I am both heartbroken and thankful when someone emails me about reading my blog. Thankful that they have found me. Heartbroken because they are on the same painful journey of learning to live again after the life shattering event of not only losing a child but coming to terms with the manner of their death. Death from suicide encompasses huge loss along with stigma, guilt, judgment, confusion and isolation.
I haven’t written a new post for nearly a year so thought it might be helpful to look back and reflect on where I am today and how far I have travelled on this lonely road of rebuilding my new normal.
I consider myself fortunate that I had the strength and resourcefulness to go and find support once I realised no one was going to come along and pick me up and lead me to help.
A Facebook post by a friend and fellow survivor this morning made me remember when I first went to the GP shortly after I lost Toby. I probably wouldn’t have gone unless my employer had insisted I provided a medical certificate to prove I was unfit to work. I told him how devastated I felt, and he turned to his computer and started asking me questions from a checklist used to determine if someone is depressed. Stupidly I started answering them when inside I wanted to scream at him, ‘of course I’m f**king depressed, my son just killed himself’.
He didn’t refer me to any support organisations and patronisingly told me he could give me some pills to make me feel better but that wouldn’t help long term. Maybe he was right, but I wanted to feel better short term.
I started searching online and found CRUSE, a bereavement support organisation. I went to a few meetings but they didn’t help me as they were mostly attended by widows, mature ladies who had lost their husbands. I wanted to tell them I didn’t think that was a tragedy as they had a long happy marriage and their husbands weren’t 23 like my son and they hadn’t killed themselves. Of course, their grief was real, but I could not relate to them.
However, through CRUSE I found out about a suicide bereavement support service provided in the South West and a nice lady came to visit me once every few weeks and it did help just because it was someone to talk to. I had no partner and no other children and lived with my elderly father who told me Toby should be damned to hell for what he had done, so I couldn’t talk to him about my grief. I also used my employee support programme through my employer which gave me another nice lady to talk to once a week on the phone and she became a life-line to me.
I looked for online support groups and found one based in the US, but it was a group for any parent who had lost a child and not specifically for parents who had lost a child to suicide, also it was very, well, ‘American’ and they live in a different culture and were nearly all comparing what kind of antidepressants they were on.
There is a support organisation in the UK called SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) and they offer a phone support service and groups around the UK. I found the phone line brilliant as it is staffed by people who have all lost someone close to suicide. However, I found it helped the most when I got a fellow parent on the phone and especially a woman who had lost a son.
I found out there was a SOBS support group that met about an hour away from where I lived, and I went to a meeting at the end of August 2011, so about 6 weeks after Toby’s death. I was looking for hope and inspiration but found lots of people who were 5 to 10 years down the road and were all sitting around crying, blaming other people and saying how awful it was. I was only 6 weeks down the road and I was doing better than most of the people in the group. I wanted someone to tell me it would get better and what they had done to rebuild their life, not that I would be still suffering terribly in 10 years’ time. I went to 1 or 2 meetings, then decided it was not for me.
I spent ages looking for a counsellor who would give me the magic formula to help me deal with the crushing grief and pain. I found one who I thought was a good match and I booked my first session.
I arrived and she asked me one question, ‘So tell me about Toby?’. I left an hour later and £40 worse off and drove home wailing hysterically in the car shouting ‘I killed him’, ‘I killed him’, over and over again. She didn’t say a word and I spent an hour telling her about Toby and his childhood and about every time I waded in and sorted his life out when things went wrong. I didn’t go back.
I even went to see some mad Shaman woman who purportedly did soul retrieval. I was desperate and felt like I was losing my mind. As I was lying on the floor in her house and she was madly dancing around wailing and wafting burning sage I imagined Toby sitting in the corner laughing and saying, ‘What the hell are you doing mother?’
So what did I do?
I wrote. I already had a blog I had started when I moved to Cornwall to start my dream life, which had now become a nightmare. I ummed and ahhed on what to call it and then I thought’ just call it what it is – losing a child to suicide’. It meant when other parents were googling at 1 am having just had their life shattered by losing their child to suicide, as I did, that they found me.
I was contacted by a few newspapers, magazines and charities wanting me to write for them or work for them and during the first year after Toby died, not only did I get a new full-time job, I wrote articles and worked as a trustee for PAPYRUS (a charity that campaigns to prevent young suicide).
This involved driving to Birmingham, London or Manchester every couple of months for meetings and appearing on TV and being interviewed on the radio. I was mostly talking about how angry I was that I didn’t realise that my son was more likely to die from suicide than anything else. Why didn’t anyone tell me, why didn’t I know? I knew about knife crime, drink driving, drugs and all the things I thought I should worry about. I never, ever worried about him walking into a sugar beet field and killing himself. I didn’t really know what the message was – I just wanted to shout and scream and try and stop anyone else going through my life sentence of pain.
