Cumbria’s first suicide support group launched

Grief manifests in as many different ways as there are different people who experience it. It often reshapes a person forever, just as a storm leaves a transformed landscape in its wake.

For Jane Thompson, the pain at losing her daughter, Lisa Bertoletti, helped her find her voice, quite literally. “I’d never said the f-word before. But I would shout it out through letter boxes,” she says, eyes wide with wry incredulity.

The thought of the glamorous Jane – a retired Cumbrian businesswoman who once ran Dalston Hall Hotel and busy restaurants in Carlisle city centre – on her hands and knees at a letter box bawling profanity out into the street is comedic.

Yet the anecdote about how she once tried to articulate her bereavement is heartbreaking too.

Lisa died a decade ago. A gifted musician and linguist, she was just 30 when she was killed after being struck by a train while trying to cross the railway track near the Devonshire Walk car park in Carlisle.

Lisa had a long history of mental health difficulties, which led to suicide attempts and time in psychiatric hospitals.

It was agonising for those who loved her and Jane describes her daughter as “tortured” during this time.

Since Lisa’s death Jane, of Baldwinholme, near Great Orton, has campaigned with fierce energy – the voice she found in grief has been channelled into speaking up for Cumbrians suffering from severe mental health problems.

Among other roles in charities and organisations, she’s vice-chairman of Croftlands Trust – the organisation works with people across social care, including people with mental health, drug and alcohol issues and brain injured adults.

Within weeks of Lisa’s death, she set up the Lisa Bertoletti Sanctuary Fund to provide a safe haven for people with mental health problems and depression.

The inquest into Lisa’s death recorded an open verdict and Jane has never believed Lisa intended to take her own life at that time. “She had a list in her pocket of all of the things she needed to do in order to go back to living in her own flat,” says Jane. “It was a tragedy.”

Yet mental health and suicide are inextricably linked. And in Cumbria, suicide rates are 25 per cent higher than the UK average. With the economic and social pressures of modern life mounting, suicide prevention is perhaps more crucial now than ever before.

People from every walk of life die through suicide – debt and job losses are often motivating factors.

“Doctors and vets are at risk,” says Elissa Robinson, a former senior social worker in Cumbria. “Farmers too, because of the isolation they often live in.

“There are the people returning from Afghanistan. And young men are a particularly vulnerable group – you have just left school, there’s no work for you, you have just broken up with your girlfriend and you think ‘what’s the point?’.

“People who have been made redundant too – sometimes they will inhibit a fantasy world, they will continue leaving for work in the morning.

“It is said that some people commit suicide over a long period of time.”

These factors are recognised by the recent suicide prevention strategy and action plan recently published by NHS Cumbria.

Organisations including the Samaritans, the National Trust and the Cumbria Mental Health Group are working to reduce the number of suicides in Cumbria by 20 per cent in the next few years.

Though with every death, many more lives are changed forever as families and friends are left behind to mourn.

Recognition of this led to Cumbria Mental Health Group (CMHG) spearheading a Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) group which met in Keswick for the first time last week.

Elissa says grief following sudden death is very similar to bereavement experienced by people who lose someone through suicide.

“One day you are living your life and someone knocks on your door and your life is never the same again,” she says.

“The anger, the guilt and ‘should I have done anything different’.”

She also believes Jane’s tireless campaigning after her daughter’s death is not uncommon.

“There will be people who respond by using their experience to help people. Then there will be others who will decide they are on the road to recovering and will go in a different direction. There’s no right or wrong.”

Elissa speaks from personal and professional experience. Her world fell apart when her husband Peter died in an explosion in Singapore 31-years-ago.

Her grief found her wandering atop hills, oblivious to the outside world. She’d snap back into consciousness, unaware of how she came to be there.

Sudden death, and particularly suicide, still remains a taboo at worst and an uncomfortable subject at best. “With sudden loss, other people can’t deal with it,” Elissa says. “They avoid you. I saw people duck into side streets to avoid me.

“Or they come out with statements like ‘there will be light at the end of the tunnel’. “All of these euphemisms make you feel more isolated – you think ‘I can’t see that light, and if I could, what if it’s heading right for me at speed?’.”

For Jane there’s still the guilt that creeps in even now, defying logic yet potent non-the-less. She talks about her own bulimic behaviours during a time of stress in her distant past – one of the first signs of Lisa’s decline was the eating disorder. Jane also talks in a disjointed way about how, on the morning of Lisa’s death, she’d heard her daughter leave the house.

And there’s the sorrow that the hand of time can do nothing to erase. When Jane describes Lisa as “my beautiful daughter”, her composure cracks and she sobs.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just when I call her beautiful.”

Jane and Elissa, now a Penrith councillor and member of the CMHG review committee, bonded over their experiences. It is a particular kind of friendship, formed more through what can remain unsaid, than by any words that pass between the pair.

“You realise that somebody knows what you are feeling without even having to say it,” says Elissa.

As the direct and passionate Jane talks in volleys about her daughter, her grief and the mission to empower people with mental health problems and their carers, the more softly spoken Elissa often responds with “you’ve put your finger on it”. It is clear that such mutual understanding gives both women, chalk and cheese as they first appear to be, a kind of strength.

Jane says: “Elissa and I just clicked. There’s no judgement.”

Both women were surrounded by well-meaning friends and relatives at the time of their bereavement, some of whom proved to be towers of strength. But that connection with people who have experienced the devastation of raw grief first hand can’t be matched.

And this is why the SOBS group is so crucial, according to the pair.

“Peer support is so important,” says Jane. “You can hear someone else’s experiences and know that you are not alone. The group is to help people through a kind of rehabilitation and for everyone that will be different.”

“You can talk as much as you like, or say nothing at all,” says Elissa.

“But help is there. Life will eventually become different, not better or worse, just different.”

Elissa doesn’t like the word “journey” as applied to life after bereavement. “It’s not a pathway, it’s a maze,” she says. But following her husband’s death, she returned to her education, taking A-Levels, a degree and later becoming a social worker.

“I remember the day I graduated,” she says. “I sat there wondering if anyone else in the hall felt like I did. I’m not given to punching the air, but I did. I wanted to punch the air.

“Not because I was proud, but because I’d survived.

“Out of something tragic, other things come. You can look at the fallen trees and make a bonfire. Or you can plant more trees.”

And Jane? She believes she has become a better person. “I live my life day by day,” she says. “I live it to the full. And I’ve become a much nicer person than I was.”

Mental health services in the county have come on in leaps and bounds since Lisa was alive, according to Jane.

Work with people with mental health difficulties and their carers is improving all of the time.

Yet Jane’s mission remains strong. “Purpose in life was something I’d searched for before. The day Lisa died I knew my purpose.

“And I’m sure about what I’m doing. By helping other people, Lisa’s death was not in vain – she would be proud.

“People need to know there is hope. There is always hope.”

    * For more information about the SOBS group call 07896 703757 or 07572 975721.
    * For anyone who needs help, the Samaritans is a confidential, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week service, on 08457 90 90 90.
    * People can also contact NHS Direct 24 hours a day for advice and support on 0845 4647.