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It’s 40 years since Nick Drake died, aged 26. His music brought posthumous fame and a legion of fans still keen to speculate about the details of his life and work. Now his sister, Gabrielle, has written a revealing book about the singer-songwriter.
One evening in the late 1960s, Gabrielle Drake was walking down Haymarket in London with her younger brother, Nick. She was taking him for a birthday treat to see Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. “I’ll never forget that moment. It was about 6pm. He had the most wonderful figure – broad shoulders and a small bottom, nice waist. He was wearing a beautiful tweed jacket, which had a slightly high waistband and he looked so beautiful. I was so proud to be with him.”
Across the decades, that image of those glamorous strolling siblings remains poignant. It was late in the summer of love, 1967: Nick had just returned from Aix-en-Provence where he had been spending a gap year between Marlborough College and Cambridge University playing and singing in bars.
It was before everything happened: before Gabrielle became a celebrated actor, perhaps best known for her TV roles in The Brothers, UFO and Crossroads; before Nick recorded the three romantic, desolate albums that brought him only posthumous fame. It was before the years of Nick’s struggle with depression, which ended on the morning of 25 November 1974, when Molly and Rodney Drake found their 26-year-old son dead after overdosing on antidepressants in his room at their home, Far Leys, in Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire.
It was before Nick became fetishised, the depressives’ pin-up, a posthumous industry. Today, Gabrielle is the guardian of the flame. Rodney died in 1988, Molly five years later. Now it falls to Gabrielle to tend her brother’s grave under the beech tree in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth. “We’ve just had the gravestone removed because it’s been rather badly defaced one way and another with people chipping away at it.”
I tell Gabrielle that I once interviewed Oscar Wilde’s grandson, who was pleading with admirers not to cover his grandfather’s tomb in Père Lachaise, Paris, with lipstick kisses because it was damaging the stone. She smiles: “Somebody once said they saw someone taking a piece away from Nick’s grave and being thrilled. This person who said they saw that, said they tore them off a strip.”
Sometimes dead artists need to be protected from their admirers.
We’re meeting because Gabrielle is publicising a new book, Nick Drake: Remembered for a While. It’s a sumptuous coffee-table volume comprising family photographs, musical analysis of his songs, essays by Gabrielle about her family’s history in colonial Burma, where Nick was born in 1948, and tributes from friends and kindred spirits (“When the world seemed too remote, too difficult to negotiate,” writes gardening writer and broadcaster Monty Don, “I recognised in him a spirit brave and brilliant enough to articulate in music what was an incoherent fog within me”).
It’s a beautiful book, certainly, but hard to read because it includes so much hitherto private pain – not just family letters, but Rodney’s diary of his son’s struggle with depression. “The worst day of our lives …” it concludes. “So ends in tragedy our three-year struggle.”
Didn’t she have compunctions about publishing this intimate material? “I always vowed I’d never write a book about Nick and I would hate to have been seen as jumping on any kind of bandwagon,” says Gabrielle. “I did have compunctions until various publications and articles appeared that have got the story so wrong that I felt that before I pop my clogs I had better get the story straight.”
Gabrielle was distressed, for instance, that she was quoted in one report saying her brother died a virgin. “I never said any such thing because I don’t know! I have no idea. And I don’t mind what he was.” Her brother’s romantic life, like much else to do with Nick Drake, remains an enigma and a prompt for speculation.
But Gabrielle says she wanted to do more than set the record straight. “I also wanted to slightly complicate rather than clarify the Nick situation because it’s so easy to come up with trite answers – that he came from a stuffy, upper-middle-class background, nobody understood him. That kind of thing. Well, everybody did understand him and still it happened. It doesn’t matter how much you love someone, you can’t ultimately take the responsibility for them. You can do everything in your power but you might still fail.”
That’s what makes the book unbearable. For all the parental fondness evident in the letters to their son (one letter from Rodney to Nick when the latter was chucking in Cambridge to pursue music, you suspect, is all that a child could have wanted from a parent in such circumstances – loving and supportive, despite disagreeing with his decision) and for all that Far Leys was a place of refuge for their son in his depression years that led to his death, they could not save him.
