I have been putting this off all day. On past WMH Days I have talked about my own experience of anxiety and depression at work, secretively taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, about the times I’ve been told to keep my struggles quiet.
Those days were easier than today. Talking about suicide is inherently difficult, for all the reasons we already know. But there is something that I want to add to the conversation and that might just make me the most selfish bitch going.
I don’t know many people who haven’t been impacted by suicide, whether it’s suicidal thoughts themselves, the experience of loved ones attempting or dying by suicide (thank you Katy Pearson for the little wake up call around the use of the word ‘committed’ in the context of suicide. It’s no longer a crime therefore you don’t ‘commit’ it, you die by it).
i worry that by sharing my experience of this I’ll be nothing more than a whiny little bitch, but I also know that I’m not the only one with this experience and it’s an area of the context that I would like to shine a little light on.
I was a lawyer for more than a decade and whilst the first half of my career was consumed with processing whiplash claims for what I’ve calculated to be more than a thousand people, the second half revolved around the worlds of mental capacity, brain injury and death.
I spent a good number of years working as a contentious wills, trusts and estates specialist. I already had a dark sense of humour but when your work is around unpicking the mess that’s left after someone dies and the family splits, it becomes darker.
I’ve written in the past about my experiences working in this field, from sitting with families as they cried for the lives they once knew before their child, their partner, their father, was critically and life-alteringly injured, for the lives they could have had and the people they should have been. I’ve talked about sitting in meetings with clients whose hands shook as they rolled their cigarettes, talking about their memories of being abused as children.
I spent years working with people who had experienced child abuse, domestic abuse, incest, violence. You could define my job by saying I immersed myself in other people’s pain in order to help find the path out for them.
But today, there is one case in particular on my mind.
I don’t think I need to tell you how they died.
It was my job to write the witness statement of the deceased’s partner, who was involved in a dispute over the deceased’s property and financial affairs. If I cede into more technical or clerical language, please forgive me, it’s how I deal with it.
I was taught a relatively unique method for writing witness statements, by someone who was a brilliant master of language and nuance and of telling the story in a meaningful and compassionate way, to grab the attention of the judge and take what can be a fairly dry and dull document and spin it into a technicolor rendering of real life.
It meant spending significant time with the person making the statement, in this case, the partner of the person who had died by suicide.
I spent hours on the phone with my client. Hours with a headset, a notepad and a pen, writing down key phrases, getting the timeline right.
My client was, as you might reasonably expect, deeply traumatised by the death of their partner. My client had found their partner dead.
I have to be so careful what I type here because even now I can repeat sections of that witness statement by heart. I last worked on the case nearly a decade ago but I remember everything.
Every little detail.
How this person died.
When and where and how they had tried before.
I remember every detail of what happened when they were found.
It’s ingrained on my brain and sometimes I wake up from nightmares with those images in my head, even now.
When we talk about suicide we talk about the life lost, the life that could have been, the people left behind.
But there I was, years after that person had ended their life, still unpicking the details and pulling it apart and getting covered in trauma in the process.
Look, there are some who will say that I’m a snowflake or a baby or that I should never have been in that job because I clearly wasn’t cut out for it if I couldn’t hear a few little details about (I started filling in gory details. I won’t do that here, my anger and pain isn’t the issue here) suicide.
And those people are damned wrong.
It was my sensitivity and empathy, my ability to allow people to be seen and heard, to help their voices be amplified and their needs met that allowed me to be a great lawyer. There were plenty of parts of the job that I was absolutely fucking shit at, make no mistake, but I had the best client management and conferencing skills out there.
I know this, because it’s what I do every single time I speak to one of my clients now. Different game rules, same skills.
I could weave brilliant witness statements because I could take a client’s story and hold it up to the light, shine the spotlight on what needed to be seen and heard by others. You can’t do that and also be impervious to the needs and fears and trauma of others.
We don’t need tougher skins or less caring lawyers or even more bully-boys flooding the market.
We need to be able to see that the job is more than just a job; that for those of us who walk this path with our clients, pastoral care and support is desperately needed.
There was no formal outlet for me to talk about what had happened and move on. My colleagues already knew the story and plenty of them didn’t want to talk about it because, well talking about suicide and trauma is rough and difficult and we don’t always have the language. Easier to tell people to keep calm and carry on or suggest a drink. Alcohol has been the lawyer’s decompression tool for decades after all.
So my story today is not about suicide prevention or the WAIT tool or access to services. There are thousands of blogs and articles out there talking about that today and you should read them.
Mine is a direct plea to the people who are working in the death and trauma fields.
The contentious probate and Court of Protection lawyers.
The doctors responding to emergency calls.
The insurance investigators who have to take statements.
The police officers attending.
This is not normal.
You do not have to go into this situations and walk out like Khaleesi through the fire.
That’s not the way that human beings work.
When you work in trauma and you respond appropriately and sensitively to the needs of your clients/patients/etc then it is almost inevitable that there is going to be some residual damage to you, some secondary victimisation of a sort.
Don’t believe people when they say you have to toughen up, to let it go, to stop talking about it.
We need to talk about it MORE and we need to come together as a group to demand follow up care and support from our employers, from our professional bodies, from the people who stand to gain so much from us doing our jobs well and unencumbered by the fragments of grief we become draped in.
We need to remember our strengths and why we keep showing up to do this work, and take brilliant care of ourselves, for we see the road less travelled and know the pathway well. It takes work to remain a visitor to that path, rather than becoming part of it.