I went from wanting to know nothing to obsessively reading about suicide, I found everything I could and became immersed in it. I wanted to understand not only why he had done it but how I was going to survive. I also ready books about people who had lost children. I read the book written by the father of Holly Wells, one of the schoolgirls murdered in Soham, I was desperate to find out how the parents had survived. I was searching for answers that I knew deep inside were not out there.
Not many people realise that when you lose someone to suicide you must go through an inquest. Even though there was evidence that Toby’s act was pre-meditated and no one else was involved I had to go through the absolute horror of reading police reports, witness statements and a post-mortem report. I drove over 400 miles up to Cambridgeshire and attended the inquest all alone. It was horrific, I don’t know how I did it and held it all together.
Oh and also I did a yearlong counselling certificate at evening classes alongside all this- yeah I know crazy. Oh and also my Dad died 4 months after Toby, and I attended the inquest in between my Dad’s death and his funeral.
If you had bumped into me in the street at any time you would never have guessed I was living in extreme grief and pain. I didn’t display any signs, even when I told people about Toby or talked about him I never cried or broke down. I still don’t understand why.
From the day after the policeman knocked on my door to deliver the life-shattering news, I got up every day and showered and washed my hair and put on make-up and ate 3 meals a day. I was fine, except I wasn’t. I was functioning though, and I think all this mad activity did help me get through the first year, when the penny still hadn’t really dropped that Toby was gone for ever and not only that, he died by his own hand. This couldn’t have possibly happened to me, it just didn’t feel real.
I got a puppy, I joined a choir and most days I got up and carried on. Of course, I did have times I sat at home and stared at the wall and played horrendous videos in my head of Toby walking into that field, trying to picture it and imagine what he was thinking. I did sob and cry and sometimes feel like I didn’t want to carry on (quite frequently). But carry on I did.
Towards the end of the first year after not really finding the support I needed, I decided to set up an online support group where parents could find other parents who had lost a child to suicide. Only other parents who were walking in my shoes could really understand. A friend told me about Ning a platform where you could set up a forum easily, so I did it.
I called it losingachildtosuicide.ning.com, like my blog and put a link to it on my blog. Slowly a few people joined and we started chatting. They were all in the UK. After a few months 3 of us met up, it was such a relief to find someone else I could talk to and cry with, someone who really did understand. Someone I could say all the terrible things to and who I knew wouldn’t judge me or think I was crazy.
It took a while to become established, at one point I thought of shutting it down but gradually people came. ‘If you build it they will come’, and they did, one by one and now there are nearly 400 of us. It just works, I don’t know how but I have had so many parents thank me and say it saved their life having someone to share their pain, someone who really understand. There are members who live overseas and quite a few in the US, but a lot in the UK and many have become friends and we try to meet up twice a year somewhere in the UK.
People tell me how amazing I am, but all I did was set it up and the parents came. They made it work and they shared and supported each other. The bond that comes from losing a child is instant, you don’t need to know anything else about someone other than that they are in your club, a club you never wanted to join.
What people don’t realise is that seeing that blog help so many has helped me carry on living too. It has given my loss a meaning and a purpose. It has helped me survive.
In my experience the first year is a bit of a blur and it doesn’t really sink in until year 2, then you start the long journey of rebuilding. The first year you are just amazed you are still here and standing.
On the first anniversary I went back to Cambridge where Toby lived and went to University and I can honestly say that day felt worse than the day I found out he died. Fate conspired and made me drive past the crematorium where we had his funeral several times, without me planning to go that way and every street and pub brought back searing pain and memories. I went to the field where he died and laid flowers and vowed I would never, ever go there again.
I was staying on my own in a hotel and met up with a couple of his friends and went to the University where they had planted a rose in the memorial garden and put up a plaque. That night in the hotel I did wail, I was at rock bottom. I drank some wine and watched Coronation Street just to get through as I was hyperventilating and wanting to die, but I woke up the next day, drove home and realised the first anniversary was now behind me.
The following year I vowed I would do something lovely every 10th July and now I go to the Scilly Isles on that date every year for a week and just have a time of quiet remembrance and reflection. Some people like to ignore anniversaries, but I use it as a time to spend quiet time remembering my beautiful boy and honouring his life and connecting with him.
Experiencing a life-shattering tragedy makes you brave. Living through your worst nightmare gives you a medal of honour, ‘look at you, you did it, you’re still here living your life – good for you.’