“Far Leys was not only a refuge – it was a prison too,” says Gabrielle. “My father knew this and Nick said it too – that Nick found his home a prison. As well as the only place he could be.” The diaries chronicle the years of Nick’s depression at Far Leys, often uncommunicative, often disappearing without saying a word. “He led them a merry dance!” says Gabrielle. “But they never hung on to him at home. They couldn’t – they had to respect that he was a grown man. He was quite an impediment to their lives too while he was at home, though.”
In the early 1970s, Gabrielle would visit Far Leys in between recording The Brothers at Pebble Mill studios and painfully witness her evidently tortured brother. “Mostly Nick was uncommunicative and occasionally he’d become talkative and you hung on his every word even though, very often, one didn’t know what they meant because he’d talk in riddles. One wanted so much to do something to help, but just didn’t know what to do.”
Does she think Rodney and Molly would mind her publishing their letters and diaries? “If they’re up there looking down, I hope they’re not too cross.”
The remaining years of Molly and Rodney’s lives were dominated by their son’s death, she says: “They talked, I know, to parents in similar situations, trying to help them.” Viewed thus, the book is a continuation of their work. “I thought that it might just be of use to people going through similar problems. My brother once said to my mother, ‘If only I could feel that my music had helped anyone at all …’ and I just wish he would have known how many people have said to us over the years how his music had helped them.”
Gabrielle also discloses that her mother struggled with depression when she was young. Molly and Rodney had met in Rangoon before the war. He was an engineer with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, she the daughter of an officer in the Indian civil service. “Shortly after they were married, she had pneumonia and went through a depressive illness. But my father was a great stay and support. I think he helped her through it.”
Later, that was what Rodney tried to do for Nick.
A MOTHER’S GRIEF. . 16 September 2014 at 13:47
You ask me how I’m feeling,
but do you really want to know?
The moment I try telling you …
You say you have to go
How can I tell you,
what it’s been like for me
I am haunted, I am broken
By things that you don’t see
You ask me how I’m holding up,
but do you really care?
The second I try to speak my heart,
You start squirming in your chair.
Because I am so lonely,
you see, no one comes around,
I’ll take the words I want to say
And quietly choke them down.
Everyone avoids me now,
Because they don’t know what to say
They tell me I’ll be there for you,
then turn and walk away.
Call me if you need me,
that’s what everybody said,
But how can I call you and scream
into the phone,
My God, my child is dead?
No one will let me
say the words I need to say
Why does a mothers grief
scare everyone away?
I am tired of pretending
as my heart pounds in my chest,
I say things to make you comfortable,
but my soul finds no rest.
How can I tell you things
that are too sad to be told,
of the helplessness of holding a child
who in your arms grows cold?
Maybe you can tell me,
How should one behave,
who’s had to follow their child’s casket,
watched it perched above a grave?
You cannot imagine
what it was like for me that day
to place a final kiss upon that box,
and have to turn and walk away.
If you really love me,
and I believe you do,
if you really want to help me,
here is what I need from you.
Sit down beside me,
reach out and take my hand,
Say “My friend, I’ve come to listen,
I want to understand.”
Just hold my hand and listen
that’s all you need to do,
And if by chance I shed a tear,
it’s alright if you do too.
~~ AUTHOR UNKOWN~~
A MOTHER’S GRIEF.
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Please note that this article originally published in early 2012.
On June 25, 2011 Comfort Zone Camp, in partnership with the Samaritans and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, provided a specialized one-day program for kids and teens who had suffered the loss of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver to suicide. Twenty-five brave campers showed up bright and early at the Shore Country Day School in Beverly not knowing exactly what to expect. Many did not want to be there, and most were apprehensive.
Grief after a suicide is very complicated and messy. After any loss, adults and children need to be in a safe and gentle environment to feel and to express the tough emotions. Healing requires the permission to tell your story and for the ability to integrate the loss into your life. Suicide makes it almost impossible to find a kind, supportive place. The story often seems too horrific to tell and it is difficult to make any sense of what happened. I often think it would seem just as logical to a family if you told them that their loved one moved to Mars; suicide goes against how we are wired. It is not something we can comprehend.
When a person dies by suicide, there is no chance to anticipate or prepare. Many times people had no clue that their loved one was even struggling. It often blindsides them, leaving them completely off balance. After someone dies by suicide, I see a huge rock fall from the sky destroying the home and community of all the people touched by this death, and not only do these people need to rebuild but first they need to chip away the rock before they can even start to recover.
