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We’re Never Better Off Without You

Mental Health

Poorna Bell writes a letter to her husband, who was lost to suicide, as she approaches a landmark birthday without him by her side...

Rob, I’m turning 40.

You were there at the last landmark birthday of mine, and you knew turning 30 was freaking me out. But just think, you said to me, we’ll be married in six months. It made me smile, and as always, you had a knack for making me feel better when I was spinning out. So the party continued, I was surrounded by my loved ones, we all drank a lot of champagne, danced very badly to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, and I woke up the next day with you by my side.

When we got married that next summer, we promised to be by each other’s side for the many decades to come, and I truly believed it. But I’m turning 40, and you are not in my present, or my future.

Five years ago, you made a choice and took your own life. I know that to you it didn’t feel like a choice; your depression and struggles with addiction made it feel like it was the only path open to you. I know that you felt that if you were gone, we would be better off without you in it, but although you were an extremely clever man, in this you were very wrong.

You were 39 when you died in 2015, and this is the first year that I will be older than you. There is a strange, flat feeling around that. It still seems unreal, and perhaps this may give you some inkling as to the aftermath of suicide. Your illness and mental distress convinced you wrongly that we would find life easier without you, but your death is a tear in the universe – for us, the space you occupied never diminishes in size. And although my grief is not as visible as it once used to be, that is merely because what remains is the love I have for you, and I have wrapped it around my loss, that I carry with me, always.

After a suicide, the loved ones left behind spend years wondering what we should have done to prevent it. I should have been there is a sentence I have said a million times. But in the last year, I have been thinking about who you would be if you were still alive. Would you be happy? Would you be okay? Would you still be in recovery?

And when I ask myself those questions, I remember then that your life was never in our hands. That as much as I want to believe I could have been your saviour, I don’t know if you would have listened. Although you had medical help at points, there was so much about what you thought being a man meant, and what being a man was, that rarely did you voice what was deep down to those closest to you. Your fear of letting us all down was a diamond wall between us being able to properly help you.

After you died, I went through your computer, because I was searching for anything that could explain how this had happened. You left no note but I knew how much you loved us, and that we were the most important things in your life. I found the answer in a letter you had written to your doctor, less than a year before you died. And in it, you said that ‘I generally feel that if it’s going to be the case because of my depression that I face spending a significant amount of my time feeling the way I do, regardless of whether things are going badly…suicide seems a viable alternative. If I do go through with it – which I don’t want to, for my wife and family’s sakes apart from anything else…I would hope, however, that they would understand that even a day or two of feeling the way I have been feeling for every second of that day is unbearable.’

But Rob, here’s the thing. Here is what I would have said to you, if I had seen that letter.

Depression doesn’t last forever. It just makes you believe it does. People who struggle with addiction can find recovery. People make mistakes but that is okay, because it’s a human thing to do. It is okay to say you messed up, that you didn’t have all the answers and that you need help. No one expects perfection and if you are surrounding yourself with people who do, they are the wrong fucking people to be around.

If you are struggling, telling someone helps so they can remind you of the times when things were better and good, and that reminds you that this is only temporary. When you think that your worth is measured by your pay cheque or your ability to not cry, or to keep going even though you are crumbling inside, or the size of your house or the flash holidays you go on, other people can tell you that actually, that stuff counts for nothing if you are not here. That people probably measure your worth by your friendship, your kindness, your strength (and not just physical strength), your intellect and so much more. And that there is no scenario ever, where they are better off without you. Ever.

As much as I loved you, and thought you were smoking hot, the thing I miss about you the most, is our friendship. Sometimes you are a presence I reach for unthinkingly, and I want to tell you all about turning 40. I want to tell you that I lift weights now, and I could probably lift you and our dog at the same time. I want to talk to you about how weird the pandemic is. I want to tell you Rob, that in the last five years, you have missed out on so much. Our nieces and nephews growing up without being scooped up in your arms. Our parents getting older. But I reach out for you, and there is nothing but empty space.

Sometimes you fill that space when I write about you. You pour into the room, all six foot of you, punk rocker, crinkling blue eyes, tattoos, shaved head and broad shoulders, and you are the guide for people who might be struggling as you were. I need those people to know that what they feel is temporary, and it will pass and it will get better if they hold on. Hold on. Because everything is possible if you are here, nothing is possible if you are not. I wish these were the words I could desperately have said to you, but more importantly, that you would have listened.

Rob, I’m turning 40. On the day, my loved ones will know that there is a hole that is shaped like you, that no amount of birthday cake and glittering presents can fill. So at some point, I will play I Wanna Dance With Somebody on full blast, and hope that wherever you are, in this great big cosmos of ours, you hear it and know that you have never been forgotten, not for a minute. That you inspired a love that was soul-deep, but most importantly, you helped people to hold on, when they were thinking about letting go.

I’m an ambassador for the male suicide prevention charity CALM, a role that I took up to continue the work following Rob’s death. If you feel able to donate, please do – they run a brilliant helpline that has seen a massive increase in calls during the covid-19 pandemic, a web chat and have a ton of resources on their website.

Chase The Rainbow: One Man’s Journey With Mental Health As Told By The Woman Who Loved Him, Simon & Schuster, £6.99

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