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  • Writer's pictureAbi Gibbs

Both Sides Now

I have been wanting to add a post for several weeks, ultimately unsure what I wanted to say. Aside from this, I have admittedly had little energy or space available as I prepare for Finn's inquest.


It is now almost 12 weeks since my son Finn died by suicide.


This post is about contrasts; the darkness, and the light.


It holds a trigger warning.




The darkness and the light


When I was young, like many teenagers of the 90's, I covered my school exercise books in yin and yang signs. If unfamiliar to you, they represent life's opposites; darkness and light, feminine and masculine, negative and positive, which when combined, serve to compliment each other and create wholeness. At 16, I began writing a novel about two opposing worlds; one comprising everything beautiful, hopeful and joyful, one filled with utter darkness, fear and evil. Every few years since then, I add a little to this story. I now see the significance of this in relation to my own life, and how I was somehow internally attuned to the quote:

"The cracks are where the light gets in" (~ Rumi/Hemmingway/Cohen - depending on who you ask!). So much of my life has been about polarity. The opposites of life have fascinated me for many years - how joy and pain can visit you in the same day, hour or even minute; how love and hate are so extremely close to each other; how darkness and light can sit, holding hands like children, in the same space.


Now, as a Positive Psychologist, with a personal and family history of depression, I often try to explain Positive Psychology as an active, intentional searching for the cracks of light under the door. This has never been truer than it is in my life right now.



The Darkness


Yes... indeed, the dark elements to losing a child by suicide are as dark as you can possibly assume them to be. "I can't even begin to imagine", is something I hear a lot. Well....yes, maybe you can actually, but I do understand that even the beginning of the imagining is so deeply horrific, that your brain tells you not to go there. Unfortunately, those of us who share this journey had no choice but to go there. The worst happened to us, to our family. The unthinkable. No one ever thinks this will happen to them.


Sometimes, it does.


For those that 'can't begin to imagine', but want to - vividly imagine the smiling face of your beautiful child. The smell of them... their laugh. Now, remember the time when this beautiful child went out of your sight, maybe for a minute or two in a supermarket/busy street/playground. (This seems to be a fairly universal parental phenomenon). Remember the thudding in your chest...? The million scenarios about what's happened to them...? The panic..? Remember the pressure that builds up in your body with every second that passes...? That aching longing in every cell of you for them to just. Be. Found. Safely.


Now, imagine they aren't ever found safely...

Never.

Ever.

Coming.

Back.


Would you replay every last minute of that day? Yes... forever.

Would you blame yourself, even if you knew logically that it wasn't your fault? Yes... forever.

And depending on whether it was you who found them, and how they were found, would you imagine what those moments were like for them? Yes...forever.


Now, on top of that feeling, which is heavy enough, imagine that various people in your life now subconsciously thought you may be at fault in some way too. Or they just quietly stepped away.

Because they thought suicide might be contagious, perhaps?

Because they didn't know what to say to you, or even where to start?

Or just because they couldn't even begin to imagine.





The reality


On Friday 4th March 2022, on an ordinary morning, I woke up to find that my beautiful Finn had taken his own life at some point overnight. My partner and daughter had left early for work and school, something of which I am strangely grateful for. After cutting the dressing gown cord which my baby boy had used to take his life away, I immediately called the emergency services. I was alone in the house with my 6 week old baby daughter, who sat happily in a bouncy chair, looking at me.


As I waited for them to arrive, howling deep, guttural sounds on my kitchen floor like an animal, I was supported over the phone by the kind but unlucky operator to have received my call on this fateful day. "They'll be there soon, Abi....", she kept saying, desperation in her voice as she tried her very best to console me. She kept telling me to come out of his room, whilst I kept returning to take in the reality of my son's lifeless body.


Still there.


For the rest of the day, police officers, paramedics and eventually morgue assistants, came and went from our home. I sat in my pyjamas, answering their questions with shocked honesty as I stared at the floor. What was the day before like? Had he ever attempted suicide previously? Did you have any indication he may have been feeling this way?


They left before the school run.


"In the future, please try not to torture yourself with the guilt", the lovely, experienced paramedic said.


We were left to it, holding a booklet on suicide loss.


I didn't leave the house for the first 3 weeks. Whilst breastfeeding my new baby, I planned every detail of Finn's funeral arrangements. I did this with the rigorous, unrelenting intensity of my parenting towards him - I's dotted, T's crossed. I had many, many decisions to make, and very early on I decided clearly that the only way I could do this was to make every single decision from a place of what I knew Finn would have wanted. So this is what I did. Step by step, decision by decision.


I lost a stone in 7 days, despite the attempts of my family to encourage me to eat. I could also barely sleep for more than a few hours at a time. I moved from task to task, deciding, considering, informing, talking, breaking down, taking breaks, until all of the sickening and heart-wrenching decisions were made. Decisions which I had never considered before - decisions that no parent should ever have to consider.


The news broke across the school and local youth community before I was ready. Kids had been talking. Understandably, the decision had been made to hastily announce Finn's death before the date we had all agreed, and way before I felt ready. I was suddenly informed that people now knew. Publicly. My first reaction was utter, debilitating panic, and I moved rapidly around the house closing all the curtains and literally wanting to hide from the world. Fearful thoughts flooded my mind like a river that had burst its banks...

How would I ever remain living in the small town I love without being now known as 'the woman who lost her son to suicide'?

How would I bare the heavy weight of the stigma?

What would people think of me, of him, of us?

How would my living children be affected?

That evening, as I shook, curled up in a ball, anticipating the worst possible future for myself and my family, I suddenly made another very clear decision.


I would not wrap this event in shame.



