That Wednesday, I was teaching on the Diploma in Counselling as usual. It was January – one of those afternoons where the day slides slowly towards darkness. Wednesday was the day for the Personal Development group (PD).

It’s funny how you can be doing something normal – that is, of course, if you count PD as normal – yet, 100 miles away, something so significant is happening that will change you, change how you think, change everything.

But, I didn’t know that yet.

The following morning, I went out for a run. I think it was a fast run that day, round the Downs in Bristol. Even in the grey mornings of January, it feels great. I’d only been back for a few seconds when the phone rang. It was the mother of the girlfriend of one of my sons, Rowan. ‘Do you know how Rowan is?’ ‘No,’ I said. I’d not heard from him in days; probably a couple of weeks to be honest. He was a typical boy at university, didn’t even text much. I was puzzled. I texted him, emailed him. Made my wife a cup of coffee. Had she heard from him? ‘No.’

You don’t think, do you?

I work from home and had an early client, so, after a quick shower, it was straight into my counselling room. I can’t recall much of the session. But something was nagging at me: why had she phoned me? I was relieved when I finished so I could check my messages. Nothing. My wife had gone to work and I contacted her; she’d heard nothing either. I emailed my other son: had he heard anything? And my daughter: had she heard anything? But I was still worried, so I phoned the mother back. Why was she asking about Rowan? Apparently his girlfriend was on a placement abroad and had contacted her mother to say she was concerned for him, and they thought he might be in hospital.

Why hadn’t she said that earlier? Why hadn’t I asked questions earlier? In hospital? Which one? She didn’t know.

I never thought I’d be phoning around hospitals, asking ‘Is my son there?’ And, of course, he’s an adult, so the staff were very cagey about giving out information. However, I finally found the right hospital and the person who answered was able to tell me they had admitted someone by that name, and they could put me through to the ward. But the ward didn’t want to tell me anything. They would go and check to see if he wanted to talk to me.

What? To see if he wanted to talk to me? I’m his father, I love him. Of course he wants to talk to me, why wouldn’t he?

He did come. It was awkward at first, he didn’t want to say much, but I asked why he was there. He’d had an accident the previous summer when he angrily punched some glass and cut his hand badly. Had he done that again? ‘No.’

So what had happened? He’d taken some paracetamol.

Everything really does go into slow motion. My mouth went dry, I could feel my brain computing things very, very slowly. ‘Paracetamol?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How much?’ ‘Forty tablets.’

You don’t take 40 paracetamol by accident.

I’m a professional. I can do this. I ask clients if they’re feeling suicidal all the time. But this was my son. I think I choked on the words: ‘Were you meaning to kill yourself?’

‘Yes.’

I tried to persuade him to let me come up to see him. He didn’t want me to come. I was numb, confused. He didn’t want me to come? I hung on in there. I wanted to see him. I had to persuade hard. I got him to agree that I could drive up and see him. But I had clients. I cancelled them for that day and the next in an absolute blur of text and email. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to any of them; I’m not sure what I would have said.

Guilt and fear

I contacted my wife. She wanted to come too. Of course she did. But it took her a short while to come home. We both packed an overnight bag. My wife is an ex-nurse; she knows what paracetamol can do. She’s had patients who have woken up after an attempt to kill themselves and has had to tell them that they have done irreversible damage to their kidneys and are going to die in a few days. We might get there and find that he was still going to die. Tears didn’t come, but they were there. Big, huge ones, poised, waiting to burst. And guilt. I teach about suicide to students, and bereavement by suicide. I’ve run bereavement by suicide groups, had clients with suicidal thoughts and ideation. I could help them, so why hadn’t I seen it in my son? What sort of a counsellor was I? What sort of a teacher was I?

He’d phoned us the previous week. Only a week or so earlier, he’d gone back after the Christmas holidays. He was thinking of deferring from his course for a year. We talked, supportively. He told us he’d been depressed for some time, since the previous September, he thought. And he’d not said anything. He’d seen his university GP just before Christmas and been prescribed medication, which he’d started taking. But he’d done almost no revision for his exams. He deferred the Monday before his suicide attempt. We had thought everything was OK. He could find some work, and things would calm down for him.

But as I was sitting in that PD group, he was working his way through boxes of paracetamol. It is so easy to go round a series of chemists and buy lots of paracetamol, and it is so cheap. Forty would be a couple of pounds at the most. A life for a couple of pounds. He’d sat in his room in his digs, alone, and begun taking them. One of his friends came in. She clearly realised something was going on. She asked him if he wanted to go to hospital. He said no. She asked if she could phone for an ambulance; he said no. She asked again. I’ve no idea how long this all took, but it wasn’t quick. She eventually persuaded him to let her book a taxi to take them both to the hospital. A taxi to save his life? No flashing lights, but traffic lights and slow-moving, rush-hour traffic. And his body was pumping the paracetamol through his system, while I was sitting in PD.

