A message to Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda

As I hurtle, disbelievingly, towards 29 August, the 10-year anniversary of my Dad’s death, I am catapulted back to those first days in 2004 on hearing of Robin Williams’ suicide this morning.

They call suicide “grieving with the volume turned up”. For anyone to lose a parent is hell, but to know that they did it by their own hands and because they were so unhappy is almost unbearable. They say suicide usually leaves 6 “survivors”, in my case it was 4 immediate family members: my sister, my mum, my dad’s brother – our uncle – and me.

The survivors will go over and over the events of the past few months. What could have they have done differently? Why would that person leave them? The infinite questions usually beginning with the word “why”; the all-consuming guilt; the anger, which if it doesn’t come immediately will come later; the feelings of abandonment; the absolute desperation that your father who was there one minute is now no more, can consume your entire being.

Having the perspective of 10 years of grief which has moved through the 5 stages and then some, I can safely say to Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda, that, whilst her life will never be the same and she will miss and love her Dad every single day, she will find a way to be happy eventually. I know this because I was 22 when my Dad died and she is 25 and I know this, because, despite everything, I am happy. One of the most poignant things my Mum said to me sitting in her kitchen about two weeks after my Dad had died was “Jane, there are no shortcuts, we’ve just got to get through this”. Knowing and accepting early on that this would be the biggest challenge of my life to date, and since, helped prepare me for the immensely difficult task ahead.

For our family it wasn’t just the emotional upheaval of coping with the death, it was the practical implications too. My sister and I were just students with no money and who totally and utterly relied on our Dad for survival. Dealing with a person’s probate and estate who has taken their own life, in my experience, is hugely complex. I soon adopted the mantra for my Dad of “complicated in life, complicated in death”.

That first year was just a blur: waking up and remembering he wasn’t here being number one for worst feeling on earth; trying to continue with our lives, me getting a part-time job, my sister going back to university; raising thousands of pounds for charity SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) and, most importantly, learning to laugh again. I couldn’t decide what to wear from one day to the next but within 6 months I’d decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. I guess to me, the small things didn’t matter anymore.

So, Zelda, I will say this to you. Be prepared for people you have known a long time to let you down because they cannot deal with your grief, but equally be prepared for the most amazing and warm support from the most unlikely of places. Be prepared for this to be hard work. Don’t try and ignore your grief, coming to terms with a loss so huge can take years. Be prepared for people to say stupid and ignorant things about suicide which will likely break your heart, but which ultimately you will get used to and will be able to challenge with reason and logic. Be prepared to miss your Dad more than you ever imagined missing another person but be prepared, eventually, to remember him not as depressed and unhappy but as the way my Dad was before: larger than life.


To know your history

A glorious spring day.  A pub lunch, then a drive down the country lanes where I spent my childhood. We pass the house where I lived and, a few moments later, park the car on the wide verge.  We get out of the car and proceed to walk back along the quiet country lane.  Daughters, wife and I amble along the road.

“That’s where I lived until I was twelve” I begin.

We turn left up a bridle path which climbed the side of the valley to overlook the small holding where I lived.

I proceed to tell the girls all the names of the neighbours.  I show them where we played football, where we went sledging when school was closed because of snow.  We had free rein to wander where we liked on local land, I explain.  I tell them about how my dad made his living from the farm, the market gardening and working with livestock for other farms.  In school holidays, weekends and light evenings I would spend hours and hours working with Dad, handling live stock, driving tractors to work the land.  I was being lined up to go into farming; to follow in his footsteps, in a way.  He was much respected, had loads of contacts and was extremely knowledgeable and skilled in his field.  I also tell them how my childhood, although relatively poor and simple, was very loving.  We had lots of fun.

I then lead on, as we near the top of the valley side, telling them how things on the farm didn’t work out quite right and resulted in Mum and Dad having to sell the farm to settle the bills.  How we moved into a cramped rented house on land which Dad used to work for the landlord in lieu of rent.  At the top of the hill we leaned on a gate.  I point out some more insignificant features of the surroundings, then continue with my story.

“Dad didn’t really recover from selling the farm and had to make a living from working for others.  Unfortunately, not being amazingly astute or greedy, he always undercharged and was remiss at getting money in, whilst always working hard, long hours and doing favours for his friends and acquaintances.”

“After two years of this and severe cash flow issues and his stock deteriorating on rented ground, Dad decided he couldn’t take things any longer and killed himself.”

A long pause, and we turn to walk back down the hill – a few minutes pass. I ask “What do you think then?”

Youngest replies “We knew Granddad died before we were born and didn’t ask how or why in case it upset you, Dad.”

I am pleased she called him Granddad.

“Is there anything you want to know?” I ask.

Both reply “No, so long as you’re OK that’s all that matters”

Lump in throat!

We wander back to the car, me alongside one of the girls and wife with the other…but all together.  Idle chit-chat and the occasional laugh.

I’m pleased to have told the girls, pleased that I was careful to tell them about my history and good times with Dad and the good things he did, immediately before I told them about the “end”.

The kids seem to have accepted what happened and, aged 14 and 16, weren’t particularly young when I told them.  However, as we had lived at a distance from “my roots” for all their life there was minimal likelihood of anyone else telling them – so there was no time pressure.

I don’t think there is an ideal way of presenting history like this to the kids.  However, it’s important to me that Dad is remembered for the good part of his life.  I hope I presented the facts in such a way that, when we get the photos out, my daughters can think about their granddad in the way I’d like them to think of him.  And they know the whole story now.


