RUPERT: TEN YEARS LATER
“Grief is the price we pay for love.”
(Queen Elizabeth II)
It was a Sunday morning; a bright promising summer’s day.
I’d been up a while, contentedly reading in bed. My wife had gone out to church. The children were in their rooms. All was quiet. Nothing unusual in that. Sundays were usually slow to start.
Eventually, I’d had enough of my book and decided it was time to get up. Passing my daughter Rosy’s room, I walked towards my son’s room, noticing that his door was nearly but not quite shut. Normally he kept it open so, respecting his privacy, I knocked. No reply. I went into the room and found Rupert.
Sometime in the small hours, he had hanged himself. He was 14 years old.
All my life, I’ve rarely been stuck for words. But the horror of losing a child to suicide is so overwhelming and so complicated that it makes a mockery of words and exposes their inadequacy to capture the dreadful reality in which, without warning, you are suddenly and shockingly submerged.
For many weeks, you cannot process the reality that your child is dead and gone forever. It doesn’t matter that the physical evidence haunted me over and over. Every night when I tried to sleep, the flashbacks would begin, mercilessly vivid. Over and over again, I would replay what I had seen and experienced.
I held his body in my arms and kissed his cold face again and again. When I think how squeamish I once was. Even in death, he was still beautiful. There was a fine growth of hair on his upper lip; the hint that he was starting to leave boyhood behind. I couldn’t grasp that he would never be an adult now, never lead a life of his own.
I kept thinking that there must be some mistake; that this couldn’t really be happening. It was a terrible joke, stage managed by Rupert himself. Or that the paramedics would spot something I hadn’t and bring him spluttering back to life; bruised, frightened, but returned to us as bright and funny, creative and challenging as ever.
Later that first day, I watched instead as they carefully navigated our narrow stairs and carried away his body in a black bag on a collapsible trolley, like so much waste. Later I knew others would cut him open and further desecrate his perfection; because the law dictates that suicide requires an autopsy. Another lasting trauma from the catalogue of devastation which follows such a death.
There were so many.
The pompous, unfeeling official from the inquest office, lecturing me in a bored voice over the phone: “Oh I’ve seen this all before…”
The grief tourists, as we nicknamed them, eyes dancing with the adrenalin of tragedy, urging softly, “Do you mind me asking how he died?”
I cringe to think that, for a time, in our utter vulnerability, we told some of them everything, sparing no small detail.
Going to Rupert’s school to collect his belongings from his locker. The man who was meant to meet me was late so that a bell went and we were caught in a sudden maelstrom of boys, all of them in the familiar uniform. It sounds ridiculous but I looked for Rupert then, momentarily convinced that, after all, he might be among them. The now familiar feeling that it was all just a hideous mistake. But Rupert wasn’t there, the boys quickly vanished and we were alone again.
The teacher led me to a locker, struggling to open it with a pass key. He started to hand me the detritus inside until I realised that this stuff wasn’t Rupert’s. It was the wrong locker. Eventually, at last, he located it, and I was quickly loaded up with all Rupert’s exercise books and the pitiful odds and ends which schoolboys hoard, except, “Oh not that, that’s a library book…”
I’d hadn’t thought to bring a bag with me, so I had to stagger out to the car with everything precariously balanced and pitch it all onto the back seat.
As I drove home, I screamed out his name over and over again until my throat hurt.
It was a beautiful summer. The hard blue sky and vivid colours mocked us daily; reinforcing the sense that we were now aliens in a world which no longer belonged to us nor had any meaning. Whenever we ventured out, there were families laughing and having fun; boys who, from a distance, might pass for Rupert. One of the characteristic sounds of Rupert was the trundle of his skateboard; signalling his return from being out with his friends. Now another boy trundled up and down outside our house instead. I had never seen him before. Why was he here now, tormenting us? I wanted to scream at him to leave us alone.
The funeral was planned and took place. Before the bell was rung to signal the start of the ceremony, I repeated the mantra I had thought of to get through it. “Pack your heart full of ice…so you cannot feel.”
The church was packed. There were compliments about the music and the words, and how well it was stage managed. And funerals are a piece of theatre, a ritual which helps most of those attending to process the death and move on. Not so much the family left behind.
A few days later, we went to collect Rupert’s ashes. There he was, reduced to the contents of a little wicker box. Handing it over, the stupid girl behind the counter said, “Surprisingly heavy, isn’t it?” I could have killed her.
Life was now all about death. Death was all there was.
