“Tell me it gets better,” said David Robb, who plays Dr Clarkson in Downton Abbey. He was talking about the legacy of suicide and he presented a typical portrait of bafflement, stoicism and pain.
His life-long partner, actress Briony McRoberts, who had been struggling with anorexia, committed suicide in 2013 aged 56. As David tells it, she walked out of the house and out of his life forever as the police suggested he did not view the body. She left only questions.
Who was she this person I had known and loved all my life, he wondered just as his fellow survivors did.
David was talking to Angela Samata, who was remarkably composed and wise. Her childhood sweetheart and father of her two children killed himself 11 years ago.
Grappling for answers – the best of which was to keep talking – she went round the country seeking experiences similar to her own in the affecting and powerful documentary Life After Suicide (BBC1).
Her fear, played out by others, was that by talking about their father’s suicide to her boys, she would normalise it and make it an acceptable way of dealing with problems. Suicide is the greatest killer of men under 50 and four out of five suicides are men.
She visited the Maytree, a last resort house in London where potential suicides can have what amounts to a cooling-off period. The curtain rails in the rooms are “pre-broken” to prevent hanging attempts. The banality of finality.
She spoke to Professor Rory O’Connor, who had made a lifelong study of suicidal tendencies before suffering such a shock bereavement himself. How could he, an expert in the field, fail to notice the signs, he wondered.
They were all left with questions with no answers. A woman whose husband and son had both committed suicide had reached the best she could hope for – a sense of “acceptance”.
Five daughters, still wrestling with the suicide of their mother, had stopped crying because it set off their father. Four of the daughters flourished when they found other bereaved children at a camp run by charity Winston’s Wish. The eldest sobbed quietly. She didn’t want to talk about it.
If only you knew what damage you have done, was the unspoken heartrending unanswered cry.
But overwhelmingly they were forgiving, these survivors. Perhaps that takes the longest time. They found a way to understand the point their loved ones had reached, the point at which they saw their very existence as a hindrance to their families.
What was missing, to my (damp and) harsh eye was rage. Where was the sheer bloody fury? Maybe rage is a useless emotion, best set aside in favour of acceptance. But, surely, rage is the second call on the senses after shock.
Finally we saw some of it in a widow, pictured above, whose husband died only 10 weeks before.
”He was in a dark place and couldn’t take any more,” she said. Then, “I feel angry and let down. He’s died and I’m now left with a lot of things he couldn’t cope with on my own. Yes he’s out of pain but my pain has started now.”
Selfish, I shouted at the screen, unforgivably unforgiving. Selfish. In the case of Angela, Mark hanged himself in the hallway. His wife with young boys, back from school, opened the front door on to the “unreal” scene.
This was his choice. Not only to take his life but to traumatise, to the full extent of his powers, those he had left behind.
That Angela appeared so composed, that she could reconcile the man she loved with the man who hurt her children so was, ultimately, the best answer to David Robb’s question.
Life After Suicide is available on iPlayer