“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming” – The Forgotten Survivors

When Ingrid’s daughter died by suicide she couldn’t imagine the trauma that would face her. Today Luke Hastings exclusively reveals the impact of suicide bereavement after the Health Select Committee recommended new measures of after-care for families left behind.

Michelle was 28 years-old. Her mother Ingrid von Hunnius says she was “bright and intelligent” after graduating with a master’s degree in Biochemistry.

Ingrid recalls the night they stayed up until the early hours of the morning partying before Michelle left for a trip abroad to work in India.

She then points to a photograph of Michelle on the mantelpiece. Ingrid’s next words are heartbreaking: “Six months later, she was dead.”

Michelle died by suicide after overdosing on pills prescribed to treat her depression when she returned home from India.

A picture of Michelle. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

It was then that Ingrid’s “hugely traumatic” experience began.

“I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not just one emotion. It’s shock. It’s sheer terror. It’s indescribable.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief.

“It felt like somebody had hit me in the solar plexus. It stunned me really. You go beside yourself. You’ve never really experienced anything like it. I think you get put onto the baseline of survival,” she says.

Ingrid explains she felt isolated and lost in society, depressed by the stigma that faces those who are bereaved by suicide.

“I find that with the general public or with friends I can’t fully express myself because she’s still part of me. I don’t bring her up because people don’t talk about bereavement by suicide,” she says.

With no postvention support, Ingrid was then left feeling suicidal.

“I had this sense that I was walking around this dark hole and I could just slip into it. One day it occurred to me that if I took a lot of tablets I could get into that dark hole, because I thought Michelle was in there,” she says.

A painting of Michelle, which sits on the wall in Ingrid’s home. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

Now, the Health Select Committee has recommended new after-care measures for those like Ingrid – the forgotten survivors of suicide.

This follows the committee’s four-month inquiry into suicide prevention. The committee’s interim report, released in December, suggests more primary and secondary support for the families left behind after suicide.

The report says those bereaved by suicide are “not entitled to any support” or a family liaison officer, which would be standard practice in many other causes of death.

The full report will be released at the end of this month with complete details of the support the committee recommends.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw was part of the inquiry and says those bereaved by suicide are “left to fend for themselves”.

“We (the Health Select Committee) feel very strongly that there’s not enough support for families. There’s not a consistent enough approach across the country in the way that families are helped and supported,” he says.

The committee’s MPs aren’t alone in feeling there’s not enough support. According to an exclusive Guardian survey a resounding 97% of people don’t think families bereaved by suicide are given enough help.

The committee’s report called suicide rates “unacceptable” and the Samaritans say a person takes their own life every 90 minutes in the UK.

After suicide, the Office for National Statistics found that between six and ten ‘survivors’ are left behind, meaning up to 61,000 people are bereaved by suicide every year.

Those loved ones are three times more likely to take their own lives, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Mara Grunau, Executive Director at the Centre for Suicide Prevention, Canada. Photograph: Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Mara Grunau is the Executive Director at the centre, which is based in Canada. They have the largest collection of suicide research in the world.

She explains there’s “no grief like suicide grief” and says that “postvention is critical prevention”.

Mara also says research from the centre confirms those bereaved by suicide feel “shunned,” leaving their grief “un-dealt with”.

The Guardian survey reveals over three-quarters of people believe there’s a stigma around suicide bereavement in the UK.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) say that the insensitive use of language adds to that stigma.

According to the Guardian survey, 60% of the general public would say a person ‘committed suicide’ – even though the term ‘died by suicide’ is recommended.

SOBS play a significant part in many survivor’s lives, including Ingrid. After being unable to find any suicide postvention support, Ingrid teamed up with the charity to start her own support group in Bournemouth.

Ingrid calls the group a “family”. However, she believes there’s even a stigma around attending a support group for suicide bereavement.

“A group is like someone touching your hand, it pulls you out of that dark hole, but the stigma around it stops you putting out that hand,” she explains.

Ingrid says that her own children even believe it’s “bizarre and sick” that she runs the group.

Stigma isn’t the only issue with support groups, as SOBS groups only run once a month, which can be a problem for many who need more help.

Halani Foulsham had to wait 30 days to attend a group after “having a bomb dropped on her life” when her mother died by suicide in 2014.

Halani looking up to her mother. Photograph: Halani Foulsham.

Halani is the founder of Thought Climber, who have recently released the ‘After Journal,’ a one-of-a-kind interactive and creative book to help those who have been bereaved by suicide to get through their grief.

“The hope is that the journal has shared experience of others to help and is a campaign tool to say we need people to listen. Suicide is a social epidemic. We need to tackle the rampant stigma,” she says.

Following the Health Select Committee report, Halani says she’s concerned that even if there’s more support available in the future, it “won’t mean much” if people don’t know it exists. She says this is a big problem in her experiences with current services.

Ingrid and Halani are not alone in trying to make a difference to postvention, which currently fails bereaved families.

Shirley Smith lost her “normal, bright and witty” 19-year-old son Daniel to suicide in 2005.

She believes the new report is a “huge step” in bringing suicide postvention into the forefront of the political spectrum. However, she’s wary that the report could be “just noise”.

Shirley Smith, founder of ‘If U Care Share,’ was bereaved by suicide in 2005.

Following the death of her son, she founded the charity ‘If U Care Share’ alongside her children who were left “devastated”.

The Health Select Committee mentioned Shirley’s Durham-based foundation in their report, as they’ve pioneered a system in England to help those who are bereaved by suicide.

