It was 6.45pm on a regular Wednesday evening. I’d spent a productive day working from home in my NHS job and I’d started to cook a Mindful Chef recipe. My partner’s stepdaughter opened the kitchen door saying the police were here to see me. I hadn’t even heard the doorbell go.
I met them in the hallway, they directed me to my dining room and asked me to sit down. Never at any point did my brain engage or did I ask them why there were in my home. I just complied with instruction, my mind completely vacant in the moment.
The two looming men in heavy boots and folded arms bluntly told me, “I’m sorry to tell you this but Samuel died at 9.15 this morning at South Croydon station”. No preparation, no kind words, just a statement of fact.
As I took in the information, the first words out of my mouth were, “Was it the Gatwick Express?” Later, I recalled my crass response with embarrassment. It took until an EMDR therapist explained it was a trauma response, 7 months later, to ally my discomfort.
A leaflet was passed across the table. I caught sight of the title: ‘When someone dies on the railway’ – I had to turn it over as it assaulted my eyes. It stayed on that table for several days before it made its way into a ‘Samuel’s death admin’ box.
My phone went soon after and I moved to our office to take the call. It was the mother of Samuel’s ex-girlfriend, asking if what she’d heard was true – her daughter was hysterical. I said it was. She asked how badly my son was injured. “He’s dead” I said. She then started with platitudes and I just wanted the call to end. Had I just said the words “He’s dead” so easily?
I started to inwardly panic. My son’s death was already on social media and my adult children had no idea what had happened. What if I’d had this call before the police had arrived? My son had been dead all day and I’d been oblivious. I’d had a great catch up with a work friend on Zoom, been laughing even and all that time Samuel was dead. Where was my mother’s instinct that something was wrong?
I paced the floor to get my thoughts in order. Locating paper and a pen, I started to list who needed to know. Where was my guttural screaming, collapse or hysteria on the news of my youngest child’s traumatic death? Why did I start to list, like I was organising a party?
I would later try to understand my grief response. I had spent much of the past four years on hyper-alert, responding to my son’s mental health crisis. My phone was always at my side, rarely on silent. Being overwhelmed by emotion when I needed to drive to A&E at 2am or open a gut-wrenching email at work was never an option. I had to keep control, be his advocate and manage his worsening condition.
Later I was to learn I had developed disassociation – a trauma response coping mechanism where I went on autopilot and numbness prevailed. To cope with the incessant distressing incidents, I put my emotional response in a 'box', on a shelf, and controlled what I could with practical responses prevailing.
I am now reaching up to that shelf where my emotional box sits. I’m starting to open the lid and sit with the grief that came way before suicide came knocking at my door.
By Suzanne Howes, Founder of Coaching After Loss