‘I blamed myself for my boyfriend’s suicide’

When Tiffany Philippou’s partner Richard took his own life, she was consumed by grief and ‘what ifs’. She tells Eimear O’Hagan why a decade passed before she could keep the feelings of guilt under control. ILLUSTRATION: SAM DEDEL

The text message simply said: ‘I love you.’

Reading it blearily, the morning after a night out, Tiffany Philippou smiled.

Unbeknown to her, the tender words were a goodbye from her boyfriend Richard who, 300 miles away at his family home near Reading, was preparing to take his own life.

‘It was very typical of Richard. Gentle, no dramatics. He was leaving the world and he wanted me to know he loved me before he went,’ says Tiffany. ‘It didn’t ring any alarm bells. It was normal for us to exchange messages like that, so I went back to sleep, messaging him later that day.’

By then Richard, just 20, was in intensive care having been found by his parents, somewhere between life and death. A week later, that life would end, his passing marking the beginning of almost a decade of pain, shame and unanswered questions for Tiffany.

boyfriend suicide

The couple met in 2006 during Freshers’ Week at Bristol University, where Tiffany was studying history and Richard computer science. ‘He was my type: tall and fair,’ she says. ‘There was an instant connection. As we got to know one another, I discovered there was a sensitivity in him too. He was kind and thoughtful, with a strong, soulful laugh I still remember so clearly.’

It was at the end of the first year that things began to unravel. Richard failed his exams so, while Tiffany and their friends progressed to the second year of their degrees, he had to retake his first. As the months passed, she describes Richard – with whom she was now sharing a student house along with seven friends– as ‘slipping away’ from her. He became, she says, like a ‘weak, flickering lightbulb’. Emotionally low, spending his days in bed, unmotivated when it came to his studies, his mood sank further when his grandfather died.

‘My response was to avoid his sadness,’ she admits, ‘to avoid feeling trapped in the house we shared, by throwing myself into writing for the student newspaper and my studies. I gave him my version of tough love, telling him he needed to “sort it out” and do something with his life. I felt I was being dragged down. I told him I wanted to help, but didn’t know how.

‘It’s taken a long time to accept that was a normal response and forgive myself. I was only 19 – this was 2008 and nobody I knew used the words “anxiety” or “depression”. Richard told me he’d seen his GP to explain there was a dark cloud weighing on him, but she’d told him to come back in a few weeks if he felt the same way. Was I worried about Richard? Of course. But did I ever think he was at risk of death? Definitely not.’

Tiffany last saw him a few days before his suicide in June 2008. ‘I’d finished my exams, turned 20, and arranged to go to Durham to spend a few days with my friend Anna. Richard asked to come but I said no. I wanted to go alone, to clear my head and feel free after such a difficult year. That decision would prove to be one of the greatest “what ifs” I’d have to live with in the years that followed.’

Travelling home by train from Durham, hours after receiving his final text, Tiffany got a call telling her that Richard was in hospital. For the next week, she sat by his bedside on an ICU ward. She learned that he’d received a letter from the university informing him he’d failed his course and would have to leave.

‘The nurses kept encouraging me to talk to Richard in case he could hear me, but I just couldn’t find the words. What do you say?’

Over the coming days, it became clear Richard was not going to survive and, after he’d been moved to a private room, Tiffany spent her final moments with him. ‘I kissed him goodbye but still couldn’t find the words to speak aloud. Instead, I thought: “I love you”, hoping he could still somehow hear me.’

Later that day, surrounded by family and friends at home, Tiffany received a call saying Richard’s life support had been switched off. ‘It was both strangely anticlimactic, because I’d known for several days it was coming, and also hugely shocking. I felt completely numb.’

That numbness would be replaced by raw devastation. Tiffany would wake at night– her mother sleeping next to her for company – screaming. She developed hives: a physical manifestation of her grief.

Asked to speak at Richard’s funeral about their time at university, Tiffany refused. ‘I felt like a murderer. I was carrying so much guilt and blame, believing I must have missed some warning sign. How could I stand up in front of all those people and talk about happy times? I felt like all our time together had been a lie. How could it have been good when he’d ended it this way?’ Instead, she agreed to read a poem. ‘At the funeral, the cause of Richard’s death hovered, unspoken. I felt others must blame me, believing I had some knowledge about why he’d done it.’

Soon after, Tiffany reluctantly returned to Bristol to complete her degree. ‘I missed Richard so much, bu tI was also angry with him. He’d abandoned me. And I felt bitter hat my “normal” university experience had been snatched away. Other students had the luxury of just having exams to stress about, while I was lost in grief, and also trying to work out who I was now. An ex-girlfriend? A widow? The girl whose boyfriend killed himself?

‘The pain and sadness I felt was profound, yet I worried that others would think it disproportionate. After all, I’d known Richard less than two years. The constant questioning of my emotions– and worrying about the judgment of others– was exhausting.’

Although Tiffany was offered counselling, she declined – but says with hindsight that it was something she should have done. ‘My 20-year-old self thought: “It can’t bring Richard back, so what’s the point?”

