My top 5 reflections on surviving in times of crisis

Now, more than ever, is a time of reflection. Millions of people around the world have had their lives shattered and turned upside down, out of the blue, with no warning and everything they thought was normal and safe has disappeared.

Me and Toby April 2011

Me and Toby April 2011

Losing a child is the worst thing any parent can go through, so those of us that have lived through losing a child to suicide and are still living through it – making the best life we can – we already have the skills and experience to know that a pandemic is nothing compared to what we have already gone through.

These are some of the things I have learned to help me live my best life in the worst of circumstances.

  1. I stubbornly refuse to not talk about my son to make other people feel more comfortable

I don’t blurt out to everyone I meet that my 23-year-old son took his own life, however if conversation flows between people talking about their families or if I am asked, I will tell people; I will usually say something like “Yes, I have a son but unfortunately he is no longer with us”. If they do go on to ask how he died I will tell them that he took his own life.

Sometimes a silence follows, or even worse they will carry on talking as if they haven’t heard me. I want to yell out “Did you hear me when I just told you my son died?” – but of course I don’t as I realise it is because society has deemed that it is not polite to talk about death, let alone suicide.

I wonder if I told them he died from a terminal brain tumour would I get an outpouring of sympathy?

To all the people who say simply “Oh how awful, I’m so sorry, that must be incredibly painful” or words to that effect – I am eternally grateful.

2. I want to, and will, keep talking about Toby to friends, family, strangers – anytime where a Toby memory naturally comes into the conversation.

People with living children talk about them so why shouldn’t I talk about Toby? I say to people who come into the National Trust Café where I work; “I remember when my son was that age he used to love fishing in the rock pools at the far end of Marazion beach” – or something like that.

If I’m talking to strangers, that feels lovely because they are unlikely to ask if he is alive or dead – so it feels natural and nice – I don’t have that dread that they will freeze or turn away.

If I’m talking to friends, I’m always aware that they might be thinking; “Oh no, she’s talking about her dead son again – what should I say?”.

To all the people who say “Oh what a lovely memory” or ask “How old was he when you first came to Cornwall” or who say anything to acknowledge Toby – I am forever grateful.

3. I have learned not to worry about trivial things and savour the moment

Occasionally, when I hear people complaining about their children I will remind them how fortunate they are to have children to moan about, sometimes I just smile and reflect that they are fortunate that they don’t have anything worse to worry about.

Naturally, we all worry about trivial things, it is human nature, but having lived through a tragedy does put things into perspective and helps me cope.

When a worry comes along, I think – I survived losing Toby – I can survive that – whatever happens I know I can handle it.

I also try and savour the small moments in life because I know life can change in a heartbeat. If I’m sitting on the sofa with my 2 dogs snoring beside me, I will put my hand on their soft, warm bodies, close my eyes and feel their love. When I have my morning walk, I stop and look at the sea, feel the wind and sun, watch the birds, watch the dogs trotting alone and feel grateful for that moment. For that I am eternally grateful.

4. I have learned to reach out for support when I’m struggling and find the right support.

It is not weak to ask for help – far from it. The night I was told by a young ashen-faced policeman that my son had walked into a field near Cambridge and killed himself , after everyone had left  I phoned the Samaritans. I’m sorry to report that it didn’t help – I told the faceless person on the  other end of the phone what had just happened and they hardly said anything – almost akin to just nodding – I told them calmly that I was going to hang up as I may as well talk to myself as they were offering not a single word of comfort or did not signpost me to any other support.

I went to my GP who started going through a standard checklist they use to determine if you are depressed – when he asked me “have you found any pleasure in anything in the last 2 weeks” – I meekly answered him instead of screaming ‘My son has just effing killed himself – why are you asking stupid questions?”.

Instead I Googled, I found SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) and the first time I called their helpline I spoke to a Mum just like me who had lost her only son and then I knew that only people who were going through the same hellish journey could truly understand and could potentially help me.

I went to CRUSE but it was mostly older ladies who had lost their older husbands and I unkindly thought they should feel grateful they had had a long marriage and someone who loved them – I couldn’t relate to their grief at all; I was very selfish in my grief.

I found that parents who have lost a child to suicide have unique challenges, with suicide there is always guilt for those left behind, but when it is your child – the child you were supposed to protect from harm – the guilt can be crippling and is usually the first overwhelming emotion. Why didn’t he come to me for help? How could I not have known?

I found support groups for parents who had lost children, and again there was a lot of empathy but if their children had died from an illness – there was an outpouring of sympathy from others   – that didn’t make my grief worse, just different and complicated.

Unfortunately, death by suicide is still seen as a taboo, it carries stigma, connotations, it’s unsavoury to think about and to talk about. It wasn’t that long ago it was a crime, a sin something to feel deeply ashamed about. My own Grandfather took his own life when my mum was 8 and she never, ever spoke about it with her mum or brother – she felt deeply ashamed – they never even told her directly she worked it out. How sad…..

