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A husband’s suicide

30 November, 1999

When Sarah McCarthy’s husband committed suicide, it was the news that she both dreaded and expected. She tells John Scally about the pain of loss and how her faith has supported her through the dark days.

I attended a small one-teacher national school in the West of Ireland. Yet, small though that school was, two of my fellow students have since taken their own lives. They were both young men who appeared to have so much to live for, but in their last few days obviously felt they had not enough. How can one make sense of that which defies all sense? All I can do is pay heed to St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians. “There must be no passing of premature judgement. Leave that until the Lord comes. He will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of peoples’ hearts.”

In a new book, A Voice for those Bereaved by Suicide, published by Veritas, Sarah McCarthy recalls her husband’s death through suicide. Sarah married when she was very young and early in her marriage discovered that her husband had a side to him she had not previously detected.

“Being a high achiever, my late husband always strove for perfection, and became frustrated, angry, impatient and intolerant when any signs of imperfection were detectable in anything or in anyone, especially in himself,” Sarah recalls.

“Soon after our wedding, another side of my husband emerged. It was a controlling, aggressive side, which chilled me to the bone. He didn’t want me to go out without him and he didn’t want my friends in the house. Nothing I did was right and every day it seemed as if I walked on eggshells in case I’d upset him.”

Rapid deterioration

“I overcame my reservations about not speaking openly about my husband and made an appointment to talk with a local clergyman. He gave me the time and space that enabled me to stand back from the situation and gain a wider perspective on everything. Through my meetings with him, I became strong again and more focused.

“After finding my confidence and renewed awareness, I spoke with our general practitioner, close friends and work colleagues of my husband. In fact, I knocked on every door that I felt I could get help from. The response was always the same. I was told that unless my husband sought help for himself, then there was nothing that could be done.

“I’d regularly find empty and full bottles of alcohol hidden around the house and in the car. My husband no longer wanted to eat with us or even be in the same room. Often, he’d lock himself in his study and demand that his meals be left outside the door. All pleading fell on deaf ears, and in my heart I knew that disaster lay ahead. Events were out of control, and all I could do was hope and pray that God would help and guide me. My husband’s rages and outbursts became more and more alarming. He’d kick holes in doors, smash up furniture and empty turf bags around the home.”

Fateful day

“When my husband died, he was only in his 30s and the children’s ages ranged from 10 to two years. To the outside world, it seemed as if he had everything to live for. He had his physical health, he had a wife and four beautiful children, two boys and two girls. He was at the top of his profession, and commanded a salary that ensured a very comfortable lifestyle.

“It was a shattering experience. It was news that I had been both dreading and preparing myself to receive for some time. It turned my life upside down and changed it forever.

“When I heard the news, I could feel fear rising inside of me. I replaced the receiver, and a wave of blind panic swept over me. My heart started to pound, my mouth became dry and my breath left me. I felt dizzy and wanted to be sick. As the seconds ticked by, terrible images began to flash through my mind. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness overwhelmed me, and I longed to be able to turn the clock back and have a different outcome.

“I scanned the faces of my four small children and tried desperately to find the sensible and necessary words to tell them that their daddy was dead. In order to comfort them, I told them to think of their father as being safe and warm with God. I made a silent promise to rear them in love to the very best of my ability, and to help them overcome the tragedy in their young lives.”

Not always easy

There seems to be a natural reaction from well-intentioned people who wish to comfort the bereaved, to assume a teacher-student posture and to give advice. Such advice can often seem incomprehensible and arrogant to a grieving person. In the shock of loss, the bereaved develop finely tuned antenna for picking up platitudes, which are meant as condolences, but are often perceived as being insults or even self-serving condescendence. Mourning can be a time when the cruellest things are said.

Helpful advice

“There is nothing more uplifting for those who are left feeling despondent, disillusioned and distraught following the suicide of a loved one than to have someone who radiates light into their darkened world. When clergy, relatives, friends and colleagues visit a household recently bereaved by suicide, they bring with them not only the warmth of human kindness but also the light of hope.

“I was left struggling in my attempts to make sense of my husband’s seemingly meaningless and senseless act. I felt abandoned, as if I was part of an atrocity against the very sacredness of life itself. People who took the time to offer support, guidance, understanding and acceptance during these early sages of grief are recalled with a special gratitude. I remember all who came to the house, and all who didn’t come.

“While it is never easy to witness pain and suffering in others, or even to know how best to approach those in grief without either saying or doing something to cause further upset, it is possible to make the pain of those in grief a little easier,” Sarah says.

“While a conventional expression of sympathy can’t be avoided, it is better to offer it quietly, saying ‘I’m sorry for your troubles’ and then to speak from the heart, avoiding cliches and taking cues from the bereaved themselves. Crying and talking brings thoughts and feelings to the surface and releases them.”

Not judgmental

“As a child, I learnt with sadness about Jesus; his life, his suffering and his death. It did not make any sense to me that he had to suffer for our sins and that his death on the cross somehow held meaning and hope for all of mankind. Now, after experiencing my own small suffering, I could identify more with the life and meaning of Jesus. I could identify with his longing to be heard, his frustrations, his aching for human company to watch with him through a night of pain and anguish, and how his love for innocent children made him a magnet for them. But mostly and mainly, I finally understood why Jesus came to earth, and how his actions and death were for each and every one of us. To see ourselves as being separate from God and from each other is an illusion. We are all connected to one another, and if someone performs an unkind act, then it, too, has an effect on us all.”

This article first appeared in Reality a magazine of the Irish Redemptorists.

Sarah has not passed judgement on her husband, but has commended him in his life and death to the mercy of God. Her faith was a support to her in the dark days and it has been enriched by adversity.Sarah has plenty of advice for those who would like to help a friend who has experienced a bereavement through suicide.It was not always easy. Feelings of shame following a suicide leave the bereaved hiding from the brutalities of their existence by remaining in the safety zone of their own homes, curtains drawn and curled up in the foetal position in an armchair, sofa or even in bed. They feel accused in the eyes of others while their relationship with the deceased is held up for public scrutiny. They can also experience the attribution of blame intensely and feel exposed and ashamed in their loneliness.Fifteen years on Sarah and her children have made a good recovery, but the memory of the fateful day will never leave her.Things deteriorated alarmingly when Sarah’s husband started drinking heavily. “The turning point for me came when my husband’s drinking became so out of hand that he’d pass out and not remember where he’d been or where he was. He was arrested for drunk driving and his outbursts frightened the children. He began to threaten suicide as, according to him, ‘Life was just far too difficult.’