I used to be terrified of dying. Every morning when I was shaving, I would feel excited for a new day and repress the fear of mortality which stalked me. I used to be haunted with guilt by the ridiculous conundrum of “Would you die for your children?” The standard and expected response was “Of course! In a heartbeat!” but, secretly ashamed, I was never so sure. Could I really make such a promise? Rupert’s death eradicated all doubt. Yes, I would willingly swap with him. Anything to return him to us and give him back what he had thrown away.
Both my wife and I wanted only to die; or so we thought. We went for long walks and discussed it endlessly. She suggested I kill her first and then myself. We persuaded ourselves that our daughter would be better off without us. During this time, Rosy lost her parents as well as her brother. She seemed to cope by immersing herself in school and the normality of routine. Her boyfriend Kieran stood by her and us.
Friends and family were in the ultimate no-win situation. Some fell by the wayside very early on, unable to cope with the magnitude of the tragedy and the obvious devastation it wreaked. One neighbour used to cross the road if he saw me coming. Others wrote the expected letter or card of sympathy and then never contacted us again. I couldn’t exactly blame them but I hated them all the same. There was the sense that some must be speculating what had really happened to cause Rupert’s death. “No smoke without fire”; all the gossip and schadenfreude. I hated the idea that people were now thinking of him transformed from a cheeky, lively, life-enhancing boy to some tragic figure. It didn’t remotely fit the Rupert I had known and loved since birth. As for being judged, no-one could judge us as harshly as we judged ourselves. We had failed to stop our son’s death.
All the time we asked ourselves why. One of the most tormenting aspects of suicide is that, unless there is a note, you cannot ever know the true reason why the person killed themselves. At the beginning, we speculated ceaselessly. The Sun did too, suggesting that Rupert may have been bullied as a result of me losing my job on Blue Peter. Totally made up, it hardly needs stating. Rupert had never been bullied and, notwithstanding the usual schoolboy reservations, loved his school. Rupert’s many friends were deeply upset and outraged. It was their introduction to the spiteful workings of the tabloid press.
For those who dared to stay close in those early months, it must have been a considerable ordeal. We were silent, or angry, remote or scornful. I couldn’t bear the way people whispered as though they were in a library. I couldn’t bear to be touched or stroked. I couldn’t bear to be with people who had living sons. I couldn’t bear to be with anyone; why were they alive when Rupert wasn’t?
We could publish an encyclopaedia of the stupid, offensive and insensitive things people said.
“Things happen for a reason,” was one of my most hated. What are you supposed to reply? “I hadn’t thought of that” maybe, or “Oh. Yes. Well, that’s all right then.”
A meaningless cliché. A waste of air.
We were bombarded with them.
“There are no words” people wrote again and again. I found this offensive. Lazy. Yes, there are words. Go and look some up.
I loathed all the polite euphemisms. He didn’t “pass away”. He died.
I couldn’t tolerate the attempts people made to introduce God into the equation, to suggest that Rupert was in “a better place” or at peace.
“He’s skating with the angels in heaven.”
No, he’s not. He’s reduced to ashes in a box under our bed.
Besides, I felt pretty sure that if he was somewhere celestial and could look over his shoulder and see what he had left behind, it wouldn’t let him enjoy paradise very much.
After a while, I was told sternly that it was time I “climbed back on the horse”. What horse? Why? To reassure the person issuing this ‘advice’ that everything would soon be OK again? Fuck them.
Fuck anyone who didn’t know what this felt like.
I was told that some close family members “couldn’t bear to think about it” as though their discomfort was our responsibility.
One day I took my mother to lunch in John Lewis. Family mattered most to her. She couldn’t have loved me or Rupert any more. And yet she was always saying tactless and thoughtless things. On this occasion, she began to pronounce on how “self-harm” simply didn’t exist when she was young; that it was all a self-indulgent made-up modern concept. When people said anything insensitive, it was as if they were physically barging into an open wound; the pain was intense and rage was inevitable. Stung by her words, I stood up, eyes blinded by tears, and screamed at her. “Your grandson hanged himself. That’s the most extreme kind of self-harm there is.”
A frisson among the middle-class matrons tucking into soup, sandwiches, tea and scones.