Working closely with Durham Public Health D.C.C, they provide a 48-hour service to the survivors left behind after a suicide in the area, helping them with everything from emotional support to how to deal with the coroner’s inquest.

The system is based on a model from Northern Ireland by Barry McGale and since it started in September 2014, the service has helped 94 people to get through the aftermath of their tragedy.

Shirley believes her charity’s system is “critical” for those who have lost a loved one through suicide and says it should be funded nationwide.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief” – Ingrid von Hunnius

Durham’s Labour MP Kevan Jones believes similar arrangements to the ‘If U Care Share’ system will need to be put in place if the newly proposed support is to work.

He thinks the report is a “very important” step in the right direction and stresses there needs to be “clear pathways” for those bereaved by suicide to get support.

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb. Photograph: Flickr Creative Commons.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary Norman Lamb thinks there should be a consistent national support network in place. He says current services are “wholly inadequate”.

The North Norfolk MP had his own experience with being bereaved by suicide after the loss of his sister in 2015.

He believes it’s “incredibly important” that the government fund new support services and allow third-party voluntary organisations to run them.

“People find it impossible to move on after a suicide. There’s often a lot of guilt and sometimes anger. The net effect of those emotions is that the person becomes quite trapped.

“Ensuring that someone has access to counselling and support is critical,” he says.

Conservative MP Charles Walker is the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Suicide Prevention and says he’s concerned about the current lack of suicide postvention support.

However, he’s worried further funding will be unlikely due to economical restrictions.

Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates thinks it’s “pathetic” that the government use austerity as an excuse for not providing suicide postvention support.

Paul attempted to take his own life at the age of 17 and is now a mental health expert, working alongside the NHS supporting people who suffer with mental health conditions, including those bereaved by suicide.

Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates. Photograph: Paul Scates.

Paul believes we are “letting people down” when they are “left with nothing” and adds that it “doesn’t cost much” to team those affected by suicide bereavement up with experts like himself.

He also thinks the new report is “vague” and is concerned it will simply be “lip service”.

For now, the families left behind after suicide will have to wait and see if the government will accept the recommendations made by the Health Select Committee. Four years ago, the same committee released a similar report. However, critics including Halani Foulsham and Shirley Smith said it resulted in very little being done.

Perhaps now the tide is turning. As well as the Health Select Committee’s inquiry into suicide, Public Health England recently released their guide to providing local services to those bereaved by suicide and Theresa May said the government will tackle suicide last week.

We will find out soon if the government will take action and more after-care will be provided for the forgotten survivors of suicide.

VIEW – The full layout of this investigation, made as if it would go into the Guardian newspaper: https://indd.adobe.com/view/ee840b6c-e149-4101-8c8c-cdb60d4b0378

LISTEN – An exclusive interview with suicide attempt survivor Jonny Benjamin.

WATCH – Exclusive interviews from Maytree suicide sanctuary.

READ MORE – Read more about suicide bereavement, as the investigation meets Lin, a woman bereaved by the suicide of her husband: https://theforgottensurvivors.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/lin-story/

Why saying ‘committed suicide’ adds to stigma

If we are to remove the stigma around suicide – we have to start with the language we use around it.

That’s according to interviewees in The Forgotten Survivors investigation, such as Mara Grunau from the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Canada.

She says we must change the way we refer to suicide to break down the stigma around it.

That thought is echoed by Natalie Howarth from Maytree suicide sanctuary.

An exclusive survey carried out by the investigation found that after hearing of a suicide, 60% of people said they would refer to it as ‘committing’ suicide as opposed to the correct terms which are: took their own life (30%) or died by suicide (10%).

A Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) group in Suffolk started a petition in August 2015 which got over 2000 signatures, to try and ban the term ‘committed suicide’ as it implies suicide is a crime.

SOBS are a charity who are aiming to set-up suicide bereavement support groups across the UK. They also have a national helpline – 0300 111 5065. It’s open between 9am and 9pm every day.

The term does literally imply the person has ‘committed’ a crime, which they would have been up until the Suicide Act 1961 where suicide was decriminalised.

Our law has moved on and now many charities across the UK (including SOBS) are trying to spread awareness to change the language we use to describe a suicide.

You can view the history of suicide, which takes you through why the word commit is used alongside suicide, in an interactive timeline here.

You can also follow the investigation on Twitter and Facebook to get regular updates.

Another big step: Meeting Ingrid

After meeting Lin, I was intrigued to meet more people who had been bereaved by suicide.

That led me to visiting Christchurch in Dorset to meet Ingrid, a woman bereaved by the suicide of her daughter Michelle.

Michelle died eight years ago after overdosing on prescribed pills following a battle with depression.

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In a very emotional three hour interview, Ingrid told of her “terror” following the loss of her daughter.

Now volunteering as a facilitator of a SOBs support group in Bournemouth, Ingrid is working to try and help others to get through the loss of a loved one by suicide.

It was a very tough interview, as Ingrid fought through tears to tell her story and speak about the support group she calls “family”.

Read what Ingrid had to say as she battled to get out of the “dark hole” she was left in which led her to contemplating taking her own life, in The Forgotten Survivors investigation – coming soon.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Find a suicide bereavement support group near you

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) are a charity who provide support groups around the country for people bereaved by suicide.

If you’ve been bereaved in this way, a support group may help you to try and move past your tragedy by talking it through with others in the same situation.

They don’t work for everyone, but here’s an interactive map so you can find a SOBS group near you…


(Map replicated and edited from http://uk-sobs.org.uk/)