How I Came To Terms With Losing Someone To Suicide

Go big or go home – that was the poignant advice THE GLOSS contributing editor PENNY MCCORMICK got from her friend Richard, shortly before he TOOK HIS OWN LIFE. When an adult commits suicide, it’s not only family WHO ARE AFFECTED

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I’d like to say that I’ve spent most of my New Year’s Eves at fabulous parties – but the truth is it’s usually in front of the television, watching firework displays from around the world. Last year I ditched the PJs and donned my sequins to party in the Bahamas, dancing in the moonlight, at the colonial Old Fort Bay Club. The theme was 1970s, the mood was camp and the company fun: among the guests was my friend Richard.

Quite how I wound up there is another story. At the time, I was working for a couple, whom I nicknamed Liz and Dick (after Taylor and Burton) the reason being there was plenty of drama as well as diamonds in their orbit. I was their temporary PA, Richard their butler. Yes, it was a modern Downton Abbey meets The Devil Wears Prada. My daily tasks included tracking orders at Charvet, cataloguing a bulging couture wardrobe and organising parties; Richard never seemed to stop editing menus, plumping cushions, discussing placement and doing inventories of table linen and settings. We both decided that The Ritz could call on us if they ever ran out of either.

The tension was broken by our mutual sense of humour at the more bizarre requests, of which there were many. Richard’s wit was borne of a lifetime in the service of so-called high net worth individuals. He’d worked for Waspy Manhattanites, Palm Beach heiresses and latterly Celine Dion. Apparently she sings all the time at home – enough to drive anyone mad – and I loved to hear his stories.

Current data indicates Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate in the EU, while in the US the number of deaths by suicide has surpassed those from car crashes. Both are shocking statistics.

Richard was far from the sardonic Carson though. He was the cheerleader to a 75-strong staff, including two resident medics, as we flew between Liz and Dick’s homes in LA, Gstaad, Bahamas and Tuscany. We shared the same interests – film, food, fashion and architecture, about all of which he had an encyclopedic knowledge.

Looking at the photos now, I can’t quite believe he’s dead. Barely seven months after dancing to Sister Sledge he had decided that “enough is enough” and died by his own hand. Sadly, it’s a growing phenomenon these days – most of my friends know of someone who has committed suicide. Current data indicates Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate in the EU, while in the US the number of deaths by suicide has surpassed those from car crashes. Both are shocking statistics.

Of course the question all of us ask is why? Outwardly, Richard was wise, philosophical and had by his own admission been in therapy for years. I thought this meant he had his personal demons under control.

Along with his shattered dreams, being suddenly single again seemed to equate with a loss of hope. Aware that he was in a state of grief, we began to email nearly every day.

If I trace his demise, I guess it really started with the unexpected ending of his long-term relationship in April of last year (which had lasted 16 years). At 58, he’d planned to retire soon with his partner and live in contented bliss. They’d bought a lot of properties and hoped to earn a nice little pension on rental income. Along with his shattered dreams, being suddenly single again seemed to equate with a loss of hope. Aware that he was in a state of grief, we began to email nearly every day. I empathised with his heartbreak and shared similar stories of what I called typical Virgo man behaviour. If I’ve learned anything from romantic disappointment it’s this; the heart is a self-healing muscle that needs nurturing to recover and I tried to encourage Richard to give himself time.

He decided to leave Liz and Dick, as I had done several months previously, and take an extended professional break. I wasn’t sure if this was the best plan for him at the time. The brain can be a weapon of mass destruction when left idle. When I spoke to him he would at first seem chipper but then would always descend into despair. I encouraged him to go to see a doctor, or perhaps try EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) treatment which I had read helps to reduce the impact of traumatic events. He wrote to me at length and I realised this was in itself therapeutic. Yes, he did mention he’d never been so depressed before but we were both of the opinion that anti-depressants are a short-term fix. Little did I know he was bipolar and in need of something much stronger.

One sunny morning in late August I woke up to a goodbye email I’ll never forget. I immediately tried to contact him and his family, and he was tracked down after a nerve-wracking 24 hours (via his mobile phone signal) just in time after an overdose. While his family and I heaved a collective sigh of relief, I was not so naïve to think the worst was over.

One sunny morning in late August I woke up to a goodbye email I’ll never forget. I immediately tried to contact him and his family, and he was tracked down after a nerve-wracking 24 hours (via his mobile phone signal) just in time after an overdose.

Some suicide bids are a cry for help, not a statement of intent as this proved to be. Richard was initially apologetic that he’d caused us all so much anxiety, and was also reassuring. He realised how much he was loved and convinced us that he would start again. He enrolled on a course in international real estate, joined a gym, got a personal trainer and moved back in with his extended family who cooked for him and kept a watchful eye on him.