At this early stage, we longed for death. I did some research and invested in a special kind of dog lead, which would be highly efficient if I decided to hang myself. I took comfort from knowing that I had it and that the option was there. What troubled me was the idea that if I hanged myself Rupert would be blamed. I didn’t want that so I took to running long distances without stopping; relishing the agonising stitches and the screaming joints as I forced myself on, mile after mile. I reasoned that if I dropped down dead with a heart attack or stroke, no one could blame me. Just another middle-aged man who pushed himself too far. People commended me on doing so much physical exercise. “You look great,” they opined. I thought they were all fucking stupid and it reinforced my conviction that most people weren’t that curious; they just wanted to be reassured you were OK so it relieved them of the burden of delving any deeper.
What saved us in those early days was our remarkable therapist, John Hale. A one-time Franciscan monk, he is somewhat unconventional in his approach and techniques. His honesty is frequently bleak and he encourages such honesty by return. On our first meeting, he said, “I have to tell you that over 75% of couples split up within the first year of losing a child.”
He allowed me to rage at him. “Why do you care?” I would snarl. “What does it even matter if I live or die or go back to work or do anything at all?”
He ordered us to stop thinking of possible reasons why Rupert had done what he had done. “You are only torturing yourselves,” he pointed out. “You can never know the reasons. And there is no reason good enough for him to have killed himself.”
He challenged my own conviction that I wanted to die. “I don’t think you do,” he said. “I just don’t think you want to feel this way.”
I told him about the dog lead. He said I must chuck it away or he couldn’t continue to see me. I went home and did as he said. He quickly identified my self-harming behaviour and started the intensely difficult process of helping me to engage with it.
Most of all, sometimes firmly, sometimes gently, he educated us that there could be a future, that joy was possible and happiness could return; that we could move towards living what he called “a new normal”.
John encouraged me to train as a mentor to young men facing a variety of challenges; employment, housing, education, bereavement. Many of these were boys who had difficult or damaged relationships with their own fathers. Sometimes the father was dead or absent. Whatever the circumstances, they all craved a male role model. At first I thought John must be mad; the last thing I wanted was to spend time with other people’s sons when I had been deprived of my own. But he is wise and realised that all my life I have had a strong vocation to work for young people, to support their needs and understand their perspective. I completed the training and, for about two years, I mentored a variety of young men. The focus on their many issues and problems, and on trying to encourage them to engage with their feelings, took the pressure off my own preoccupations, and gave me back the intense satisfaction of helping others. Pain inspires compassion. Reaching out to someone in the midst of your own suffering is a kind of healing. It returns a trace of hope and meaning to a life which can otherwise often seem intolerably bleak.
Recently, the funding for John’s lifesaving work has been cut, though he continues to offer some counselling free and to run a suicide survivors group also without charge. As I say, he is a remarkable man. But despite all the fashionable posturing about the importance of mental health, the reality is that less and less is being spent and the support available is often reduced to a phone call, a brief course of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and a few free gym vouchers.
We still attend the group, which meets every few weeks. We call it “the club no-one wants to belong to” and it includes those who have lost their partners to suicide as well as the parents of children who took their own lives. It can be a brutal experience, working best when it is fuelled by raw honesty. Part of its value is the realisation that to those of us who have undergone this trauma, what would seem extreme and horrifying to most people is simply our normal; there is comfort and solidarity to be had. Common themes can be explored, frustration, anger and sadness given an outlet and practical ideas and approaches can be shared to deal with the many complicated and challenging situations which face you in the wake of suicide. The stigma of suicide is a common theme; the clumsy way the world interprets it, if it does at all – the unique pain of trying to return to living in the normal world, when every standard and value has been negated and made to seem hollow or worthless, and where you are the odd one out who has to re-learn how to fit in and find your place again.
No one warns you about the boredom of grief; the dreary yet remorseless way it drains colour, flavour and relish from every aspect of your life. The vital pleasures – food, music, reading, conversation, television – are spoilt, reduced to irritations or irrelevances, or to a special form of taunting you with the memory of what they once represented.
There is acute pain to be had from almost everything which affects your senses; a certain smell, a familiar photograph, the sound of laughter, the back of a child’s head.
Christmas can be a particular torment. It was a time of year I used to anticipate with joy and pleasure. At first, we tried to carry on as before. It was a terrible mistake. Slowly and painfully, guided by John’s advice, we discovered that the “new normal” meant engaging in acts of transformation. Like so much, Christmas had to be reinvented on fresh lines, so that it could be unlocked and returned to us.
We learnt that it was essential always to have a plan for each of the anniversaries; particularly his birthday and the 8th June, the day of his death. The key is to acknowledge and embrace the loss in some form, perhaps a simple ritual like lighting a candle, releasing a balloon, going somewhere associated with him, doing something he would have enjoyed.
