep things normal, but without pretending nothing had happened.

• Continued to have regular check-ins with them about how they were feeling (although these days they tend to tell me to mind my own business).

• Created a non-judgy environment of openness and honesty, where nothing is taboo, and anything can be discussed - while maintaining boundaries around what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate.

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