The Diary of Dr. Sharon McDonnell

Aged 53 and 3/4

So where shall I begin?  My life before my brother died, my experience of being bereaved by suicide, my work as a researcher, my vision to develop the first suicide bereavement research unit in the UK or my exciting travel fellowship to Australia and New Zealand, kindly funded by Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (

I think a good starting point would be for you to understand my motivation for working in the field of suicide bereavement. So, that’s where I will begin, my experience of being bereaved by suicide.

Like most people, suicide and its implications were not on my radar.  However, if I had ever considered this issue, I would have thought that it only happened to other people and their families.  I have no doubt that many of you reading this will relate to this view. Sadly, I have learnt from personal experience that this is not the case.

My brother died by suicide on December 29th 1990.  He was twenty-nine years of age and left a wife aged twenty-seven, a daughter aged eight, a mother, father, one brother and four sisters ranging in age from twelve to thirty. I was the eldest.

He had never been diagnosed as clinically depressed nor mentally ill, neither had he made any previous attempts, nor shown any overt signs of severe depression.  There was no indication of his impending death.  His death has had a profound effect upon the lives of all of us, each of us attempting to cope with the loss in our own way.  My own experience taught me that the relationship between mother and child, father and child, and siblings, differ in many ways.  Therefore,  even though family members have all lost the same person, their feelings of grief and sense of loss are quite different.  Each member of my family experienced an array of emotions such as denial, shame, shock, anger, distress and self blame to name a few.  There was no emotional compass for our loss.  All we had was each other. No family to compare with or provision of support.  It seems little has changed since my loss.

Personally, I was deeply distressed to think that my brother, who had seemed so well balanced and in control of his own life, had felt that he had no other option than to die.  For many months I tormented myself by worrying and wondering how he had felt as he planned his own destruction.  Was he crying?  Was he angry?  And I also questioned why he felt that his only option was to die.  Consequently, the question ‘Why?’ dominated my thoughts for a long period, principally, why had he felt that he couldn’t speak to anyone about his distress?  The loss of my brother had a profound effect on my assumptive world and that of my family. I also questioned other aspects of life: If we couldn’t predict my brother’s death, what other disasters were in store for us?  What other fate awaited us?  Would another family member die as a result of self-destruction?  Was suicide hereditary?  Thus, I realised that for many, in the early stages of suicide bereavement, the world becomes an unpredictable and frightening place.

As time has passed I have worked through my grief.  I no longer torment myself about why my brother chose to end his life.  I have learnt that this is a fruitless quest and I have learnt to accept what I cannot change.  However, I do believe that nobody can possibly understand how it feels to be bereaved through suicide unless they have experienced it themselves. Therefore, if an adequate and appropriate support service is ever to be provided, it is necessary for those bereaved by suicide to find the courage to share their painful thoughts and experiences to enable professionals to acquire a clearer understanding of the emotional pain suffered by those bereaved by suicide.

It is also important to note the vulnerability and needs of professionals who are often anxious and uncertain how to respond to those bereaved by suicide.

I believe that by sharing my personal experiences of loss and my expertise in suicide bereavement, might help to reduce stigma, increase understanding of the vulnerabilities and needs of those bereaved by suicide and increase the confidence of those they come into contact with who they are dependent upon for their sensitivity, compassion and care.