Suicide deaths are traumatic and are many times violent making it hard to tell others. Survivors do not want others to judge their loved ones or question their relationship with the person. They can become very protective. Also often not everyone knows that the person died by suicide, so it can all be very secretive and confusing.
After a suicide, the survivors are left with many unanswered questions, important pieces of the puzzle missing. They desperately to create a narrative that will explain why the person took her life. They become private investigators leaving no stone unturned, studying phone bills and their loved one’s behaviors, and interviewing anyone who had contact with their loved one to no avail. There is never a satisfying answer that solves the unknowing. Survivors relive events leading up to the death. The “what if’s” haunt them. They live with the “would haves, should haves, and could haves” causing much anxiety and guilt.
Survivors begin to doubt themselves. If this person could take his life without me knowing, who else do I know who is suicidal? Why didn’t she think she could come and talk to me and let me know what was going on, wasn’t I a good friend? Parent? Daughter? Brother? This can bring on feelings of anger. Didn’t this person know how loved she was?
There is also can be a great deal of shame when someone you love dies by suicide. People in the community hear rumors, make assumptions and judge not only the person who died but the people who loved that person. Suicide deaths are often very public and most people do not understand most people who take their own lives suffer from diagnosable mental illness. People do not take their lives because they had one bad day or because they had a weak moment. It does not happen because someone breaks up with them or they lost a job. People who die by suicide don’t want to die they just need the pain to stop.
For both adults and children who have lost a loved one to suicide, it is important they find a space where they feel safe and supported. They need room to investigate and ask the hard questions, slowly at their own pace, realizing that the answers they stumble upon will never be enough. Survivors of suicide need to learn more about mental illness and unlearn the myths that surround suicide. It can help tremendously if they know that this grief holds some different responses and feelings than other losses. To hear, that they are not the only ones reliving the events that lead up to their loved ones death, questioning what they did and what they did not do, and slowly come to a place of acceptance. An acceptance that allows them to trust they did the very best they could and that love is not part of the equation. The person they lost was loved and loved them, the disease just won.
Adults and children who lost someone to suicide need to find ways to remember the whole person. The way someone dies should not define his or her life. It is a part of their story but it is far from the whole story. And the thing that most survivors say is the most helpful in their healing is to be around other survivors. This community of support allows them to remember their loved one, talk about the complex emotions, be in a safe environment where they can ask the tough questions, and see that they are not alone.
Days like Saturday, June 25, 2011 are so vital and so incredibly powerful. For children and teens to be at a one day camp, in the same room with other children who also lost someone to suicide, was an amazing gift. The ripple effects will continue allowing each camper new opportunities to trust and to heal. No one was judging them, caring adults and peers were not afraid to ask them about their feelings and experiences, and they were allow to celebrate the life of the loved one, not get stuck in how that person died. It normalized the death and it gave them a voice, and sense of community and hope. One camper’s evaluation says it best, “This is the best I’ve felt since my father’s death – Thank You.”
The one day camp was so powerful and so effective that a second camp has been scheduled for March 2012. As long as children and teens face suicide losses, they will need this kind of safe place to share, heal, and grow.
If you ever feel that you are in danger of harming yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline is staffed with caring individuals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Special thanks to Kim Kates, Director of Grief Support Services for Samaritans. Samaritans’ goal is to reduce the risk of suicide and increase awareness about suicide prevention throughout the Greater Boston and MetroWest areas. For more information, please visit www.samaritanshope.org or call one of their 24 hour helplines at (617) 247-0220 or (508) 875-4500.
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Recently, my world was turned upside down. My 19-year-old son succumbed to the illness of depression and took his own life. As many have said previously, this pain is something no parent should have to endure. There are no words to express the depth of the guilt, anger, sadness, and sorrow that is felt by a parent when their child dies so young, especially one who was surrounded by as much love and faced a future with as much promise as my son, Lucas.
There are no words that can console me. Any death is a sad and difficult thing for the family members of the departed, but it’s also difficult for the family and friends who support them. Each tries to find the words that may help their own grieving and assist in alleviating the torment of those left behind, yet words often fail.
