How My Grandmother’s Suicide Impacted Me
Even though I never thought it did
My grandmother’s suicide when my mother was just 8 years old formed a slightly sad backdrop to our family life.
I knew throughout my childhood that she had died when my mother was young, leaving her and her twin sister alone with their father and shortly after, a housekeeper to look after them.
I never knew much more about the situation apart from the fact that they shockingly heard the news from a classmate on their way home from school one day. The death was unexpected and Stella had been just 42 years old.
I ruminated over the reason this had happened for much of my earlier childhood, sometimes asking my mum for further information, to be met with a quiet ‘I’ll tell you another time.’
I started to panic over the years that something was amiss. Did we have some unusual genetic disorder in our family that my mother was scared of? Why would she not share the details with me?
In my teens my Dad eventually succumbed and told me some further information as we sat up late together one night. My grandmother had committed suicide during the day when her 8 year old twins were at school and her husband was out working at a local factory. She had taken an overdose and he had little knowledge of it, apart from it being a ‘cry for help’ that went too far, perhaps after a fall out with her husband. I felt a deep sense of sorrow for my mother and aunt for something that could and should have been prevented.
I never found out much more about the situation. I knew my mother had a difficult life after that with the housekeeper, who was strict and often made them do housework and I also recall my mother’s shame as she talked about being made to wear Wellington boots to school. I believe she left home as soon as she could to marry my father at aged 19 and have her first child soon after. She always talked very affectionately of my grandfather, who remarried but sadly died when I was only 3 years old.
My mother was as good as a mother could be, despite having grown up without one herself. She was warm, loving, supportive and slightly overprotective, which was completely understandable considering the family loss she had experienced in her early life.
I didn’t bring up the conversation that I had with my father with her until years later. It was her 60th birthday and my parents had arrived at my house that day for a weekend of celebrations with us and her sister’s family. They had arrived late due to an unexpected December snowfall and we were so relieved when they arrived safely that we toasted her birthday rather vigorously and started to chat about families. It was the first time my mother had ever opened up about my grandmother and I was shocked that she had clearly repressed many difficult feelings and emotions for over 50 years. She repeatedly asked ‘Why did she do it to us? Why did she leave us?’ I felt deeply sad that she had not received the counselling that she so obviously required and that this underlying feeling of abandonment sat just beneath the surface.
We talked further about her mother’s mental health. No one seemed to know or remember much about her as these things were buried away and not talked about. After having twins, my mother was separated from her sister and lived with her grandmother for a period of time, so it seems likely that she perhaps had post natal depression and struggled to cope. I pointed this out to my mother, that she clearly was not thinking straight at the time, but my mother continued to repeat ‘It was so selfish of her. How could she?’ and the raw pain in her voice was hard to hear.
I never thought a lot more about the situation over the next ten years.
Then something destructive and devastating occurred in my life. My world was rocked by a narcissist who I naively got entangled with through work. The situation looked set to destroy my 18 year relationship and marriage. Everything I knew and stood for was blown up and I felt homesick in my own life. I sought counselling to try and work through the hugely stressful position I had got myself into but found myself sinking deeper and deeper underwater in a situation I could not control.
The counsellor asked me about my life in the first introductory session we had. I spoke about my grandmother and all that had happened, but I brushed it off. ‘It’s not too important,’ I said. ‘It was a long time ago and it hasn’t really impacted me.’ She said to me ‘Of course it has impacted you. It will have done so in many ways that you do not know and understand. It is at the very centre of your being and your family life, such a tragic circumstance.’
I thought about this and over time concluded that she was right. I was at the counselling sessions in the first place because it felt important to me, given my family history and now more than ever, to keep my mental health in check. Her death WAS always at the back of my mind while I was making safe life choices, choosing a man I understood to be strong, dependable and reliable. Underneath everything, my perfect grades, my successful career and wonderful children, I had always had an underlying anxiety and a sense that I could very quickly ‘lose it’ were it not for the support of my husband. The anxiety had manifested itself a few times over the years, blowing into paper bags before exams, hyperventilating about work situations, being held to calm down when I couldn’t get my son to breastfeed. My husband had been there to support me through these challenging situations that life had thrown up.
Now I was on the brink of leaving him and I suddenly felt like I was walking on a tightrope. I had learned helplessness and decided I had no choice anymore as I had fallen in love with someone else, although I did not recognise at the time that I was actually being emotionally abused and manipulated into thinking this way by a disordered person.
Unsurprisingly the situation ended with a spectacular blow up. I had told my husband I was leaving him but the country was plunged into lockdown due to Covid-19 the same week. We were trapped together in the house for months and my relationship with the narcissist disintegrated. It was clear over this stressful time that he had not only lied to his wife but also to me and I needed to get away from this toxic person. The resulting narcissistic wounding led to some very upsetting harassment and stalking and more devastating times explaining to my husband what had been going on.
I took time off work as I could no longer function and lay in bed looking at my bedroom drawer. I imagined the pills that lay in there, some anti-anxiety drugs prescribed to me due to all that was going on. I imagined what it would be like to take them out and chew them. My life was an absolute mess. I had broken relationships with both of these two men, betrayed my children, let myself down at work and my mental and physical health were at an all time low. My friends and family were trying to support me but I could only think of how stressed I was making them all and how tedious it must be to listen to me. I imagined all the things that the narcissist could do to ruin me as he was already sending me threatening messages and the fact that he might never stop. I had begun to realise he was a narcissist and the literature I was reading seemed to indicate he would never leave me alone. The trauma bond paradoxically meant I didn’t really want him to either. I wanted him to be my redeemer and free me of the pain that he had actually caused in the first place, like a drug addict seeking a fix.
The tablets seemed tempting. I could imagine chewing them and what they would taste like. It was hugely weak but I was a piece of broken shit and people would get over it.
But it was an incredibly selfish thought and a fleeting one at that. It was less than five minutes rumination and all of this time I also thought about Stella. I thought about my son and my daughter, lying in their beds downstairs full of innocence and love for their mum. I thought about my own mother’s choking grief and lack of understanding over 50 years later about Stella’s death.
I resolved to never lie to my husband again, no matter how much I needed the narcissist’s approval. I shared everything that was being sent to me, however deeply painful for both of us. I warned him what could still come. Together, we went to the police and they asked me whether I would like to arrest this person or caution him. I went with the latter.
I went back to work, apologising for my lack of focus and less than appropriate behaviour.
I focused on therapeutic courses and making myself well again through rediscovering writing and discovering running and anything else I could think of to block the pain and make myself better for my family.
In the back of my mind was the fact that Stella was 42 when she killed herself and her daughters were 8, exactly the same age my daughter and I were. It seemed a very cruel coincidence and it got me thinking a lot about what happened to her, why she felt such despair and that no one could help her. I would like to find out more about her and better understand her if I can. I don’t think she has been celebrated enough as she no doubt deserves.
I felt her suicide had never really impacted me. But my counsellor was right, it was always there. I believe SHE was always there, perhaps there with me in my own 5 minutes of despair and madness, telling me that life is not as bad as you think momentarily. There are always ways to move through and fix situations and become stronger as a result. Consider those that need you and love you and always reach out for support.
Good people have it in their hearts to forgive and I forgive Stella, the grandmother that I never met, as I have been forgiven by those around me. Because I’m a good person too.