Barely three weeks after his first attempt though, Richard took his own life and this time he succeeded. I woke up to this heartbreaking news in early September. (Ironically he took his own life on a Wednesday – I’ve since read that it is the one day of the week when suicides spike). Since then I’ve been through the stages of grief; shock, denial, anger and finally acknowledgement. I have to say I got stuck on anger for quite a while, and wondered why he had been released from hospital barely 48 hours after his initial attempt. His family, meanwhile, were annoyed with him – that they had somehow been duped into thinking he was alright. There was no note this time around; I guess he had said everything and nothing had changed, save for the details of his burial. He wanted a simple cremation with no funeral.

Denied a proper “send-off”, Richard’s stunned friends, colleagues, family and I have all coped in different ways. I find it difficult to re-read his emails without wondering if I could have done something to prevent this outcome. In the last week of his life he had become more accepting of his situation. Had I known this was a clue to his real mental state, I could have alerted his doctor. Apparently suicide victims literally “sign off” and put their houses in order by writing to friends in eery serene, detached voices. Was I too busy or eager for him to feel better to miss the signs? I asked the expert Sally Brampton, agony aunt of The Sunday Times. “Of course people feel guilty, because they believe they should or could have stopped it. Nobody can stop an illness. It is rather like believing we should be able to attack a tumour or cancer and if we haven’t, we have failed or are somehow at fault.”

Had I known this was a clue to his real mental state, I could have alerted his doctor. Apparently suicide victims literally “sign off” and put their houses in order by writing to friends in eery serene, detached voices.

Brampton suggests that those people who are left behind do not personalise the situation. Easier said than done. I’ve found it’s not an easy subject to talk about with others. With such a stigma attached to it, the subject of suicide can often be met with tight-lipped silence, or embarrassment and a sense of shame, especially among the older generation.

A barrister friend told me how her cousin hanged himself in his early 20s. Her aunt and uncle never mention his name. His memory, like his life, has been expunged entirely and the void created by his untimely death is what my friend calls, “the elephant in the room”, never discussed on family visits.

It would appear suicide knows no “normal” common denominators such as class, education or professional background. According to the National Office for Suicide Prevention’s Annual Report, there is however a tendency for more men to take their own lives than women, with the highest rate recorded among 20-29-year-old men, followed by 40-49-year-old men, and for women aged 50-59.

It is not an act of cowardice (how I hate that thinking) and nor is it selfish. I always think of it as the end of a harsh and terrible illness, very bravely fought.

I know of two male doctors in the middle category, who surely would have had all the knowledge and help they needed at their fingertips, who committed suicide. Meanwhile another friend is currently visiting a teaching colleague in hospital, on suicide watch. She tried to jump out of her bedroom window – with her husband and young child in the house at the time. My friend says, “Although she knows what she’s done is dreadful, I can’t help feeling she will try again, even though she is being monitored every 15 minutes.” It’s hard to know who is suffering most in this scenario – the family or the patient.

Brampton comments, “I think the first thing to remember is that suicidal thinking is a symptom of depression, just as a high fever is a symptom of any other illness. It is not an
act of cowardice (how I hate that thinking) and nor is it selfish. I always think of it as the end of a harsh and terrible illness, very bravely fought.”

The high-profile cases of Kurt Cobain, Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen reiterate the inescapable fact that fame, fortune and fashion do not shield anyone from the depths of depression.

While it’s taken me a long time to get over the whys and the hows, I do recognise that it took a lot of courage to see this decision through.

As for the eternal “why” question, perhaps Stephen Fry sums it up best. He tried to take his own life in 2012 via a cocktail of pills and vodka. “There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life.”

Brampton is adamant, “the more open we are about suicide, the more it can be faced with some sort of equanimity – if one can say that about any sudden death.” While it’s taken me a long time to get over the whys and the hows (Richard’s final exit strategy was of a kamikaze nature involving a knife), I do recognise that it took a lot of courage to see this decision through.

Memories surface and are now tinged with gratitude, rather than remorse. There was always a lot of laughter, kindness and respect when Richard was around. I remember us burning up the dance floor, and on other occasions comparing notes on dinner services we liked or sharing a last meal together on Sunset Boulevard in LA, with him encouraging me to be bold in matters of the heart. Ironically, his motto was always “Go Big or Go Home”. On New Year’s Eve, I raised a toast to a man I feel proud to have called a friend.

Penny McCormick

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our September issue, out Saturday September 3.

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