In a house in Brøndby, west of Copenhagen, Merete Gimm Kongsfelt reminsces about her brother Morten. A creative man who was good with children and loved taking photos, he decided to take his life in October last year. He was 27 years old.
Morten struggled with debt and suffered from insecurity after failing to finish an educational degree. Looking back, Kongsfeld says his problems started after their father died when Morten was only 9.
“My brother had always been a sensitive child who didn’t talk much and it hit him very hard,” she explains. “Our father was always very kind to us and he was a caring, loving parent. But after he died our mother started a relationship with another man who had two kids from a previous relationship. To him, Morten was just always in the way. He used to tell Morten that he would never amount to anything.”
During the last five months of her brother’s life, Kongsfelt says they had only sporadic contact. Then on the morning of October 21, she received a message from him through Facebook, where he thanked her for everything, and said that he couldn’t take it anymore.
Since his passing, Kongsfelt has struggled to cope with the grief.
“I had to quit my job as I couldn’t keep going. I mostly just sleep. I struggle with making plans and it has started to affect my marriage. I am now seeing a psychologist and I have tried to use Facebook as a way to communicate my sorrow.”
Her attempts to communicate her sorrow haven’t always been met with understanding, however. Suicide remains an uncomfortable taboo.
“People have a harder time talking about death if it involves suicide. I have had people delete me as a friend on Facebook because I have been talking about it. I think that is a good representation of how difficult it is for society to talk about it. There are also some who tell me to just move on, but I can’t.”
The mitigation of sharing
There are no easy solutions for getting over the loss of a loved one, but one of the resources Kongsfelt has turned to is Efterladte (which translates as Suriving Relatives), a national organisation that brings together people that have lost friends and family through suicide.
“We are a layman organisation, in the sense that we are not psychologists or therapists,” explains Efterladte chairman Lars Agertoft Iversen, whose wife ended her own life in 2004. “We are simply people who all share the experience of having lost a loved one to suicide.”
Iversen says that grief is a deeply personal experience, and there is no one method of coping with it that works for everyone. He has found, however, that opening up and talking to others has helped him.
“When I first joined Efterladte, I found people who had also been to the bottom, who understand the pain. Just as importantly, I found people who were not afraid to ask about sadness and anger. There is no way to cure sadness, but we can make it manageable. When you lose somebody, you are left to deal with a vacuum and I think people need to fill that vacuum with something.”
Dealing with the loss of his wife was hard enough, but the discomfort that the topic of suicide raises in society only served to alienate him even more.
“People don’t know how to deal with it. At my work there were people who would walk out of a room when I came in, or start shuffling around papers pretending not to see me. But I think it is just as bad when people tell someone in grief to move on. The people you’ve lost are wired into your hard drive and you might carry the sadness with you all your life. Grief is the dark side of love – a love without a home.”
Iversen says that surviving family members often experience shame and discomfort. Instead of acknowledging the suicide, they will prefer to tell others that the death was caused by illness or by accident.
Despite the stigma, he does believe people are increasingly opening up about suicide as the shame and taboo starts to slide away. While this enables people to better access resources to deal with their sorrow, the main issue is we lack experience and understanding to cope with grief when it suddenly arrives.
“We learn about traffic, sex and plenty of other things in school, but grief is not part of the curriculum,” says Iversen.
One way of coping with grief is channelling the pain into a positive pursuit. That was the route Rasmus Østergaard Hansen (left) took after losing his father two years ago. But it took a year of burying himself with work to ignore the pain, before he realised he needed a better outlet.
“I wanted to do something for my father and to create understanding of suicide. I had always loved to run and exercise and I decided to take pledges to do Iron Man competitions to raise awareness,” Hansen explains. “I think my father would have been proud of the project, but I also can’t deny that it has also helped me a lot.”
A public speaker who shares his story with others, Hansen’s campaigning has also raised money for anti-suicide campaigner Livslinien (which translates as The Life Line).
“It was incredibly difficult to talk about in the beginning, but it becomes a bit easier every time. But just as I had to find courage to talk, people should also find courage to ask. It is only through talking about suicide that we can help erase the taboo around it.”
Like Kongsfelt and Iversen, Hansen sees a society that needs to be more open and willing to talk about grief and loss, both publicly and on a personal level.
“My father believed in getting on with it, with not showing any weaknesses. This kind of attitude is rather common. For example, we think it is tough to go to work if we are sick. But if you are sick, and try to walk it off instead of going to the doctor, you can end up making it ten times worse. We should be teaching kids in school that being ill is nothing to be ashamed of. It is completely normal.” M