We finally arrived and parked opposite the hospital. Then we realised we still had to wait for visiting hours at 6.00pm. You have to wait for visiting hours to see your son who has almost killed himself and who may be dying!

Finally, we got in and found the ward. Holding him in my arms, I burst into tears. I didn’t want to let him go. I was pretty incoherent, rambling. I think I told him several times how much I loved him. How glad I was that he was alive. Did I say anything more meaningful in those moments? I really don’t know.

Finally, he sat back on the bed and we sat around him. The friend who brought him in was there. I was so grateful to her, so desperately wanting to say, over and over, thank you, thank you. After a short while, she left and we had some time with him. Not long, because visiting hours stopped at 8.00pm – even if your son has attempted suicide. I think the staff kindly let us have an extra 10 minutes or so.

No, he didn’t want to tell us what had happened. No, he didn’t want to tell us why. If we got anywhere remotely close to his feelings, the reasons, what was going on, he’d stop talking or change the subject. It was agonising to sit there, desperately thinking of things to say, to keep talking, to keep communicating with him when the things I was crying out to ask were off limits. And all I wanted to do was keep on touching him, hugging him, telling him how much I loved him. How life would be desolate, broken without him. How devastated I would be. But I don’t think I said much of that at all. My wife is really good at conversation, and I think she did a lot of it. I’m an introvert, so naturally I want to talk at depth, but that wasn’t allowed. I could ask about Newcastle, his football team, and maybe lament their lack of success, but I couldn’t lament over him.

Survival strategy

We finally left. I was shaking more and more each step we took away from him. I didn’t want to be separated from him at all. Each step was more and more painful. But at least we had been reassured. Apparently there is a drug that will nullify the effects of the paracetamol, and they’d got that to him in time, probably. Even more reason to be grateful to his friend, getting him there in time.

We went into the hotel bar. A large red wine, followed by another. And food of some sort. But I wasn’t hungry. I just knew I needed to eat.

We spoke to his brother and sister that evening. Both were shaken, devastated, numb. He’d not said anything to them either. What had happened? Why had he done this?

I’ve evolved a strategy for those very rare occasions when I’m dealing with a suicidal client who is in imminent danger of killing themselves. I encourage them to think about significant others – to look at photographs, for instance. I do it because I know the person is thinking no one will miss them; that it will hurt for a few days, but then they, the survivors, will get over it and their lives will be better without them. They don’t realise the absolute devastation their death will wreak on other people’s lives.

So I decided to do something similar with Rowan. I was aware of how much it would hurt my other children, but I needed to recruit them to let him know they wanted him alive and how much they felt about him. They were both brilliant. My daughter spoke to Rowan on the phone the following morning. He was deeply shaken by what she said. His brother then spoke to him. So then Rowan knew, with absolute clarity, how bad this would have been for them if he’d killed himself. He knew how much they loved him and how much they had cried. Later, his friends were brilliant. I encouraged him to tell some of them, and two phoned him regularly, persuaded him to play football or went to see him. I found some of the reading I’d done around shame especially helpful, such as Brené Brown’s writings.1 The idea that talking works against shameful feelings, that it allows them to have less hold on us, gave me something to base my responses on.

The next morning, we sat in the coffee lounge of the hotel and watched him walk towards us from the hospital after he’d been discharged. It was surreal. His walk was less confident than usual. He seemed smaller, less himself somehow. We drove him back to his digs. It felt dreadful. I went in, went up to his room, the room where he nearly died, and was horrified by the normality of it. It was the usual student chaos – clothes, mess, but no packets of paracetamol. I think he cleared them away before I went up. But I didn’t want to leave him there. It felt dreadful and I was shaking. Eventually, he agreed to meet up with us for a meal that evening. We got back in the car and drove towards our hotel. Something in me screamed not to go. I needed an excuse. I suggested to my wife that we went to the local supermarket, to buy him some food and take it back, which we did. I’m not sure he was that happy to see us, even with some food. But he was still alive. Something in me felt a little calmer. Not much, but enough this time to drive away and leave him there.

That evening I felt very nervous as we sat in the restaurant waiting for him. What would we do if he didn’t appear? How late was it reasonable to let him be? I was imagining his room, him sitting there again…

He turned up. We had a good meal. But still we were warned off talking about it. We talked about all sorts of stuff, none of which was relevant. But it was OK, he was there, in front of me. Alive.

