Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide. Some readers may find this distressing.
Over the past two decades, prevention efforts have helped reduce global suicide rates by a third. It does, however, still claim an estimated 700,000 lives worldwide each year (almost two thousand a day) although - with many countries under-reporting deaths by suicide coupled with issues of stigma, religion and illegality - there is a need to view statistics with caution. Globally, the rate is twice as high amongst men and, in the UK, suicide remains the biggest killer of males under 50.
It’s one of those messages I shall never forget. It was May 2021; the UK was coming out of a second lockdown, and I was in Wales to collect a puppy. My phone vibrated on the hotel bedside. I turned it over to see a message from a friend asking, “Have you heard about Derek?”. I hadn’t. But I knew.
The first time I met my friend I remember masquerading a sigh as my internal voice muttered “What an arrogant sod!”.
We were at a boxing gym in Thailand and before class one sweltering afternoon he swaggered his way over. Shirtless in 90-degree heat, he was more than six feet with chiselled good looks, broad shoulders, a six-pack and looked as though he’d just popped across from a Men’s Health cover shoot. He walked over from chatting to the most attractive woman in the gym (of course) and said: “Hi, I’m Derek. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?”
Along with mutual friends, I smile now because everything about this guy we should have disliked. His looks, his confidence, his effortless popularity. Most of the women probably wanted to date him. All the men wanted to go hang out with him over a beer.
Well, as the saying goes - and it’s a lesson to which we should all heed (and on a daily basis) -“Never judge a book by its cover”.
The person I met that day turned out to be one of the most naturally empathetic and intuitive people with whom I’ve ever crossed paths. It’s not an especially fashionable trait in these times but he exuded kindness – and did so by the bucket load.
We became friends instantly. It was a friendship conducted across thousands of miles – and on the occasions, we’d meet up again in Thailand - but it was honest, deep, meaningful and we helped each other through some tough moments. I always remember smiling when I’d wake-up in the morning and – due to the time difference – see a waiting message from him illuminated on my phone.
When my father died, Derek was in regular contact, checking in on me and doing that rare thing we all need to do way more when we ask someone “How are you?”. I’d say “Yes, I’m fine thanks.” And I’d get back: “No dude! How are you? Really?”. I didn’t know at the time quite the extent of the turmoil and torment he was going through which, with hindsight, made his inherent empathy even more remarkable.
Sadly, our friendship wasn’t destined to span the decades for, in May 2021, my buddy took his own life. He was 35. I know that had he not, our friendship had every indication of being life-long.
In the realms of loss, suicide is one of the most acute and visceral things those of us left must deal with on this journey we call “life”. Someone said to me recently that it “blindsides” you… and “it just keeps on blindsiding you”.
More than two years have now passed and so often it’s the little things, the small reminders that dwarf the larger picture, the wider expanse of loss. It’s the chat about stuff and nonsense. It’s the banter; the guy talk. It’s the “Hey man, what do you reckon I should do about..?” And it’s the deeper conversations about life, relationships, and family. Yes, men do have those exchanges but clearly nowhere near as often as we should.
I know I’d pay a princely sum now for one more chat with my friend.
I’m no expert on bereavement by suicide and its turbulent aftermath but I have, as I learn more, come to understand that – in so many instances – those who decide they no longer wish to be a part of this world possess a certain “quality”.
I’d watch my friend on numerous occasions and marvel at his ability to make whomever he was talking to feel, not just at ease, but like they were the most important person in that gym, bar or restaurant. And he did it with such natural charm, such honesty and by being so open and non-judgemental to whatever he got back.
With any bereavement, time does heal. If not heal, then at the very least it does dull the pain. With suicide, it’s intertwined with all those regrets: those what ifs?, those “I wish I could have spoken to him/her on that day”. And then there are all those unanswered questions. But, as a counsellor said to me, “The reason it (suicide) is so hard is because we don’t know. We just don’t know. And we’ll never know.”
My friend and I had shared passions for travel and for Muay Thai (Thai boxing) and it is in these, for me, the most painful of memories are stirred.
I want to message him when I visit some new destination, or when I returned to his (and my) “happy place” in Thailand earlier this year – that was tough. Or when I’ve had an especially good or - more likely for me - bad session “on the pads”. It those moments that catch you unaware.
But there are also moments that make me smile and make me feel that, no matter how fleetingly, I am honoured I met that swaggering, gentle giant that day in Thailand. And I’m proud that, albeit briefly, I got to call him “my friend”.