Handmade cutlery and a fluorescent running coat: What’s left behind after suicide?


For Survivors of Suicide Loss Day (18 November), Carl shares the thoughts, feelings, and things that were left behind after his uncle took his own lifeContent warning: suicide and self-harm. Take care when reading.

At my uncle Jim’s funeral, his friend told a story about life after the army.

Jim moved to Newcastle to take on the role of godfather to this mate’s daughters after retiring in his 40s. Apparently he took great pride in teaching the two girls vital life skills.

In the supermarket, for example, Jim would open a vegetable freezer, fart inside, and immediately shut the door. The three of them would hide around the corner and watch with delight when a stranger opened the door and got hit in the face by the scent of a perfectly preserved guff.

It’s not a particularly kind story for the strangers. But my uncle Jim wasn’t a perfect man. He was a human. And not a shopping trip goes by where I don’t walk down the freezer aisle wishing he didn’t take his own life.

Window sills and salt and vinegar Pringles

It’s funny what you remember about a phone call that changes your life forever.

I was sat on a window sill in the spare room of my Southampton house, while jolly rumblings of a party in the living room seeped through cracks in the door. My mate’s sleeping bag was at my feet, surrounded by deflated footballs, dead Christmas decorations, and gravestones shaped like forgotten cups of water.

My Mum navigated the difficult job of telling me my dad’s brother had killed himself and, before I knew it, I was in a car eating a tube of salt and vinegar Pringles crisps pretending to listen to the radio.

That weekend in my family home of Swindon was a blur of cups of tea, hands on shoulders, inappropriate jokes, and holding back tears. We got through it and back to work we went on Monday.

But I didn’t know what to do with myself on my own. Mental health had never felt neither real nor relevant to my life. I was 24 and, being honest, ignorantly stigmatising in my thoughts about people struggling.

Hearing my six foot two, 4x4-driving, Grant Mitchell lookalike, Gulf War veteran, super soldier of an uncle felt he couldn’t continue living opened my eyes once and for all.

I decided to learn more. I watched videos by the Samaritans. I read websites like rethink.org. I followed Mind and CALM on social media. I read books like A Life too Short by Ronald Reng.

But no matter how much I learned, I still couldn’t respond when people asked, “How are you doing, Carl?”

Handmade cutlery and a fluorescent running coat

On a visit to my Nan’s house six months after he died, I saw a picture in her dining room of Jim wearing a black bag holding a bottle of Lucozade. It turns out he’d taken part in the Great North Run and she gave me a fluorescent, lime green running coat they’d found in some of his boxes.

It was thin. It was garish. The zip was randomly on backwards. And it fit me perfectly. Then the penny dropped: If I didn’t know how to talk about things, why not run the pain away?

So I did. I ran half marathons, marathons, 10Ks - you name it, I ran it.

I ran and raised money for mental health charities. I ran and did what I could to write what I’d learned about suicide in my donation pages. I ran and ran and wished it would rain so I could train in the not-so waterproof skin my uncle wore not long before he died.

  • Forcing someone to talk when they’re not ready can be equally as damaging as not giving someone the floor to express themselves.

It means the world that Jim now lives with me in the things he left behind. And it’s not just his running jacket. He seemingly had a thing for unnecessarily large and heavy Le Creuset cooking equipment.

His casserole dish says hello to me in the morning when I make a cup of tea; his red utensil holder keeps me company while I wait for the microwave to ding; and the handmade, cylindrically-handled cutlery he bought from a war-torn village sleeps gently in my kitchen drawer.

I love that cutlery. It’s not dishwasher-safe, so every night when the flat gets dark and cosy, I spend five minutes wiping pie off knives and gravy off forks with my fingerprints, wondering what Jim’s last meal was.

Coping with suicide loss

Losing someone to suicide can cause overwhelming shock and grief. Everyone will have different thoughts after losing a loved one, but there is no such thing as a normal feeling.

Shirley Bassey and a best friend

Jim didn’t leave a note. My family heard the news through his good friend in Newcastle. Jim had popped round a few days earlier asking if they would look after his dog because he was heading to Swindon to see his mum.

His body was found by the police in his house along with every item he owned neatly packed up. The floors and counters were clean. The garden was mowed. His decision clearly made.

During the first few years after his death, conversations about Jim and suicide in my family were short. Not through malice, we just didn’t have the language to articulate how we felt.

Discussing mental health over a roast dinner or in school with your pals is a pretty new (and wild) thing. We all cope differently. Forcing someone to talk when they’re not ready can be equally as damaging as not giving someone the floor to express themselves.

It took my family time to be open. It took some members experiencing panic attacks and night terrors of their own. It took some experiencing anxiety for the first time. It took me owning up to the fact I’d been self-harming since I was 18 and perhaps a little therapy was in order.

  • We talk about the dog he left behind, his army regulation saucepan too heavy for me to lift, how he’s the only one of my uncles who could pull off an earring.

Confusing legacy

And with mental health more out in the open, I’ve found a lightness in our family chats about Jim.

We talk about how he had to leave my parents’ wedding with the flu and got reprimanded by the police for climbing the drainpipe at my Nan’s house in a top hat and tails because he forgot his key. We laugh at how much Shirley Bassey was in his record collection (and now mine).

We talk about the dog he left behind, his army regulation saucepan too heavy for me to lift, how he’s the only one of my uncles who could pull off an earring.

I got to a point where I felt comfortable telling everyone in the speech at my wedding about the great, and confusing influence Jim’s death has had on my life. I shared how it got me learning, it got me running, it got me talking. I explained how it lead to me getting a job in the mental health sector, and how that job introduced me to my wife.

And now I get to tell my son why our cutlery is very special and how, yes, I’m aware how daft I look in Jim’s fluorescent green running coat. Get used to it, buddy.

Supporting someone

People have suicidal thoughts for many different reasons. If you’re worried that someone you know may be having suicidal thoughts, read our advice page.