The Inadequacy of Words
The inadequacy of words that console is exacerbated when a child takes his or her own life. It’s a loss that adds the additional burdens of unbearable remorse and unanswered questions to already grieving parents; the general ambiguity heightens the pain and prolongs the grieving process.
Yet, we fall back on words. We tell the survivors to be strong, to remember the good times, and to keep the faith. We search out the platitudes and phrases that were shared with us when we lost a loved one or that we read on a sympathy card. We try our best.
Unfortunately — and especially in the case of a suicide — words fail. Perhaps they should not be shared at all. Despite the best intentions of those offering these words, words often serve to worsen the pain felt by those grieving.
Below I’d like to share a few of the words and phrases that have failed to comfort me in the wake of my loss.
Words That Fail
1. “How are you doing?”
There’s only one answer to that question: “I’m terrible, thanks for asking.” However, what I say is “I’m doing OK,” or “I’m as well as can be under the circumstances.” In reality, I’m saying that only for your benefit. What I want to say is: “I’m devastated.” “I’m sleepless and exhausted.” “My pain is so deep I can’t bear to see the daylight.”
Instead of asking how I’m doing, give me a quiet hug. Tell me you’re praying for me, or share a story of how my son touched your life in a positive way.
2. “Be strong.” “Be strong for…”
One of the more common advice shared when people came to pay their respects was “be strong.” If being strong means that I should not grieve, pretend that my heart was not just ripped out of my chest, and that I shouldn’t not show any emotion, well that’s just not possible. When your child commits suicide, pausing your grief is akin to trying to hold back a tsunami with an umbrella. It’s impossible, and in the rare case that the person has the fortitude to try, it’s not healthy. It only serves to prolong the agony.
Likewise, don’t tell any surviving young siblings to be strong for their parents. They are children; it’s we who should be strong for them. Instead of telling me, my wife or my daughter to be strong, please be strong for us. Be there with a hug, a shoulder to lean on, or just be there by our side quietly for as long as we need.
3. “The holidays will be tough.”
We lost our son in mid-October and so it’s natural to think of the upcoming holidays. I’ve been warned that this coming Christmas will be very tough and several people have suggested we should get away for a vacation. Yes, birthdays and holidays will undoubtedly be tough, but why terrorize me in advance of the event? I don’t know how I’m going to feel during that time. It might be OK; I may take solace in my faith, at my church, or among family as we recount the contributions my son made to this world during his short time with us.
Again, it’s better to simply be there. Instead of warning me of the impending dread, during the holidays please just take time to join me for a coffee, share a story, and lend a shoulder if I need it.
4. “I’m in so much pain for you.”
Few suffer in isolation. The pain felt by parents of a deceased child is shared by their parents, their siblings, and their friends. Our family is incredibly fortunate to have a very large network of people who truly love us and our son so the pain is shared by many.
The challenge is to not let your pain or your sorrow as a friend become a burden on the grieving parents of the child. They should be not be required to console you, to hold you up as you faint, or to be strong so you can manage your grief.
Knowing that many people are suffering right along with us is both a blessing and a curse. We feel the love and it certainly helps; we’re truly blessed to be surrounded by so many caring people. On the other hand, we cannot grieve ourselves if we’re busy consoling others.
Why I’m Sharing This
I hope that my intentions are clear in writing this article. I do not wish to criticize anyone who has shared their love with us or who has attempted to console us. We see and feel the love and are truly grateful.
I’m sharing this list of lessons learned by a father grieving the loss of his son with the utmost respect, in the hopes that it will help you better support those who may be grieving in your life. Your presence is immeasurably more powerful than your words in such times.
Have a story about depression that you’d like to share? Emailstrongertogether@huffingtonpost.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Follow Sam Fiorella on Twitter: www.twitter.com/samfiorella
I may often need to tell you what happened
or to ask you why it happened.
Each time I discuss my loss, I am helping myself
face the reality of the death of my loved one.
I need to know that you care about me.
I need to feel your touch, your hugs.
I need you just to be “with” me.
And I need to be with you.
I need to know you believe in me and in my
ability to get through my grief in my own way.
And in my own time.
Please don’t judge me now
or think that I’m behaving strangely.
Remember I’m grieving.
