Catherine Simpson was diagnosed with cancer just before the launch of her book about her sister’s suicide. As the paperback edition is published she tells Fiona Finch how the local public’s response has helped her through a difficult year.
How can a family ever come to terms with the suicide of a much-loved daughter and sister?
And what happens in the aftermath of such loss?
They are questions Catherine Simpson has spent the last six years considering.
Catherine was due back on her Lancashire home ground next month to give a talk about the sister she lost to suicide and the book she wrote about the family’s bereavement.
This week the talk was postponed due to concerns about Coronavirus. But Catherine has pledged: “I will definitely be coming back. We just can’t put a date on it.”
Proceeds from the talk and special luncheon are to be divided between a local mental health charity and St Luke’s Church at Winmarleigh, near Garstang, where her mother, sister and cousin are buried.
For Catherine (pictured below) the invitation from St Luke’s was an affirmation that her sister, a member of the congregation at St Luke’s, is remembered with affection and also a recognition that much more needs to be done to help those suffering mental health problems.
Her sister Tricia was 46 when she took her own life in 2013, after years suffering from poor mental health.
When former journalist and author Catherine, 56, decided to write her family’s story she was worried it might have been the wrong thing to do.
But the book ‘When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family Who Never Spoke’ was published to much acclaim and opened new doors which cast a wider light on Tricia’s life. It is a year since the book came out in hardback and the new paperback edition, published by 4th Estate, costs £9.99.
Both girls grew up on a farm on Winmarleigh and attended Garstang High School and Catherine has been surprised at how many people have shared memories and photos of Tricia in happier times.
It has also been a year of change for Catherine, who lives in Edinburgh. While awaiting publication of the book she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She said: “When it came out I had a launch in Edinburgh but I wanted to do something in Lancashire but I wasn’t that well at the time. The lunch will be a great opportunity to come back where the book is set and where I grew up. I’m hoping it will be a great success so we can raise money for the church and a mental health charity.
“The best thing about the last year has been the book’s reception which has been really, really positive. Part of that has been being contacted by people who knew Tricia who I didn’t know. They’ve been sharing their memories of her with me.”
From fellow pupils at school and from night school classes in motor vehicle engineering, to someone who listened to her playing the piano, a vet and those who shared Tricia’s love of horse riding there have been so many lovely anecdotes which have cheered Catherine.
She said: “It’s amazing how many people have been in touch over the past year - people who knew things I didn’t know.”
She has also heard from those who did not know Tricia but were moved by her story: “People made contact from America and Australia - it’s absolutely phenomenal. A lot of the messages were saying things like ‘I don’t feel so alone’(or) ‘I’ve never read a book about sibling suicide before’.”
Some correspondents acknowledged how difficult it can be dealing with your own grief as a sibling and trying to support a parent or parents through their loss too.
Catherine continued: “All the doubts I had before the book came out ... I was wondering had I done the right thing to write the book? Was I invading Tricia’s privacy? I really didn’t know.
When the first reviews came out that were really good I started to relax.”
She got message after message via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all testifying to the positive difference Tricia had made to their lives. Catherine said: “I know Tricia would really appreciate that. She was a compassionate person who really cared about people.”
On how Tricia coped with her illness and the help she got, Catherine is clear that better communication and support would have helped.
She recalled how Tricia would have bouts of paranoia and how the NHS obligations on patient confidentiality did not help someone so isolated in the countryside and with her particular problems.
She said: “There was very, very poor communication in the family. It was compounded by the obligation to privacy which did not do Tricia any favours. I feel Tricia could have benefited from being part of a network group...I stil have lots of memories of Tricia locking herself in the house, not coming out and being withdrawn.”
Catherine acknowledges there might well be a group like that, but not one that Tricia knew about or used.
“I’ve spent quite a lot of this year talking about Tricia because I’ve been talking about the book.
“I do feel for me it has really helped me process what’s happened. She’s still a big part of my life. You don’t want to feel the person has been forgotten and I certainly don’t feel that with Tricia.”
She added: "There were a lot of good times ... People are really kind when they can help in any way."
Catherine is now writing a new book. She said: “It’s partly covering my experience of having breast cancer. It’s a memoir and it’s got a lot of other things as well.
“They don’t tell you you haven’t got cancer any more - they say there are no longer traces of it. It was as we were preparing the book for release I got the diagnosis, then had the operation.
I did the launch between the operation and my radiotherapy. I didn’t have to have chemo but the radiotherapy really knocked me for six. I had recovered from that when the book came out but my energy levels were very, very low...life did seem very surreal. I just go back every year for a check and have to take tablets every day.”
Add in her eldest daughter’s wedding and Catherine concluded: “I need a quiet time with nothing happening ... does it ever happen?”
* The paperback edition has just been published by 4th Estate and costs £9.99