I stopped worrying about stupid things like money and what people thought of me or whether I had a man in my life. I grabbed life by the horns and lived day-to-day and stopped planning ahead. The most I will do is book a holiday for the following year, I live much more in the ‘now’ and value small simple things like just going for a walk with my dogs (I’ve got 2 now). I really live for my dogs, I got a puppy soon after Toby died, I picked her up the day after the funeral, the day my dad was diagnosed with cancer.
When I didn’t want to get out of bed this little ball of fur looked into my eyes and she needed me, so I got up every day for her. In the dark depths of the night I could feel her little warm body snuggled into me. Her name is Elfie (From a book I used to read to Toby called ‘I’ll always love you’) and last year I added a rescue dog to the family. Her name is Phoebe and she rescued me as now I have even more reason to live.
That’s what it is all about really, finding a reason to get up every day. I envy other bereaved parents who have other children and grandchildren. Toby was my one and only and knowing I will never have grandchildren tears me apart more and more as time goes on, but I know there are many reasons why people don’t have grandchildren, so I try and ditch the ‘poor me’ mentality. It is very difficult though, as I’m now 62 and the vast majority of people I know all have children and their grandchildren are a big part of their lives and contribute to their joy and happiness.
But I’ve got dogs, and I can’t change the past. Who knows if Toby would ever have had children anyway, he hated crying babies and always said he would never have children. But he was 23. I don’t even know if he had ever been in love.
Going back to being brave and living in the now, I had already taken a huge step before Toby died. (My life is now split into ‘before’ and ‘after’). I had given up a high paying IT job to move from London to Cornwall which was something I had dreamed about for years.
So here I was living my dream life in Cornwall with a little dog, but I was working in an office. I got a job 6 months after Toby died and it really did help me establish a new normal. No one knew me so at first I did not have to endure the pitying looks and ‘poor woman whose son killed himself’ looks. I gradually told people, but I had a routine. My Dad had died so I had to put Elfie in doggy daycare but I had a ‘life’.
I joined a choir 2 months after Toby died, and again, no one knew my sad story and going somewhere and singing in unison with 50 people every week was my salvation. I loved it, it helped me breathe and for 2 hours a week I almost forgot. I am still in that choir today and many of them have become like my family, the therapy you get from singing and the sense of belonging to something has been amazing for me.
After a couple of years I became restless as I started to settle into my new normal and decided to follow another lifelong dream of going to University at the ripe old age of 58.
My blog had attracted attention and I had written some articles for magazines and newspapers so one day I was just googling idly and came across a Journalism degree course at Falmouth University. This was in Feb 2014, so now it was coming up to 3 years ‘after’. I made a phone call and they didn’t laugh in my face so I applied.
It was just a pipe dream and I never dreamed they would accept me and had no clue how I would manage financially, but somehow it all came together and I found myself starting University in Falmouth in September 2014. I really don’t think I would have been brave enough to do it if I hadn’t got this new ‘fuck it – I’ve survived my worst nightmare’ mentality. It was tough, and I had highs and lows but I stuck at it and graduated with a First in July 2017. I received my diploma from Dawn French the Chancellor who I also had the pleasure of interviewing.
I did my dissertation on how the media report suicide and the impact it has on families and friends.
Just after graduation I moved into a new house, close to the coast path in Pendeen in far west Cornwall, perfect for long dog walks looking out to sea. The first house I have ever bought and moved into alone. For the most part I am happy and content. There is always the underlying awareness of the gaping hole where living, breathing Toby should be, but I still have a huge part of him in my heart and soul.
So here I am now in September 2018, carrying on, still standing, surviving and thriving.
I still have days when I don’t want to be here, if I go too much into my thoughts about Toby’s death, the whys, the if onlys, the unanswered questions – I could start drowning in my grief. But I have learned that if I do this I may as well just stab myself, – it is a form of self-harm, it is self-destructive and so I have learned to give myself a good talking-to and switch it off quite quickly.
I like to think Toby would not want me to suffer too much, he left because he thought he was a screwed-up burden (I am guessing; he didn’t leave me a note the little bugger).
I like to remember his life and talk about him as I would if he was here, and I like to feel grateful for the 23 years we shared. I experienced the love a mother has for her child and I still have this with me forever so I wouldn’t want it any other way. With life and love comes loss. The only way to avoid pain and grief is to never love anyone or anything, and that would be no life.
Goodness, this was just going to be a short blog reflecting on where I am 7 years on and it’s turned into an essay. So it feels right to just wrap up with one of my favourite quotes from William Wordsworth who lost his 6 year old son. He wrote it in a letter to his friend.
“ I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me – yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it.”