The Light


The Joni Mitchell song "Both Sides Now" was my choice to accompany one of several videos of Finn's childhood at his Celebration of Life. I have always loved this song - it speaks to my love and affinity with polarity and change. It is also very fitting for a situation such as this - "love's illusions, life's illusions...I really don't know life at all".


Here, though, I want to own a space to tell you what is helping me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, as I am. I see these things like pillars, holding me up in a variety of ways across different aspects of my life. These are in addition to the gratitude and self-compassion already mentioned.


  1. Friends. Friends. Friends. I am extremely lucky to have a large, supportive network of people around me who despite not necessarily knowing what to say, leave me in no doubt that they care and want to understand. This has been invaluable. Equally as valuable has been my willingness to reach out to these people and tell them honestly how I'm feeling. Not, "I'm ok", not "Oh, I'm getting there", but the in's and out's of the day-to-day reality we are are living. I tell them facts, I tell them feelings, I ask about their complicated lives too, because, frankly, I'm not the only one in pain. I have been blown away by the care from my friends and work peers. Cards, text messages, phone calls, walks, flowers, meals, sentimental gifts, childcare, help with the Phoenix project garden... I cannot express how much this has made me feel valued, held in my pain, and heard. It is brave of these people to try, without any certainty of the right words, and I recognise that. As I keep saying, in this situation, you very quickly see people's intention to try....to show up. That's all that matters.

  2. Boundaries. Strong ones. Once you suddenly see people's intention, you see both sides. Some people are spectators. They want to attend the show. This is sad, but the truth...rather like those who drive slowly past a recent car accident but don't get out of the car to offer any help, even though they know they might be able to offer something useful. There are also those who want to tick a box by just 'checking in' - but you can feel underneath the words that they don't really want to know the painful reality. My response to this has been to distance myself from both the spectators and the box-tickers. I also try to understand that their response is not about me but themselves, and focus on the ones who have shown up more authentically. They are there, and sometimes, they are not the people you expect.

  3. Horticulture. Yes, I know... if you garden, you probably understand. If you don't, you can't imagine how it would help. With a kick start from a few friends and my wonderful partner, I have recently returned to my love of horticulture, and I don't mind admitting that for the first month or two I couldn't imagine ever gardening again. I had no enjoyment, no pleasure, no connection to the thing I have always turned to for my own healing. This is common in grief, partly as we have to re-establish a new version of ourselves. Thankfully, the new version of myself still includes horticulture, possibly even more strongly than it did before. Thanks to the UK's increase in gardening during lockdown, the many benefits of horticulture are becoming known in a more mainstream forum. I won't go into theory and research here (though this is vast and fascinating). Keeping my explanation grounded (pardon the pun); it helps me physically in my strength, flexibility and balance, having sunshine on my skin and breathing fresh air. It helps psychologically; giving distraction, increasing focus, helping me to keep perspective on life, giving purpose and meaning, and allowing me to nurture, which in turn, increases my own self care. It also helps me socially; I talk and connect with others and feel a sense of community. Oh, and it also provides organic, nutrient-rich food, which is helpful, because trauma depletes the body of vital vitamins which we need to ward off illness and fatigue.

  4. Spirituality. This is likely to raise a few eyebrows to those who know me. I have never subscribed to organised religion, but have always been quietly spiritual, whilst also healthily sceptical. I have had experiences over my life that I could not explain at the time, and since Finn's death, I have understood that there are many, many things we do not know about the universe. As I am not a quantum physicist, I cannot explain these things within what we know of science, but it is fair to say that my mind has opened beyond belief. I have read that an increased sense of spirituality is fairly common in grief, and goes hand in hand with post-traumatic growth. Before March I may have said that grief and trauma simply make us look at the world and try to make patterns. My experiences are not only much more than just patterns, much more than a few white feathers or the odd penny showing up. They have opened my mind to what we don't know... and what the Western world largely dismisses under a medical model of death. Allowing myself to be open to this has helped enormously.

  5. Mainstream medical stuff. I started taking a low level of anti-depressants fairly immediately. There is a significant mental health history in my family, and I have depression in my past. Whilst my mental health has been very stable for many years now, I know how quickly things can change, and I didn't want to take the risk of finding myself plummeting, so I brought this into my life as a kind of buffer. However, grief is not a mental illness - it is a natural reaction to significant loss. I have also started some counselling, which has helped enormously. I love counselling and therapy - I see it like attending the gym. We work out to make our bodies strong, not just when we are injured. I attend talking therapies to strengthen my psychological self, not simply when I am unwell. We need to stop seeing it as a 'fix' to a problem, because I honestly think the entire world would benefit from a bit of therapy. And, like the gym, it's about what you put in. If you sit in the gym playing on your phone for 50 minutes, you aren't going to lose weight or get fitter. If you hide from the darker feelings, or aren't honest with yourself in therapy, you are going to waste a precious hour of your own time, and make very little progress. Go there and dig deep.

  6. Allowing joy. This has been the most complex aspect for me this month. I have many sources of joy in my life. My amazing partner, my three living children, my hobbies, my friends, my hobbies, my work life. Yet one of the complexities of suicide loss is that due to the intense amounts of guilt felt by us all as survivors, we are often left feeling we don't deserve joy. We also feel shame when we do, judging ourselves and feeling judged by others. This is so, so unfair...why should we add to the incredible level of pain by then disallowing any tiny moments of being present within a positive feeling, too? I say lean into the pain (with support), absolutely, allow yourself to feel the darkness, but then, when you can, also allow yourself to lean into the light, even if at the moment, it's only a tiny crack under the door.



With authenticity,

Abi x


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