It’s #BellLetsTalk Day and this year, I come to it with a greater understanding of the importance of the conversations around mental health. I’d like to share this story with you but just a note that it includes the topic of suicide, so please don’t read if that is a trigger for you.
It is a story of how I was supported in my grief, how being vulnerable and open can make a difference, and finally how my friend, a survivor of suicide, has found a measure of peace through an unbearable loss.
My tears haven’t stopped since a young friend died by suicide a few months ago. His mother has asked that we focus on how her son lived rather than how he died and I am respecting that. But I am devastated like many others who were touched by the brilliance of this big, short life.
I carried this grief with me as I boarded a plane, attended a gala celebration and launch of a book (coincidentally about mental health), and then a meeting with a group of experts to discuss peer support for the workplace. It was there, as the conversation shifted to suicide, and the fact that the work we were doing might save lives, that my grief bubbled up to the surface. This was a safe place for this to happen but still, I fled the room.
When I returned to the meeting, everyone respected my space as I got a coffee, collected myself and took my seat at the table. I felt their support and kind energy. One of them reached over and touched my arm, another one waited until break and gave me a hug with no words; himself a suicide survivor. Two others shifted their chairs ever so slightly toward me.
These are the kinds of small gestures that can be so powerful when words don’t seem to be enough.
Then, as the meeting ended, and I began to pack up my bag, the fellow next to me pulled up a chair in front of him and motioned for me to sit down. This was Brian Hansell whose son Paul had died by suicide. It was his words that had made me think of my friend and her family.
“I am as healed as much as I will ever be over the tragic loss of Paul,” he said. “I’ll never get over it. I just hope that every day I get a little bit stronger and find my way past it.”
I wondered if my friends would ever be able to get to such a place.
On that day, Brian held his hand up to stop me as I apologized for bringing my “stuff” to the table. He said that is exactly what we need to do. He shared that he was Paul’s best friend. How could he not have known? But he didn’t. And now instead of going into what he calls that “dreaded spiral of guilt and blame” he celebrates who Paul was—someone who was always giving others a hand up. This, he said, is how he gets through every day.
Brian is tireless in doing what he can to raise awareness of mental health issues in young people through the Paul Hansell Foundation and the #ConvoPlates. The purpose of each plate is to start conversations about mental health and keep the conversation going along with the plate, which is meant to be sent to someone new every few weeks.
When I shared this article with him in advance of posting it, he thanked me for being “both open and vulnerable.” That, he said, “makes a huge difference too.” I am grateful to have been in that room at that time to receive the support I did. It will stay with me always and help chisel a small piece of my sadness away every time I think about it.
For that reason, I finally shared this story with my friend. I wanted her to know that her son is still in our hearts, that we think of him often and that there are good people like Brian and many others who are sharing their stories to make a difference.
I have chosen to keep the names of my friend and her family confidential to protect their right to honour their loss in the way they choose. And that is to shine a light on their son’s big, bright life.
My friend describes this light as something that keeps her going every day. She finds great solace in her spiritual connection to her son. Both she and his dad see signs that he is with them all the time.
She said, “I feel like I have made deliberate choices with some hope, some understanding, and whatever spiritual beliefs I have.
But she describes the “big swing.” “There’s spiritual choices and attitudes, where something is more positive. Then there’s the parts that overwhelm you. You thought you’d be watching a sunset and all of a sudden you’re dropped in the middle of the ocean and you’re swimming for your life,” she said. “You don’t really know if there’s ever going to be a purpose to any of this.”
But the fact that she is able and open to feel her son around her makes all the difference. “There are just too many coincidences for it not to be him.”
She agrees on the need to have more of the conversations like those being promoted through efforts like Bell Let’s Talk Day and the Paul Hansell Foundation.
But she also acknowledges how both of the stories shared here highlight how those conversations might not happen. My friend’s son had been living away from home and kept up a strong, positive front when they saw him. He had a great job, was well-liked and had plans for the future.
“We had no clue that anything was going on,” she said. “I’d been monitoring his health his whole life but had no idea. So we were in the dark about what this conversation even was.”
I was given a #ConvoPlate a few months ago at the gala I mentioned earlier. I was mulling over who I
would share my plate with and then it came to me. It was my son Rene’s 19th birthday.
I am so grateful to have started the conversation with him.