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Living losses: Losing your child while they are still alive

My son Samuel took his own life on 2 September 2020 and I will grieve his loss for a lifetime. In reality though I have been grieving Samuel for many years, a myriad of living losses. It has been a very lonely road but one that I am sure others have followed. While my story is unique to me I hope by sharing it might help others.

Samuel was a complex child, evident from an early age, ahead of his peers, outspoken, opinionated and not afraid to speak his mind. He soon earned a reputation as quite a character. I learned that children and their parents either loved or loathed him. He was definitely a Marmite sort of child.

I had high hopes for Samuel. He was a bright spark, sporty and excelled academically. He won a scholarship to private school for his secondary years and the future looked rosy. He was in the first teams for football, rugby and cricket and had a large circle of friends both at school and locally.

Puberty hit and Samuel began to change before our eyes. He was a whopping 10lb 12oz at birth and always had a chunky physique, reinforcing his reputation as a ‘Vinnie Jones’ hard-nut character. At age 13 he purposely dramatically lost weight over a period of 4 months, bordering on anorexic. His once chubby face became chiselled and vanity emerged, mirrors were his friend. His change in body image sparked an interest in girls and he delighted in this newfound attention.

Looking back at pictures from this time is tough. It is like there are two different Samuels. The earlier is the heavy built, smiley, cheeky boy who had a larger than life personality. The post-13 emerging boy is super skinny, surly and unpredictable. He rarely looks at the camera, hiding under a heavy fringe, uncomfortable in family pics.

Samuel was always highly strung but his anxiety hit new levels. This manifested at school, and he spent long periods being supported in the school nurse’s office. He also started self-harming – initially cutting his arms and progressing to his legs and stomach. I was distraught. His beautiful body was disfigured, and I felt powerless, watching his suffering and at a loss of what I could do.

Looking back, I realise I started to withdraw from friendships. Having a child on a different path was tough. I remember an invitation from my NCT group to take the boys swimming while we chatted in the café. I had to decline as Samuel’s arms were too injured and he wouldn’t have been comfortable. I made up an excuse, too afraid to share the real reason why we couldn’t make it.

I also felt that I couldn’t tell my wider family the horror of the situation. My older parents wouldn’t understand. My brothers would feel just as helpless as me. So began the isolation, secrecy and loneliness that was to define the next few years.

Unbeknown to me Samuel had turned to cannabis to manage his nerves. He was using this before school to get him through the door. He was later to start using Xanax, a powerful benzodiazepine, which was to have a devastating impact on his personality and life path. Samuel become erratic, aggressive and his mood was explosive. He frightened me. His whole identity changed and he began to use music as an outlet. He developed an alter ego as rapper Xanny Phantom.

Samuel’s decline dominated my every thought and activity. Where do you turn? Who is there to support you? Who do you trust to share such trauma? There’s certainly no support groups or Mumsnet advice for this level of dysfunction.

I was also holding down a responsible NHS job. Few knew the reality of my life and I put huge energies into not letting my mask slip. After one traumatic night in A&E and getting to bed at 5am I headed off to work at 7.30am, not mentioning my living hell to any of my colleagues.

Social media tormented me. Friend’s posts boasted school achievements and sporting prowess with such pride in their offspring. I reflected that maybe I should be bravely post the reality of my situation. Why not put a selfie up showing my child on a trolley in resus, at risk of respiratory arrest after collapsing from an overdose? Would I get many likes, any comments? I’d certainly have got the shock factor. The stigma of mental health is incredible despite the hype that tells us otherwise. I stopped the daily torture and comparison to others' lives when mine was in pieces. I took myself off of social media for 18 months and the isolation increased.

I look back on these days and realise it was a time of great loss. I lost my normality, my confidence and my peace of mind. My life journey took a complete different road. I witnessed Samuel losing the future I thought he had. I had to lower my expectations for him at every turn. His education, lifestyle, health, relationships and social interactions were all heavily impacted. Samuel was often absent from family occasions, I made excuses for ease. In some ways it was simpler without him there. He was often on the periphery and few knew how to interact with him. I was on edge, watching in case he drank too much and protective in case others questioned him.

Looking to the future as Samuel was heading to 18 was scary. I knew he would be a troubled young adult and this would impact my life greatly. I was constantly on high alert, waiting for bad news, running on adrenaline. I had lost control of his life as it was one crisis after another. There was so much hurt within our immediate family, ripped apart by the impact.

Nothing could have prepared me for losing Samuel to suicide, the knock on the door and the delivery of the devastating news by the police. It was the hugest loss I will ever experience, of my youngest child. I also know that it was the final loss of Samuel that had begun several years earlier. These multiple losses have shaped my life, little by little taking away the boy that I held such high hopes for.

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