When a child experiences bullying at school, the entire family experiences the effects of it too. The long-term implications of overlooking encounters with bullying and dismissing early signs of distress can stay with a child and their parents throughout their lifetimes.
Penny is an inspiring mother who lost her youngest child and only son, Nicholas, to suicide in 2007. The first reaction to the loss of a loved one is grief and loss of hope. Nicholas’ close friend Jason lost his life to suicide a mere two months later because of overwhelming feelings of guilt. But in the case of Penny, she channelled her grief and longing for her son to create a safe environment by starting Survivors of Suicide Loss to help others like her.
Tell us a little bit about Nicholas.
Nicholas was a people pleaser. He loved to have friends, he liked to be popular, and he was genuine- he was very genuine. In grade 7 Nicholas experienced some bullying and I guess it was the beginning because it carried into grade 8. Grade 8 was a horrible, horrible year for his bullying. Classmates did nothing, the parents of the bullies turned the other way. There were 5 of them – 5 boys. I thought it was traumatic for me as a parent because I felt helpless and hopeless, and I could not get assistance or get staff or the principal at the school to listen. I remember being devastated when receiving a phone call from a teacher saying she could not promise or be responsible for Nick’s safety in grade 8. This was a catholic system that our kids attended.
When looking back, does it feel like Nicholas was trying to hold in all these emotions when maybe he should’ve been more open about it?
I think that’s what should’ve happened, but Nicholas wasn't given the chance to talk about how the bullying is affecting him. The school never dealt with it, they kept him in the office, away from the yard, away from the bullies. Like his punishment for being the victim was he couldn’t play outside. They didn’t know how to keep the bullies away from him so most times he helped the office secretary. It just wasn’t fair and as much I would try to address it, ‘our hands are tied’ was all I would hear. The failure of the staff to handle the bullies properly had greater effects on Nicholas then we realized.
As he grew up and was confronted with other adults, teens, and young adults, he had some anger issues. He never tolerated anybody talking down or yelling at other people. He was very sensitive to people getting their feelings hurt, being abused.
Let’s talk about the days that led to him ultimately going through with the suicide. Were there any changes in his mood, or any signs that indicated his past bullying experience was starting to affect him more?
He was into his first year at Fanshawe College, living in London, made amazing friends. When the teachers at Fanshawe went on strike it affected him because he couldn’t stand having time on his hands. He wanted to be out working but jobs weren’t available. So he asked, would I agree with him leaving school? Nick was feeling overwhelmed. In January, he wanted to come home and both his dad & I said “absolutely”. He really seemed to beat himself up about the fact that he was coming back home. He didn’t want to be in our way, now that both of us, his dad and I, were working.
On May 18th, I think it was a Friday; he was on his way to work. He called into the radio station, answered a question and was so excited because he won a free pass for 2 to golf at a London club! I got a call and he was all excited and says, “You’re in London, can you go pick up the pass? I can’t believe it!” Like he was on a high. Those things would happen from day to day, up and down, up and down. That Friday, he came home from work and he seemed fine, he honestly did.
Saturday morning he woke up, 19th of May - the day that we had no idea he would not be coming home. He got off the couch and said: “Mom, I’m going for a walk on the property". Upon returning from his walk about noon, he was heading to his sisters. His headache was awful and some time at Melanie’s place might help”. Melanie and her husband-to-be had a farm and he was going to go hang out at the farm to help his head. I didn’t know that his girlfriend had just broke up with him that day. I didn’t know that until after he died his girlfriend told us a couple weeks later.
My husband and I were invited across the road for a barbecue and returned about 8 o’clock that evening. I said to my husband “Damn it, I know that Nick’s been here because of his aftershave”. The cologne is so strong and it gives me a headache, so I knew he had been home and showered. So we went to bed, that evening after closing his bedroom door.
