When I Had A
A Q&A With Catherine Simpson
Lauren Nickodemus speaks with the author of When I Had a Little Sister about the experience of grieving a loved one through writing and reading.
Q. What moved you to write about your experience and share it publicly?
A: My sister Tricia died five years ago by suicide. At the time I thought I would never be able to write about it—it was too big, too catastrophic. After she died, we had to clear her house and we found lots of diaries, dating from age 14 to
when she died at 46. I thought at the time that I would never be able to read them, because I was really frightened of reading about her depression. She’d been depressed most of her life and was diagnosed as bipolar with psychotic episodes. I couldn’t face reading about it. So, I asked my older sister to take the diaries away and they stayed in her attic for two and a half years.
Then, I went on a writing retreat. I remembered the diaries and thought, maybe now is the time to read them. Two and a half years had given me enough courage. I took them with me; I read through them in a week and I learned all kinds of things I hadn’t known. I hadn’t realised quite how early she had actually sought help for her depression. But I also learned that she did have periods of great joy and creativity. So reading these diaries actually turned into a positive experience; it was a bit like having a conversation with her. She loved music, so every time she referred to a song I would listen to it. She used to smoke really heavily and the diaries smelled like that smoke. And so it was like she was there with me.
I started writing about it after that. I wrote the book for me, because I wanted to work out what had happened. I wanted to work out all the questions, all the guilt that you go through after somebody’s died that way. But then when I had the manuscript, I thought, actually, this could help other people who have been through something similar.
As it was being published, I was terrified. I was thinking, ‘What on earth have I done? This is private, it’s Tricia’s life. Should I really be doing this?’ Then I decided that Tricia would approve because she was very compassionate and she would want to help people.
Q. What was it like for you to talk openly about your experience of loss?
A: I didn’t start writing until I was 45, but the minute I did, I realized how hugely liberating it is to express what you really think. Since then, words have never let me down. If I’m going through something, I will write about it. A moment of panic, depression, fear—sometimes the only thing I can do is pick up a pen and describe what I’m going through. That feels like taking some kind of control of the moment.
To write about loss, grief, my own mental illness—there’s a message in your mind about it being a shameful thing, even though you know logically that it isn’t. But I’ve written it. It’s out there. So there’s no point in me not talking about it now. It’s one of the only ways I know to really heal. When you name and untangle your feelings, you work out how to move forward.
Q. The book is about ‘the need to speak the unspeakable’. Do you think that we have a cultural issue with talking about grief?
A: I think we definitely do. People understand grief in as much as they understand that you’re sad when somebody dies. But then there’s this obligation to ‘get over it’—to move on, probably too quickly. We’re all so keen to be seen as positive all the time, to be brave, and to be admired for being strong. But it’s not necessarily strong not to talk about something. It can be stronger to talk about it.
After Tricia died, people started coming to me—people I’ve known for years saying someone close to them had died by suicide. People don’t talk about it. It’s only after you’ve experienced it that other people come out and say ‘Yeah, I know what this is like.’
Maybe we don’t know what to say to other people to encourage them to speak about grief. Probably the best thing to do, if someone has lost somebody, is to talk about the person that they’ve lost. I find that really helpful. If you knew the person, share some stories, some memories.
Q. Do you have any ideas about how we can approach grief in a healthier way?
A: The more we talk openly about it, the easier it is for other people to do it. When you’re grieving, you can feel as though you’ve failed. ‘I should have recovered by now,’ you might be thinking. But it’s been five years since my sister died, and I still cry about it. Probably another ten years will go and I’ll still cry about it. And that’s all right. That’s normal. Even years on, you can be walking along and a thought hits you or a song comes on, and you find yourself crying again. The grief changes, but it’s still there. It comes with you, but it becomes more manageable and less overwhelming with time.
It’s important to remind people they’re not alone. I think we’ve got to be brave and be a bit more open, and find the right people to talk to. Find support groups. Meeting other people who have been through the same thing as you is the most helpful thing you can do, actually.
I think by writing the book I’ve helped myself in the best way I can. I’m still talking about
it. And I also feel like Tricia’s still a part of my life—she’s with me all the time, this is her book as well as mine. It’s a joint project with her. Obviously not everybody is going to be able to write a book, but they could memorialise a loved one in their own way. There’s lots of different ways of staying close to someone.
Q. Do you think we need to shift the way we talk about mental health as well?
A: We never spoke about mental illness in our family. We just tried to have this ‘keep calm carry on’ attitude—if we’re all brave enough, things will work out.
But in not speaking about something, it leaves you feeling powerless. I speak about my depression, because to not do so is almost like saying there’s something to be ashamed of, and feeling ashamed just makes the whole thing worse. It’s hard to talk about it, but I do it anyway.
A lot of people do understand because they have similar experiences, but maybe they aren’t talking about them. If everybody felt able to talk, probably we’d all realise that we do understand each other more than we think. To me, it can only be a good thing if people can talk more openly.
Q. What has the response been from readers who have also experienced loss or depression?
A: As soon as the book came out, I started hearing from people who had been through similar things. They were saying to me, ‘You’re telling my story.’ I think that’s really remarkable. People feel seen for the first time, heard for the first time. I’ve spoken to people who’ve never talked about a family suicide before. They’ve never dared to tell people. Feeling like you’ve helped someone to the extent that they can now talk about it openly is hugely moving. It’s hard to find something positive in what happened, but if it’s possible to, then this is something positive. I feel the book is a force for good.
On the topic of ‘Moving On’, it’s important to say that you don’t get over it. There isn’t really such a thing as closure—you just learn to live with what happened. The book has helped me at least try to make something positive and help other people, if possible. But there are many things in life that you don’t get over, you just learn to live with them. And it becomes more manageable over time. At first you can’t see a way beyond this experience, but day after day, it becomes part of you. You move on with it. Not past it. But with it.
When I Had A Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family Who Never Spoke (Fourth Estate, 2019) is available from all good bookshops now.