So that is why in May 2012 I started an online support group for parents who had lost a child to suicide and they came. Now 400 members – people come and go – but so many have said that it was their lifeline – the only thing that gave them hope in the dark early days – was finally finding someone else who truly understood their pain.

To everyone who has been part of my group and to all the parents who helped me – I am eternally grateful.

5. And finally – I have stopped comparing my life with others’ lives

There is a tendency to look at others and wonder how my life turned out this way. It wasn’t what I planned or how I thought it would pan out. I left school at 16 and went to work, I was restless – never settled in one job for long, got married at 17 divorced by 21, went to America, then somehow managed to have another 3 weddings but never found true love – and Toby was the only good thing I thought I had done in my life, then he killed himself – just as I was about to start living my dream life in Cornwall.

My brother married his childhood sweetheart, got a degree in Engineering and had 3 perfect boys who are now all mega successful and have given him 7 perfect grandchildren. His life is filled with babysitting, taking them to football and going on holidays with them.

Two children brought up the same way – 2 completely different lives. I look at couples with their perfect houses and perfect grandchildren and in my dark times I yearn for their life.

It would be so easy to feel like a complete failure at everything, as a wife, a mother, a daughter a sister – I am here alone living in Cornwall with 2 little dogs who are my soul mates, my parents and my son all gone.

However, I have now learned that comparing your life to others is the fastest way to self-destruction – a form of self-harm. Would I trade my life and swap it? No.

Toby was everything to me – my world, and he is no longer here but I had 23 years loving him and know so many other parents have lost their beautiful, bright, talented children to what I believe is a disease. I did my best for him at all times out of love, I made mistakes but what parent hasn’t. I blamed myself at first, but now I realise I couldn’t protect him from something I didn’t know about. I had no idea that as a young man, he was more likely to die from suicide than anything else. Not drugs, not knife crime…….those I worried about and warned him about and talked to him about – but not suicide – it was not on my radar.

I truly believe I am not the same woman who answered that knock on the door at 10 pm on July 10th 2011.

I am strong, courageous, resilient, and have made my life’s purpose about helping others by sharing my story. I have so much life yet to live and so much to be grateful for. I would love to be able to step in a time machine, turn back the clock and save my son but that’s only possible in the movies. However, I can make his life meaningful by making his legacy about saving others and helping others.

I have campaigned, worked for charities, and went to University at the age of 58 and earned a journalism degree – my dissertation was on how the media report suicide and I got a first for it.

I have trekked in the Sahara Desert and walked round London in the middle of the night raising thousands of pounds for PAPYRUS and CALM – and I have connected with hundreds of other bereaved parents through my blog and my support group and I know my actions have saved lives because people have written to me and told me – all Toby’s legacy.

I really wouldn’t want to be anyone else other than who I am today or living any other life – and for that I am eternally grateful.

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6 Responses to My top 5 reflections on surviving in times of crisis

  1. Angela says:

    You and your son are an isperstion . Thankyou for letting me be part of you and your sons story in life . My nieces son took his own live and I see her pain every time I meet her . But thanks to you and your son I also see a strength and determination that shines through her . I am in awe of her and people like you and your children . Thankyou .

  2. You blazed a trail which encouraged me on my journey after my son Luke chose to leave this life early. I have been lucky to be involved with the now nationwide initiative to have designated bereaved by suicide support in every area funded by the government. Hopefully no one will have to go through what you and I did to search out support, it sould be offered.

    Take good care xxx

  3. Pooja says:

    You won’t remember me Ann but I reached out to you when I lost my beautiful girl mini. You were so kind, so understanding….I was flailing so badly at that time that I wasn’t sure I would remain sane. You helped me do so. I am eternally grateful to you for that. I haven’t had another child even though I probably could have, because I don’t think I have it in me to bear the anxiety of it happening again. But I too am slowly learning to not just cope but actually live my life. You remain an inspiration to me. You might think others have the perfect life but Toby’s legacy has saved so many people and I don’t think anything can top that. Your life may not be typical but it is no less than anybody else’s. I will never forget your help or Toby and his quirky smile.

    • annwae says:

      Thank you, I’m so glad to hear that, it is so comforting and means so such, every one of you has helped me too by sharing your story. You have touched my heart today, thank you.

  4. Sally says:

    Thank you for sharing your tragic life experiences and the desperately tragedy of your son. I lost my daughter to suicide in October 2012, absolutely heartbreaking, but find all your words so powerful and helpful, I too threw myself into raising thousands of pounds for PAPYRUS, cycled 600 miles in 6 days, charity ball, etc, got myself retrained with a new career etc. I enjoy the simple things in life walking my dogs but also feel I am good at self destruction and feel very alone, but how can anyone know our pain.

    Thank you and best wishes

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