Working as a psychotherapist I have often helped clients to recognise that we always have some element of choice, even if sometimes it feels as though we don’t, and even if none of the options open to us are ideal, or even very palatable.
Why? Because it really does help, when we're suffering, to know that we do have options, at least in most situations. The feeling that we are being forced into one way of being contributes to the stress we experience in difficult circumstances; its easy to perceive ourselves as being trapped, and without any choices whatsoever. But the truth is, most of us are lucky enough to have some level of control over at least some aspects of our own lives, and perhaps most importantly, we also have choices about the ways in which we respond to difficulties and adversities, large and small.
So when Anton died by suicide what were my choices in this overwhelmingly horrific of situations?
Did I even have any? It certainly didn’t seem that way to me.
That first night as I beat my fists against the kitchen cupboards in shock, anger and denial, shouting “No! No! No!” over and over again; as I collapsed on the living room floor; as my whole body began to shake. As night after night, unable to sleep, I went downstairs to sit for hours alone in the dark at the cold kitchen table. As I made bargains with a God I don't really believe in, offering my life in exchange for Anton’s, pleading with God to take me instead, if my son could only have another chance at life. As I screamed “Why?” and “How could you?” loudly or silently into the empty space in front of Anton's picture. As I begged him, beseeched him, to return to me.
As I shouted and screamed at him, out on the empty wintery hillside. As I continued to send tortured and raging WhatsApp messages to his phone. As I yelled profanities at him in my journal. As I yearned for his voice, his hugs, his laughter. As I lay on summer evenings under the lime trees, weeping softly, my body curled around a little wooden cross in the churchyard on top of the hill. As I wandered home afterwards, spent on tears and finally exhausted. And as I told Anton repeatedly, in my often deranged inner dialogues with him, he had left me with no choices at all.
I believed Anton's choice had taken all my options away from me, that I had no alternative but to live a life of pain, to mourn him, my beloved child, forever. There were many days when I felt that if I had had the choice I would have chosen not to live at all, rather than to live in the devastation that was now my life. I longed for release from the pain, the torment; I saw no way forward. None.
I remember a conversation about a year after Anton died, with my erstwhile Grief Companion, now friend Nikki, whose lovely 19 year old daughter Miranda died about 3 years before we lost Anton. She said something that made me realise she didn't feel (as I did at the time) that dying would be preferable to living. And so I asked her "Do you not want to die?" and she said "No. Because we only get one life don't we? And it is still a beautiful world." At the time I couldn't really relate to what she was saying, but her words nevertheless registered with me, and I marvelled at her capacity to feel that way.
One day during that first year, I drove to see my brother Lance, who has given me such loving and unfaltering support through the darkness of the past 3 years. I arrived in floods of tears, physically shaking, desperate, in such a dark place I was sure no-one could feel this much pain and live. I told him “I can’t do it Lance, I can’t do it. I cannot survive this.” He just looked at me and asked “What are you going to do then?” In that moment I felt as though he had punched me in the face. The simplicity of his question stopped me in my tracks. I was forced, against my will, to acknowledge that I did, in fact have choices. No remotely easy choices, certainly, but choices nonetheless.
The biggest decision I made was to live. Despite everything, to continue living, without my son. It didn't happen one day when I woke up and declared that I would, after all, live. It didn't even happen slowly and imperceptibly as the days became weeks, and the weeks became months and then years. In fact I had made the choice without even being aware of it, in the immediate aftermath of Anton's death. There was never any question in my mind that I could hurt Alek and Stef, or my brothers, or the rest of my family and friends by opting out of living. I had a husband and son who needed me to live, whose lives would be doubly destroyed by losing me as well as Anton. At times, this made me even more angry with Anton for having left us. I still wanted to die, and there was a little voice in my mind that told me I might be with Anton again if I did.
But I chose to live, for the people alive who love me.
Once I became aware that I had made a conscious choice to continue with the life I had, I began to see that I had other choices too. Let me be very clear, I didn't want any single one of those choices, because it meant a life without Anton. It went against every sinew of my being as a mother, to even consider a life without him in my world. But if I was going to live, then I would need, at some point, to make a few decisions as to what would make such a life conceivable. As Dr Sangeeta Mahajan wisely asked herself after she lost her own son Saagan to suicide "I am going to die one day, and how am I going to live until I die?".
I didn't choose to be a member of this club that no-one wants to join. I don't deserve the shock and misery that losing Anton has brought into my life, any more than you, or anyone bereaved by suicide or any death does. But I am here now, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to change what has happened. All I can do is to find a way of living that is bearable for me, and for it to be bearable, it needs to bring some meaning into my life, and it needs to honour my beloved son.
So that was the second biggest choice I made: what kind of life I could bear and what this life would need to include. After that, it became a little easier to start making additional choices about how I was going to create this new normal way of being. I'm not there yet, I'm still finding my feet, stumbling and staggering around as I try to forge a way forward, but I have more hope than I have had in a long time, and that's a good start.