The 10 lessons I learned after my young son killed himself
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Let's talk about suicide
I have never told my story before until now. I haven't been ready.
My boy had top grades and was top of his class at university. He had a wicked sense of humour, loved playing pranks on people, loved helping others with their studies and always wanted to please everyone. But he was different. He had been diagnosed with Aspergers.
My boy rang me at midday one day early in April 2014, but hung up when I answered. I rang back, as was our long-standing agreement to save him credit on his phone, but he didn't answer. That was the last contact anyone had.
We found his body the next day.
No-one can ever understand, or imagine, the pain, anguish, horror or reality of holding your son and closing his eyes for the last time. I held him as he was born and I held him in death. The feeling of the cold in his body. The feeling of his skin was like wax. To this day I can't touch a candle without thinking of that feeling. My world stopped. My world changed. My world would never be the same.
At this point I want to say a huge thank you to Constable Chris Mankelow from the Hamilton police. This guy was a real gentleman about our loss. I was very impressed with his professionalism and honest care - so much so that I made mention of him at my boy's funeral.
We need to remember that the people who are first there - the police, ambulance staff and bystanders - are victims too.
Anyway, I did the dad thing and organised for the funeral home to take my boy's body etc. As a family we sorted the funeral, casket etc. We cremated my boy, as per his wishes, and his ashes now have the best view in New Zealand - in the town he was born, looking out to the sea.
My world and my life became like a pinball game. I was the ball, bouncing off everything and everyone. Sometimes I fell out the bottom and would disappear into the depths of the unknown and break down. I was angry and I was internally violent - not towards anyone else, but to myself, God, life, the universe (call it what you will). I became very self-destructive, not caring about myself, not caring what happened to me. I still struggle with this even now. I cared about everyone else and making sure they were OK, but not about myself.
So here are some of the things I learned:
1. Victim Support. As I am laying on the ground, crying beside my boy's body, my ex-wife collapsing by her house and my daughter screaming, there's a woman trying to thrust pamphlets into my hand about what her team does. I asked her to let me be for a while and ended up asking the police to remove her. There is a time and place for everything. Some people don't know this and will get it wrong.
2. Your loved one becomes a number. Accept this. I was adamant that my boy be talked about by name in all correspondence. Sometimes the case number comes first. Accept it, it happens.
3. Friends. Your true friends will become very apparent. Some "friends" will disappear. The true ones will stand up and support you. They are like the cushions and flippers in the pinball game as they will bounce you back up and stop you from falling through. I was, and still am, blessed by having some of the strongest friends I know and could ever wish for.
4. Relationships. Relationships change. I was, and still am, in a relationship with an amazingly strong woman. She got to know and love my boy for the short time she knew him. I wanted my partner to leave me. I wanted my friends to leave me as I did the whole victim/not good enough/hate myself thing. I am so glad my friends and partner saw through me and understood the phase I was going through and stuck by my side. Without them I would not be here.
5. Support groups. A friend told me about Riders Against Teenage Suicide (Rats). I met a number of them at a bike ride and knew I was going to do something about "avenging" my son's death. In one of my son's farewell letters, he said one person in eight billion could not make a difference. I was, and still am, proving him wrong. I ride a bike that I put the Rats logo on so people will see it and it sparks conversations. This happens. I have been wearing Rats T-shirts everywhere - both in New Zealand and overseas - and that has brought people up to me to talk about suicide (as does my suicide victim T-shirt). I had my boy's name and birth and death dates tattooed on my arm, alongside a semi-colon, as I will carry my boy in my arms forever. I wear a green rubber bracelet that says "Always remembered" to symbolise the Green Ribbon Campaign. I ride for/with the Rats whenever I can to help spread the message of "It's not OK to go that way".
6. Inland Revenue Department. I was paying child support for my two children so I had to go in and let IRD know what had happened. This is really hard to do when you are crying your eyes out at a public desk. A week or so later I had a meeting with the district head and we had a great chat about how the IRD could do a better job of handling these situations, ie. private rooms, no meeting time limits, relaxing some compliance dates etc. The next thing I learned was that my boy was only "worth" about one-sixth of what I was paying. I thought my child support would be halved, but no. That set me off again. In the distressed state that I was in, all rational thought went out the window. Don't assume anything or take anything for granted.
7. Anniversaries. I love Facebook, but you know how they do the memory reminder thing from one, two, three years ago? Well the first one of those smacked me in the face. I am now more prepared for this kind of thing, but it still gets me.
8. Be honest. If you hide it, you cannot deal with it. I still weep and cry a couple of times a week and probably will do for years to come. I have met so many other survivors by being open and honest. I get strength from knowing there are others out there who have survived the aftermath. If they can, I can.
9. What people say and sometimes can't. Most people don't know what to say and they may be scared to talk to you. I told all my friends and whoever wanted to listen that sometimes words aren't needed, sometimes just a "Hey", a nod of the head, or just a hug is all that's needed. Sometimes just being there is enough. One thing that amazed me once I went public about my son and his suicide was that a lot of people opened up to me about their brothers, friends, sisters, cousins etc. Some people still feel shame about something like this happening in their family. I am conscious of this and very respectful and supportive of their ideas and beliefs. But I decided that I am not going to hide. I am going to be out there doing something about it. My parents support me fully, as do my partner and friends.
10. Men. The last suicide remembrance day service I went to, I swear it was 99 per cent women. Does suicide not affect men? The old adage - rugby, racing and beer - is long gone. It's a big wide world out here and it's time for everyone to have "that" conversation. Riding with, and meeting, the men and women who support Rats has opened my eyes as to how some people view suicide. There are some seriously proud and strong men out there who have been, or are, affected by even the thought of losing someone close to them. Men don't/can't talk to anyone about this kind of thing. It's a guy thing, I suppose. We as fathers, brothers, grandfathers and mates need to be open and be able to talk about "stuff". Yeah, it hurts sometimes, but I am proud to be able to stand up and talk openly about it.
While I am not proud of what has happened in my life, I will not take it lying down. I wish I never knew about this topic. I wish this article never had to exist. But it does and it is here for a reason and that's to help us all. I get tired and over all of the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. I am going to be a fence at the top. I know I cannot save everyone from suicide, but I know I can save one at a time.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - 0800 9428 787, Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy, who are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For more information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812.