When, in the third year, one of Tiffany’s housemates died, she was faced not only with sudden loss again, but also confronted with how differently we, societally, react to a natural death versus a suicide. ‘Fin’s heart had stopped and he’d died in his bed at our shared house. It was an awful, frightening time. But it also hammered home that, in death, Richard had been treated differently. When Fin died, people who loved him were simply heartbroken. They poured out their grief on Facebook. There was a purity to their emotions, which contrasted with the awkwardness I felt accompanied Richard’s death. Suicide makes people uncomfortable. Their grief is muddled with confusion and unease about how that life ended.

‘It made me angry and jealous, then ashamed to have such ugly thoughts when my friend was dead.’

In 2009, Tiffany graduated with a 2:1. ‘I left Bristol changed for ever by Richard’s death. The girl who’d arrived was carefree and excited. The one who left was weighed down by sadness and shame. I felt so isolated because nobody, not even close friends, could truly relate to how I felt and so many questions were unanswered.’

For the next seven years, Tiffany tried to run away from her emotions and reinvent herself. ‘I was in a constant state of motion, trying to get away from that terrible time. I moved to London, I moved to New York, I coloured my hair, I had relationships, I went to work in the start-up industry. But that shame and sadness were always within me.’

In December 2016, Tiffany finally stopped running. Failing the exam for business school, where she was planning to study for an MBA, saw her hit emotional rock bottom – but was also the catalyst for her to seek therapy. ‘Now I can’t believe I was even contemplating doing an MBA, but I think I had set this very challenging goal because I knew it would completely absorb and distract me, and I could have a second university experience, untouched by death and loss. Failing the exam, I hit a wall. I couldn’t go on and I recognised I needed help.’

Therapy brought painful emotions to the surface. ‘It took time, but I learned that it’s often impossible to answer the question “why?” when it comes to suicide,’ says Tiffany. ‘It’s too simplistic to believe there is an identifiable reason – it’s much more complex than that. I accepted I would never know why Richard did it and that that’s OK. I also found peace after years of feeling ashamed and guilty that I must have missed some clue and, with it, the chance to save him. As my therapist pointed out, nobody else had noticed anything either. I had to stop blaming myself.’

boyfriend suicide
Tiffany revisiting her university days last year

In June 2018, a decade on from Richard’s death, Tiffany celebrated her 30th birthday. Those ten years had taken her on a journey from unimaginable loss and guilt to self- forgiveness. Today, she says, she’s at peace with who she is. ‘Of course, I’ve wondered who I’d be now if I’d never met Richar d– or if I had but he’d lived. I’ve turned to writing, podcasting and forging connections with other people bereaved by suicide – and that has been very therapeutic. I’ve learnt there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. ‘Richard’s death shaped me into who I am today and I’ve accepted that. What we had ended too soon but I’m so grateful we had it. He taught me what love is.’

WHAT I WISH I’D SAID AT RICHARD’S FUNERAL

This is the speech Tiffany would like to have been able to give

Dear Richard,

I wish we were back on Park Street in Bristol, browsing in the shops, stopping at our favourite café for carrot cake and sitting in the garden as the sun streams down on our faces and you let me eat all the icing. I wish that you knew how much pain I’d be in after you left me.

I wish that you hadn’t done it.

It will take me many years to understand why you did this, but one day I will. And when that day comes, I will understand that there was a monster that wouldn’t leave you in peace. I’ll understand your pain and the shame that was living inside you. I’m so sorry you felt that way. I’m so sorry that our world allowed it. I’m so sorry that I allowed it.

I miss seeing you laugh. I’ll hear your laugh often. I’ll hear it on the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ll hear it in the desert in Jordan. I’ll hear it in a tiny bedroom in Whitechapel. I’ll hear it all the time, and when I hear it, it will remind me of the joy that you brought into my life.

You once told me we were soulmates. It was the best thing I’d ever heard. I smiled and told you I agreed. I did not know that what you meant is one day you would leave this world to live in my soul for ever. If I had known that life was so fragile and that we were on some sort of time limit, I would have savoured every moment – nothing else would have mattered. It seems unfair that the love of my life would come to an end so soon. But I’m grateful that I had it at all. For you taught me what love is. You loved me for being me. Thank you for being so kind and loving.

You taught me something else: that this magnitude of grief is only here because of the magnitude of the love I have for you. I’ll try to ignore it, I’ll try to run and I’ll try everything I can to escape.

I’m going to make a promise to you now, because we can only change what comes next. I will not let you die in vain.

I will not let others suffer in silence. I’ll help others who are living with the burden of shame by telling my story. I will shout loudly about what makes life worth living.

Together, we’re going to tell the world that this must stop and it’s time to focus on what really matters.

As long as there is love in our lives, none of us walks alone.

If you are having a difficult time or are worried about someone else, call Samaritans free on 116 123. 

Totally Fine (and Other Lies I’ve Told Myself) by Tiffany Philippou will be published on 17 March (Thread, £8.99)*

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