Nicholas was going to a party that night because his sister and her fiancé were there. It was a party in the country, a barn party and he knew everybody there already, it was like a neighbourhood party. He’d asked his good friend Jason to go with him, but Jason wanted to be in bed early and said no. Jason was a very quiet young man, always liked to be in bed on time, and he had to go to work the next day. So Nick went to the party alone.
We were awoken at 6, the officers knocked on our door and my husband let them in. I was still in bed; I woke up at 6:15am hearing voices downstairs. From what we understood, Nicholas took his life before midnight. My son, Nicholas, had left the party and by no means did he have any falling out, nobody remembers anything. People talked to him, they saw him at the party, they said nobody saw him angry, he didn’t have an argument. Nobody, that’s the thing.
What would you say to someone dealing with bullying, depression, addiction or suicidal thoughts? What would you tell family members to do that would help determine the state of their loved ones’ mental health?
I think you can only do the best you can do. The only thing you could do wrong is to do nothing. So talk about everything, do it. If it means finding someone to talk to, do it. If it means keeping at it, keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. Don’t give up. You have to do everything possible in your heart, so that you never feel guilty.
There is a seemingly huge disconnect between mental health awareness and early childhood education and prevention. How can we better handle youth mental health?
Well, I think that number one biggest issue is how slowly the professionals are attempting to address youth mental health. Let’s start with defining mental health. That has to do with what goes on at home, what goes on at school, and what is in that young person’s mind. Everyone needs to talk about emotions and feelings. They also need to talk to somebody at a very young age.
Do you have any specific examples of what we could implement in our elementary schools that could help prevent suicide, that could help increase people’s ability to cope?
I think that openness in the classroom to talk about how a child is feeling, if anything has happened, or if they want to share anything regardless of it being good or bad. I think they need to talk about that.
How do you think an organization like TranQool could benefit the healthcare system?
Having online availability is exactly what is needed because of the problems we face in speaking person to person. The waiting lists that exist for a therapist are not acceptable. The fees charged by a private therapist, they're unaffordable. Our health system is damaged; we can’t sit around and wait for our government to fix it or change it. When we want something, we need to go after it and not give up until we succeed.
Tell me a little about Survivors of Suicide Loss. What you guys do and how has this been able to help you cope with the loss of Nicholas.
I think what’s really great is knowing that we connect with other survivors and it’s a great asset for them that “I get it”. I’ve been there and I understand. I have no problem being supportive and being there, nonjudgmental, noncritical, no advice giving. It’s a safe environment. We saw a need for resources and created them, Our first Canadian Survivors DVD. The Hope & Healing Booklet. The latest is our Self Help manual on How to Start up a Survivors Support Group. I have also designed a Trainer’s Workshop on Postvention support. All of those factors are vital for a survivor of suicide loss to know that it’s okay to tell somebody what they’re going through and to not be judged.
I felt so alone from the moment I was confronted with my son’s suicide that I tried looking for resources; I tried to get a support group in our rural community, spoke with our local Community Health Centre, “Nope, can’t do it” or “Oh god, suicide? Can’t help you”. I had never felt so alone in my life, I knew we had to start our own group, so we did. We have www.rememberingnicholas.ca and www.survivorsofsuicideloss.com and you can find links, resources, blogs on my experiences and knowledge as a suicide survivor loss.
What is the one thing you took away from this whole experience?
It’s hard to say what one thing I can take away from this whole experience because this entire experience is the rest of my life. I have a new identity. I have a new life and I grieve this loss in and of itself. You grieve the loss of your life before this new life, that’s traumatic. Also, you’re a different person. I still struggle with redefined the meaning of life, my life, relationships, and authenticity. I also believe joy is more important than happiness. I believe that suicide has brought me to my knees at times and shown my vulnerability.
Vulnerability is something I’ve had to deal with, which was tough because that’s got to do with strength and weakness. I truly believe in talking openly. I genuinely see an amazing service, what you’re offering, I offer something similar, the opportunity to talk – Talk Therapy. There is such a need for it. You guys are offering an amazing service and I hope people grab it and go with it.