I may even be in shock.
I may feel afraid. I may feel deep rage.
I may even feel guilty. But above all, I hurt.
I’m experiencing a pain unlike any I’ve ever felt before.
Don’t worry if you think I’m getting better
and then suddenly I seem to slip backward.
Grief makes me behave this way at times.
And please don’t tell me you “know how I feel,”
or that it’s time for me to get on with my life.
I am probably already saying this to myself.
What I need now is time to grieve and to recover.
Most of all, thank you for being my friend.
Thank you for your patience.
Thank you for caring.
Thank you for helping, for understanding.
Thank you for praying for me.
And remember, in the days or years ahead,
when you may have a loss – when you need me
as I have needed you – I will understand.
And then I will come and be with you.
~ Barbara Hills LesStrang
“Friendship Trees Reuniting” painting by Sharon Lee Samyn
In 2003, I lost a beloved and revered mentor. Much like with Robin Williams, information was initially scarce: all I knew at first was that he had died the night before. A few hours later, I crossed paths with a friend and we immediately started talking about what we had just found out. I shook my head and mumbled, “I just wish I knew how he died.”
My friend stared at me and said, “Abby, he killed himself.”
There were some things I did right in the wake of his suicide. I went to his memorial service and I cried on the shoulders of those who were supportive and I distanced myself from those who weren’t. I wrote poetry and I scribbled in my diary to process the unprocessable. I found little ways to keep his memory alive. I spent hours talking with friends about our favorite memories, his funniest jokes, his most brilliant moments. There’s a sound wave of an American Top 40 Long Distance Dedication floating somewhere out there in the universe, with Casey Kasem’s voice reading my letter about saying good-bye far too soon.
And there were some things I did horribly wrong. I was hurt and I was angry and I didn’t understand depression and I was quick to do what Fox News and others have been doing in light of Robin Williams’ passing: I questioned the act separate from the disease and I labeled it all the things you should never label suicide. In 2003, I had wished for a time machine so I could go back to before his suicide and remind him just how many people loved him and looked up to him. In 2014, I wish for a time machine so I could go back to when I was waiting in line at the wake and thinking “selfish,” over and over and over again to myself and educate 16-year-old me on what depression really is.
We have a saying whenever someone’s life ends due to cancer. We say that they’ve “lost their battle” with cancer. The phrase can be problematic, I’ll be the first to admit: it can potentially put an unfair onus on the patient, as if they succumbed to the disease because they didn’t work hard enough. But we never look at them with disdain, never shake our heads and go, “What a coward. They died due to their cancer.”
Perhaps its time we start seeing depression in the same light as cancer. There will always be differences; the nuances in treatments and behaviors will always vary depending on the disease, the person, the circumstances, everything. Nothing in life is ever that black and white. But maybe people would better understand such a misunderstood illness if we stopped viewing it as the “crazy person” problem and started viewing it on a more medical level, the same way we view cancer.
Because it can strike without warning. It can strike at all levels and with varying degrees of severity. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your life is, how easy or hard you have it, what you’ve done or not done to maintain your health. It’s something that doesn’t just go away with positive thinking. It’s something that might never go away. It’s something that can go into remission, only to resurface years later. And it can end lives.
But, most importantly, it’s something that needs to be treated, and treated without judgment on the moral character of the patient. It is something that requires an intricate network of support and love, but with an understanding that support and love alone is not enough to stop the disease. It is something that we cannot blame the patient or ourselves for, because no one deserves it and no one brings it on themselves.
It breaks my heart every time a life is lost due to depression. Just like it breaks my heart that people can tell their doctors their family history of physical health issues, but remain silent on any potential history of mental health issues – either because they are ashamed to admit that they have “crazy” people in their family, they are ashamed to admit that they might be genetically predisposed to be “crazy” as well, or because such information is kept hidden and unspoken, like the worst of family secrets.
Had I known more about how depression works when I was 16, I might’ve been able to grieve in healthier way. It is not cowardly when depression wins out and that person takes their life. But it certainly is tragic. Maybe we can stop viewing suicide as a “way out” of anything and start viewing it as a sign that someone lost their battle with depression. And maybe people who are uninformed about disorders of the brain can drop the ignorant words and phrases and open up a proper dialogue about mental health.