The memory of the call from our youngest son Stefan in the early evening of Saturday 21st December 2019 will haunt me forever.
There was absolutely no prior warning.
Anton had been quite low after the end of a long-term relationship, but we had absolutely no idea that he was feeling so depressed that he had even contemplated suicide.
Our two boys were always extremely close and shared a group of friends, but neither Stef or their mutual friends had any inkling that Anton was feeling suicidal. Our family and friends, his closest mates, his colleagues at work, were equally shocked and confused by this tragedy. All of us have wracked our brains and asked ourselves the same question "What did I miss?". Not one of us has an answer.
We have always been a very close family, often holidaying together with extended family and friends, and always sharing Christmas and birthday celebrations. Anton was a very kind, loving, generous, funny, bright young man. He had wonderful friends and a loving, stable family. He enjoyed an active social life and a busy and demanding job, but he really loved coming home for the weekend every few weeks. As his ex-girlfriend once said to me "I have never known a man who wanted to spend so much time with his parents". He would walk through the front door with a big smile, dump his overnight bag in the hall, and say "Give me a hug Mama!".
He had been through a tough time after the end of his long term relationship but had just landed a new job and was moving out of London to live with Stef in Brighton; the move was planned for just a few days after he died. In the days before he took his own life he was messaging me about what Christmas presents he would buy his dad, and talking to his dad about van hire for the move.
For any of us not to hear from him for a couple of days wasn’t unusual, and it was only when Stef spoke to Anton’s friends and they all realised that nobody had heard from him for a few days that alarm bells began to sound. Stef took the first train to London, and Lee and Will, two of Anton's closest friends drove to his flat as quickly as they could. Will arrived first, and dragged the caretaker upstairs to break down the door. Will told me afterwards he was all the while imagining Anton would appear at any moment from a shopping trip and start yelling "What the hell are you doing to my front door?"
Stef arrived soon afterwards. Thank you so much Will and Lee; I will be forever grateful that Stef was not the one who found his big brother.
I answered the phone in the midst of making rillettes for Christmas. Happily engaged in my cooking, I was looking forward to seeing the boys in a day or two. Stef's voice cut through that happiness like a filleting knife.
He is in obvious distress. "I'm so sorry Mum! I'm so sorry Mum!"
I am alert now. But not quite afraid. Not yet. "What's the matter? What's happened?"
What on earth does this mean? I have a bizarre image of Anton leaving his flat with a suitcase. I ask stupidly "Gone? Gone where?"
His voice becomes small
I become aware that Alek is now downstairs at my side. I look at him and whisper robotically "Anton's dead"
Remarkably, Alek is lucid enough to ask "How?"
I relay the question woodenly to Stef, and repeat his answer "He hanged himself".
Stefan keeps repeating through his tears "I'm so sorry".
Now I am crying out "I'm so sorry darling" to Stef, scarcely believing what I am saying, what he is saying, but dimly conscious of how much he is hurting at that moment.
I hear a low howl of pain. I realise its coming from my mouth.
Stef eventually arrives home. I have no memory of the next few hours. At some point we go to bed. Unbelievably, I sleep. All I can think of in the morning is "Why?" I am still being protected from the pain at this point, the shock is too huge, the world has collapsed but I am largely numb. Shock does strange things. I wake Stef and gabble some theory about how I'd worried about Anton's drinking for years and did Stef think Anton had done this because it was Christmas and he thought I would nag him about it. It is clearly ridiculous. It reminds me of a similarly tragic story about a young woman my friend was working with recently, who woke one morning to find her two year old son had died overnight, with no obvious cause. She politely sent a message to apologise to the group she was supposed to be attending that morning and explain why she wouldn't be coming.
Slowly I start to experience tiny flashes of reality within the muffled sense of shock. The visceral, raw shards of emotion that accompany this implosion, shattering our family, are beyond words. I have no way of adequately describing them. The closest I can get to any description is that our lives feel smashed into tiny smithereens, millions of sharp splinters that continually pierce our bodies and our minds. Cathy Rentzenbrink depicts this perfectly in the title of her book and TCF video Grenades and Guillotines: as the grenade of death explodes in your life, the guillotine slices neatly through it, permanently severing your old life from what is to become your 'new normal'. I am acutely aware that life, as I once knew it, is over.
Perhaps a week or so after Anton is found, his London flat needs to be cleared because his tenancy is ending. All of Anton's close friends have generously agreed to pack up his possessions so that Stef can take them to his house in Brighton. Much against Alek's better judgement, I decide that I need to go to the flat one last time, to see it as it is. My brother Lance drives us there to meet Stef, who comes in a hired van from Brighton. I can see the pain and anxiety etched on Stef's face as he parks the van, bravely ready to perform this awful task.
As we enter the tidy little apartment, what strikes me first is the ordinariness of it all. It does not look like the scene of anyone's death. By the sofa we see our Christmas presents, ready to be gift-wrapped, the wrapping paper beside them. There is no mess. The washing up has been done. The place looks as it always did. Stef suggests I take a hoody from the wash basket, because it smells of Anton. Aside from this and the broken front door there is a strange, ordinary familiarity in the scene that only adds to what is a very surreal visit.
As we leave the flat and walk across the car park two figures emerge and walk towards us. Lee, Anton's very close friend whom I have heard so much about but somehow never met, comes to me with arms outstretched, and envelops me in the warmest, most loving hug. At the same time, Osama, one of Anton's dearest and oldest friends is hugging Alek and Stef. We don't need to say anything. There is nothing much to say and we are all traumatised, broken, devastated. We have no words.
For the next weeks and months I am convinced I have woken up in someone else’s nightmare, (I still occasionally feel like that). It simply does not seem possible that this could have happened to our family, to our beautiful boy. I never once contemplated the idea that either of my children would take his own life. The violence of the act, and the significance of everything in its wake, absolutely terrified and horrified me. How often we use those words, when what we really mean is we were a bit anxious, or surprised, or even embarrassed. But I was truly horrified, as in filled with horror at what had happened, and terrified, as in filled with terror about how I would survive it. Even now, almost 3 years later as I write these words, I feel the frisson of fear, the caber in my chest, the tight knotting in my stomach. And I think of my wonderful youngest son, who has lost his lifelong best friend, and part of his parents too, and what it must have cost him to make that call.
Revisiting the detail of this memory to write this post has been hard. Very hard. Most of us much prefer to avoid painful memories if we can. But Anton is my child. In honouring his life I must acknowledge his death. I cannot turn away, much as I would give anything, including my own life, for it not to have happened. And contrary to what one might expect, I also know it is helpful for me to revisit the trauma, because doing so helps me to recognise that although my grief may be with me every moment, the traumatic events to which these memories belong are in the past.
When we are able to voice our stories, and put together a cohesive narrative about the trauma we have lived through, it enables us to more fully process the events that have occurred. When we re-experience the emotions associated with the trauma, we learn that we can, after all, tolerate them, as hard as this may be. Once we have located our trauma memory into a framework of space and time, our brains can re-store and retrieve the memory when we decide the moment is right, rather than us being at the mercy of constant, intrusive triggers that may come when we least expect them. If I continue to fear the memory, it will forever hold dominion over me. I want to remember my son as I choose. That is all I have left.
See also my post about Trauma Memory