Monday 18 December 2017

'I still search for a reason behind Padraic's death. But there is life after suicide'

Jean Casey O’Kelly.
Jean Casey O’Kelly.

NOTHING I had learned before that day had prepared me for it. Nothing I've learned since has shown me why it happened. What I do know is that the events that occurred on August 13, 1977, were, for me, traumatic in the extreme.

Between that day and now there have been countless sleepless nights, oceans of tears, a thousand re-enactments and always the question: Why?

The year 1977 had many similarities to the seven years that had already passed since Padraic and I had married. We were a little more comfortable than before, we had a slightly bigger house than before, Padraic had a more responsible job than before, and our three daughters were getting more and more lovely by the day.

More importantly, Padraic and I were even more in love than before and, to our delight, February of the following year would see the arrival of our fourth child.

Happy days. Or so I thought.

On August 13, our world collapsed. It was a Saturday. I had been out shopping with our two older children. When I returned I discovered our bedroom door was locked from the inside – something that was not normally done.

I knew something was wrong so I called the police. They forced open the door and found Padraic dead on the bedroom floor. He had shot himself with a legally held rifle he used in his gun club.

Padraic left a note for me on the dressing table. He had written just three lines.

I'm sorry darling Jean,

I've always loved you,

Pray for me

Padraic was 29 years old when he took his own life. In the weeks before his death he had become anxious about the business he managed, and in the few days immediately beforehand, had become so distressed about work he stopped eating. I asked him to talk about his problems with my father, who was in the same business, but he didn't want to talk to anyone. He said he would work things out himself.

I was shocked and devastated by Padraic's death, and for a long time found it hard to believe that it had even happened. I was glad I was pregnant. I felt there was still part of him around. It wasn't until Una was born the following February that I began to accept the reality that Padraic was gone.

For a long time I desperately wanted to talk with others about Padraic's death, but nobody seemed able to listen. At that time, suicide was a criminal offence and I could feel people's embarrassment at talking about it.

If they did speak about it, it was usually in hushed tones. Or they would offer well-intentioned, but useless, guidance such as, "Don't be talking about it, you'll only upset yourself." Or they'd say, "Aren't you lucky to have the children to comfort you."

Yes, I did have the children, and they were indeed a great comfort – and yes, I did get upset when I discussed Padraic's death. But I needed – desperately – to talk about it.

I wanted to analyse every aspect of his suicide and my head was bursting with questions. I wanted to know why he did it? Could I have prevented it? Did he do it because I didn't love him enough? Was it because he didn't love the children or me enough?

I know today that I was experiencing the terrible isolation that all those bereaved by suicide go through, and I was also feeling all the emotions of guilt, shame, denial, fear, etc. that are normally associated with suicide.

I also understand now that people bereaved by suicide have a very real need to talk and share their feelings with people who are similarly bereaved.

I told the children about their father's death right away – but not that he had taken his own life. I told them each individually about the suicide when they were 12 years old.

For me, Padraic's suicide was beyond understanding. We had a good marriage and both of us were very happy about the baby that was on the way. I knew he was distressed about work, but I never thought for a moment that he would take his own life.

Some years later, my search for an understanding of Padraic's death brought me into training as a counsellor and psychotherapist. I qualified in 1994.

During that time, I campaigned for the decriminalisation of suicide and I also helped establish the first suicide bereavement groups in Dublin and around the country.

These activities not only kept me busy at a time when I needed to be active rather than contemplative, they also helped me feel that I was salvaging something positive from Padraic's death. The motivation behind setting up the suicide bereavement groups was to ensure that as few people as possible would have to endure the awful isolation I felt following Padraic's death.

Today I run a private counselling practice, and in addition to counselling couples and individuals on general areas such as relationships, stress, and depression, I also counsel people bereaved by suicide and homicide.

Every single day, around 50 people in Ireland are directly affected by suicide – yet only a fraction of these reach out for the support available to them. The reason is simple: Despite being decriminalised, there is still a stigma attached to suicide. Many people are still ashamed of having a suicide in the family.

I believe it is up to those of us who have experienced the benefits of sharing with another person bereaved by suicide to encourage the newly bereaved to reach out for the support that is now there for them: to encourage them not to feel isolated, to allow them talk about their loss, their anger and their terrible, terrible sadness.

Despite my training, and the years of working with others similarly bereaved, I still search for a reason behind Padraic's death. And I will always, I believe, continue to experience the occasional wave of overwhelming sadness.

One learns to live with, rather than get over, such a loss. In much the same way as a serious wound leaves a scar, the pain of suicide bereavement is never completely forgotten – we just learn to accommodate it.

Suicide is not a new problem. Every religion, every culture and every nation has struggled to come to terms with it. None has managed to stop it happening.

For those bereaved by suicide, the most important lesson to learn is that there is life after suicide. That one's hopes and dreams don't have to die with the suicide. That there is light beyond the terrible darkness of grief.

The Argus

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