I didn’t talk to my father about my brother’s suicide for 30 years – then a hidden story emerged

In the summer of 1985 Philip, my only sibling, died by suicide. He was 27 and I was 26. Very soon after the funeral I became aware that neither of my parents were talking to me about him. We weren’t a family who spoke about our feelings and, not wishing to cause further pain to my parents, I colluded with this silence.

The immediate impact was, of course, devastating but I was determined not to dwell on my brother’s suicide. I didn’t want to live under its shadow or carry the burdens of anger, shame or sadness. Instead, I focused on creating a fulfilling life, rich with exciting work initiatives, creative theatre projects, adventures and a happy marriage. With his absence from my life and over many years the memory of Philip slowly faded, like an old photograph.

In 2017, after my mother died, my father turned to me and said: “Let’s talk about Philip.” I felt an enormous sense of release. As we began talking my father told me several things that I’d never known, facts that contradicted my long-held narratives. At 94, my father’s memory was failing and we’d let 32 years slip by.

Gradually, I became preoccupied with questions surrounding Philip’s death and I became motivated to start on a quest to discover the hidden story.

As I talked with other people, read through my old diaries, studied photos and plotted timelines, I began to feel like a private investigator, not able to rest until every angle had been covered. I was rediscovering my brother, getting an insight into my parents’ pain and gaining a greater understanding of who I was. Had I given myself the chance to mourn? How different would my life have been if his suicide had never happened? Why did I never try to break the silence?

During all those years of silence within the family, and to a lesser extent with my friends, it was the world of theatre that gave me the occasional platform to talk about Philip. In a drama workshop, just a few years after his death, I was asked to dramatise a turning point in my life and I knew immediately the occasion I would choose. With the support of my fellow acting students we vividly recreated the moment when my parents arrived at my workplace, a London primary school, to tell me the news of Philip’s death. I would eagerly look out for similar dramatic and cathartic opportunities where I could relive my memories.

Mostly the world of theatre took me in other directions. In my theatre writing I was drawn to comedy in all its forms. Suicide just didn’t seem the right subject matter. The comedy shows that I created covered quirky, painless subjects, from the world of cinema usherettes, to Ordnance Survey maps and the National Trust.

It was while performing The National Trust Fan Club at the Edinburgh festival in 2019, leading the audience to imaginary stately homes, that I first had the idea of making Philip and his suicide the subject of a play. Perhaps I could take an audience on my detective-like quest to uncover the mysteries of Philip’s suicide?

My father’s death and the start of Covid put a halt to the idea. Then in autumn 2020 I enrolled on a writing course and I was discussing potential themes with the tutor, theatre-maker Tim Crouch. I had returned to the idea that my next show should be another light comedy, but Tim had no hesitation in encouraging me to write about my brother. “That’s your story, that’s your play.” It was the incentive I needed and I left the course with a renewed motivation to have Philip step out of the shadows.

My investigative sleuthing took on a new momentum. I talked with more of Philip’s friends via email, Zoom and in person and was enormously touched by what I heard. He was remembered fondly and sorely missed by many. By asking direct questions I found out surprising information. By taking this information to others my old narratives started to unravel and a new picture of my troubled brother’s life began to emerge. I had applied to the Birmingham coroner’s archives for the inquest notes and after two years I got all the documents, including details of other suicide attempts and support he got for his mental health. I also got to see his final note. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better person” is the line that haunts me the most.

I’ve been working with a great team to bring Let’s Talk About Philip to the stage and despite the subject matter we all agreed the production needed to be warm and witty, to feel hopeful and optimistic.

To be able to easily talk about Philip after decades of silence has been really powerful and comforting for me. Sadly, many people have been affected by suicide and mental illness. Indeed, almost everyone has something they find difficult to talk about. But talking and sharing with others is a way out of the pain. In sharing Philip’s story I hope that it will help other people talk and help break the cultural conspiracy of silence.

If Let’s Talk About Philip can help do that, then Philip Wood, born 1958, died 1985, will not just be a faded photograph. He will continue to do good in the world after his short but intensively lived life.

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