Learning to live life

It was the summer of 1980 and I was seventeen years old. I was in love for the first time and worked in a tiny chemist. I really thought I was the bees and knees – hair in pigtails, overdone eye makeup and my white uniform with its little blue collar.  I was so happy that I was earning money and gaining a small measure of independence. I thought, well, what any seventeen year old thinks – life goes on forever and somehow they can direct and control it.  Slowly and I can now see immaturely, I was working towards a life independent of my Mother’s influence.  Still, for the first time in over ten years I was starting to feel physically and psychologically safe.

Yet, my fragile sense of self collapsed on August 12th 1980.  I woke up in the middle of the night after hearing the phone ring.  I could hear my Father’s soft voice in the next room – I knew then that my Mother was dead. The result of an overdose and after spending several days on life- support, my Mother died alone.  This time, she had waited too long to call for help.

I lay in bed and quietly sobbed. My tears were for my poor, lost childhood and for my Mother’s psychological torment and her final overwhelming loneliness.  She had lost everything that should have mattered and I suspected that realisation had gradually crept up on her.

The tears that fell down my face and onto my pillow were also those of relief.  At last, I was free or so I naively thought…  Afterwards for years, I carried a heavy burden of guilt for that sense of relief.  It was only many years later that I learnt my private, guilty, sense of relief was an understandable reaction to the stresses of living with my Mother and her subsequent death.

I really believed at seventeen that my Mother’s death would end my angst.  In reality though, it was another chapter to my Mother’s life and I was still one of her unwilling characters. I was trapped in my unhappy role, alone and isolated – for a few more years.

I have since been so fortunate, although I have worked hard to overcome my difficulties and the awful, destroying belief that I was unlikeable and unlovable.  In some ways, for a time I think I was. I built such a solid, high psychological wall of defence that well, people just could not penetrate it.

My past with my Mother is part of my personal history and I accepted that many years ago – to a large degree it has shaped who I am today.  I have grasped firmly with both hands my childhood experiences and my Mother’s death with its devastating consequences. It is that or drown in the aftermath of a self-inflicted death.  However, best of all, I have been fortunate enough to have been able to use my experiences positively and will continue to do so.

Yes, occasionally there are still challenges and I do acknowledge that I still yearn for a mother – I think I always will, but sadly not for my Mother. I do however, continue to feel sadness and regret for my Mother’s life and her death.

Ultimately, as sad as this may appear, I recognise that I would not be who I am today with the achievements of my life to date if my Mother was still alive. Paradoxically through her death, I have finally learnt to live with my Mother.


Learning to survive

It was when I was being driven away in a police car that I knew something was wrong.  I was only 3 and a half years old, but I was mature beyond my tiny years!  That’s all I really remember from that fateful night in 1975 when I would never see my parents again.

I know from that night until 1979 (the year I was adopted) that I resided at two different children’s homes and was assigned various different social workers.  Sometime during that time, I was told that my parents had been killed in a car crash.  I am now in touch with a social worker from that time who arranged the adoption who told me that I took this news very matter-of-factly and would use my toys to play out the car crash.  I received no counselling at that time as I don’t think these things were deemed to be important in the 1970s.

My adoption wasn’t a happy time and my new ‘parents’ wouldn’t allow any talk of my natural parents which made me very unhappy.  They always provided a warm house, clothes and food, but there was absolutely no emotional security which I so badly craved.  I spent most of my teenage years feeling very miserable at home and just had no idea who I was.  I counted the days until my 18th birthday so that I would be able to leave home.  I was a very well-behaved teenager, but prone to a huge need for solitude.  I didn’t have boyfriends, didn’t smoke or drink alcohol and preferred to spend my days training for the various sports I was involved in at school. I had a best friend who I would confide in about everything which was a great help.  And during those dreaded summer holidays I would spend my time with her and her loving family who were always greeted me with a warm smile and a huge hug – something that was never on offer at home. All I ever needed in my teens was love – it was that simple!

As I went through my teenage years, I had more and more questions about my natural family which were never answered and I felt increasingly frustrated and isolated.  Every day I would wake up to ‘parents’ I had grown to be very distrustful and to people that looked absolutely nothing like me.  They had children of their own and their youngest child resented my mere existence more and more. It was the darkest time of my life.

Everything came to a head on my 18th birthday when my ‘parents’ casually said “Your parents didn’t actually die in a car crash, they committed suicide”.  That was that.  My 18th birthday was ruined and my whole world came crashing down around me.  I ran out of the house crying and when I returned I was disciplined for leaving the house without permission!

I couldn’t believe what I had heard.  My parents had chosen to die.  I tried so hard to talk to my ‘parents’ about it and they only ever responded in the same cold way – “Lots of people commit suicide – what’s wrong with you?”  It was the worst turning point of my whole life.  I had no brothers or sisters and just felt so alone.  I left home as I had promised myself just a few days after my 18th birthday and continued to have limited contact with my ‘parents’ for the next six years.  After that I changed address and numbers and made sure they could never contact me again. That was 12 years ago.  I have worked in the media industry since 1989, and have thought about writing a book about my experiences.

As I get older, even with a mature head, life seems to get harder and not easier.  I have no blood family to relate to and even though I have a good circle of friends, I feel that no-one can ever understand the pain I have been through and I seem to go through on a day-to-day basis.  I can easily go through life functioning as a normal adult doing the normal things in life, but the ultimate truth is that I will never get over the fact that my parents decided to commit suicide and leave me all alone.