I felt the same panic the following morning, but he was still alive. He came with us in the car down to Bristol. So normal to have him in the back listening to his music. He made an agreement that he would tell his sister and brother everything, and that they could give us some very limited information. Which they did. But he’s never let us talk to him about it. I’m pushed away if I get anywhere close.

Aftermath

We’re two and a half years on. He’s still alive. He has finished university and got a job he loves. It turned out that his girlfriend had broken up with him that day, and the girl who took him to the hospital is now his partner. I’m still immensely grateful to her.

The days, weeks and months that followed were dreadful. I managed to feel calm enough to see clients and continue teaching the following week. Except, as I again sat in PD seven days later, I was terrified. What if he was doing it again? I knew from research that people who try to kill themselves often make another attempt in the first year. So one week on was nothing. Sitting there and not checking in with him was really hard.

I started texting all my three children every night, to say goodnight to them, to say I love them. I want them all to know I love them, to know I care.

I went up to see Rowan a few weeks later, stayed the weekend, took him out for a meal. For the first year, I needed to go regularly. Contact seemed so important. Physical contact. I held him and hugged him whenever I could, whenever he let me. If there was an unexpected silence from him, or from his brother or sister, I would go into a panic. I’d desperately try to contact them and would have thoughts of leaping into the car to drive to them to make sure they were alive. Slowly that panic has subsided, and I can now tolerate absence of information pretty well, but every so often it comes back.

Guilt, shame, blame and fear all flood back every so often. I took the decision that the best way for me to deal with my emotions, especially my shame and guilt, was to talk to everyone about it. So my friends knew very quickly, and the people I work with. I didn’t tell my clients, just that there had been a small family issue I had needed to deal with.

Rowan is still not talking to us about it. I tried for a while, different ways, but he’s so sensitive to me approaching the subject. It hurts not to know, not to be able to say, ‘This was why’. The what and the why are such big questions around suicide. And he may not fully know. His silence does worry me a little, that I might miss something if he feels suicidal again. I feel helpless about that, and frightened.

I tell the story to my students when I’m teaching suicide or bereavement by suicide. I do this not to shock or win sympathy but because I think it’s helpful to them as trainee counsellors to see how painful the impact of suicide is. I tend to work with self-disclosure in my teaching anyway, because the material I know best is my own. Being able to demonstrate my own, genuine pain allows me to touch on some of these ideas.

It’s quite easy to take a stance that it’s up to the client what they do with their life. For me, the concept of ‘social mediation’ comes in here, in the sense of the ‘restraining force’ to the actualising tendency, as Mearns and Thorne explain.2 Self-actualisation doesn’t occur in a bubble of isolation from the person’s social context: ‘the person takes other people in their life into account [original emphasis] in the course of their own maintenance and development.’

Having done a lot of work with and supervised a group for people bereaved by suicide, I believe that recognition of the impact of suicide needs to be taken into account when working with someone who is suicidal. You have to work with their pain and absolute distress and also with the extreme distress that their death would bring to those who would be bereaved if they took their own life. I want the students to be reminded that there are parents, partners, children and friends of people who attempt suicide and survive. Some of those individuals do eventually go on to kill themselves. But there’s often an invisibility around the attempted suicide. Who talks about it? Do you go to counselling about it? How often do we consider the devastating impact of it on the loved ones, the friends?

I’d say it took me about a year to 18 months to really feel myself again, and it’s still there – the rawness, the pain. It hasn’t fully gone away. And my world has changed forever.

One of my children tried to kill himself, seriously, forever. Yes, he survived, but it might happen again. I don’t think it will, but I have lost that confidence in the world, in God, in the universe, that it only happens to others. Because it happened to us.

I thought I’d got through writing all of this, but typing that last sentence still brings tears to my eyes.

Some names and details have been changed to provide anonymity.

Nigel Gibbons is a Focusing-oriented counsellor, supervisor and facilitator. He works in private practice, tutors on Metanoia’s MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes and Practitioner Certificate, as well as Network Training’s Diploma in Counselling.

Members and subscribers can listen to this article on the Therapy Today podcast

References

1. www.brenebrown.com (accessed 5 July 2019).
2. Mearns D, Thorne B. Person-centred counselling in action (3rd ed). London: Sage; 2007 (p24).

Further reading

There is a lot of material around suicide and bereavement by suicide, but much less about the impact of attempted suicide. The following may be helpful:

  • Williams M. Suicide and attempted suicide. London: Penguin; 2001.
  • Athan LA. After a suicide attempt. [Online.] Grief Speaks (undated). www.griefspeaks.com/id121.html (accessed 5 July 2019).
  • Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. Suicide: after a suicide attempt. [Online.] www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/a-z/resource/51/suicide-after-a-suicide-attempt (accessed 5 July 2019).