His friends often joined us on these occasions. In the early years, while they were still teenagers, we organised them and they would come round to our house, and we would let them smoke and get drunk, set off fireworks, and talk about anything without fear of censure. They responded to this and to us with love, solidarity and friendship. Some of them opened up to me about their own lives and feelings and I was as honest and open with them as I could be. One boy told me, “I wish I had a Dad like you. Rupert was lucky.”
It was incredibly touching and unbearably painful at the same time.
Inevitably, there is always a certain agony to seeing them, and this agony has changed and deepened with the passing years as they variously embrace a future and a life which Rupert threw away. No university or career for Rupert. No lovers and new friends. No interests and passions, missions and crusades. I mind how the world moves inexorably forward so that Rupert already belongs to an era which is receding into history. He was MySpace not Instagram, text message not WhatsApp.
I was shocked when, not long ago, his best friend told me that he had all but forgotten Rupert. But when I could get past the shock to reflect on this, I could sense that it was natural and reasonable. As far as this boy was concerned, Rupert had been dead a long time and the years since had been full of fresh experiences, new relationships and constant change. Not just that. Why would he want to dwell on the memories of a friend who left him so suddenly and terribly, causing so much sadness and regret? Despite this, he has had Rupert’s birth date tattooed over his heart. Rupert’s death changed his life too.
In the months after Rupert died, I was desperate to share my love for him, my pride in him. I compiled a book, Love Rupert, crammed with photographs, reminiscences and reproductions of pictures he’d drawn, notes and essays. It was lavishly done and distributed to anyone I thought might appreciate it. Similarly, there were a series of videos, cut to tracks I felt were moving and meaningful, mining the archive of family videos and those he had shot himself on my camera or his phone. I wanted to tell the world how wonderful he was, how talented, how handsome – what they were missing now he was gone.
I look back at these activities with some regret. As time goes on, I feel more as if I want to keep Rupert to those who knew him best. Only they really care. How hurtful to think of the people who took the book dutifully and thought, “When am I ever going to want to look at this?” and then perhaps found their moment to quietly dispose of it. I took down the website with the videos and photo sections. It felt too personal to be out there for anyone to intrude upon and gawp at.
And the truth which all the bereaved have to face is that no matter what the legacy of their loved one, once they are gone and removed from the everyday world, they are consigned to memory; the only true legacy is in their impact on the ones who really loved them and whom they left behind.
Anger is an unavoidable aspect of grief. There is anger at the injustice, anger at what has been lost, anger at the damage and pain inflicted on the others you love. There is anger at the uncaring world and the demands it still makes on you. Anger is never far from the surface and can be triggered by apparently trivial causes. I experienced several terrifying sudden public meltdowns in the wake of Rupert’s death.
One day I was in London, working, making my way to Soho where our edit suites where based. I came to a pedestrian crossing and waited. A gleaming Mercedes approached and I expected it to slow down. I made eye contact with the driver; young, arrogant. He wasn’t going to stop for the likes of me. He cruised on and glanced sneeringly in my direction. And that was it. I went out of my mind. I ran alongside his car and launched a series of violent kicks to the side, screaming abuse at the top of my voice. The driver’s expression was no longer arrogant and assured. He looked frightened. He sped on as fast as he could.
Then the spell was broken and, released from it, I was covered in utter shame, horror and sadness. I burst into tears and fled to find a corner where I could escape from the staring faces of so many strangers. I knew I had been quite out of control, capable of killing him, or myself, or anyone.
It took much longer for me to admit to any anger with Rupert. To begin with, I would swear that I wasn’t angry with him and could never be; how could I blame him for making such a terrible mistake, when he has lost everything?
But as time went on, I realised I was angry with him and that this was OK. It didn’t mean I couldn’t forgive him, just as I did when he was alive and had pissed me off. I was angry that he had been given so much; intelligence, imagination, good looks, great health and physicality and yet he had chosen to discard his life. I found it shameful to think of the sharp contrast with other less fortunate young people burdened with disabilities and illness, sometimes fatal, who fought for every last moment of life, and to fulfil whatever dreams they nurtured.
The worst anger is triggered by the impact his death has had on the others I most care for, particularly his mother and his sister. They didn’t deserve what he has done to them. They were unfailingly wonderful, understanding, supportive, loyal. I could go on. Rationally, I realise that, at the point he decided to hang himself, none of this was relevant to Rupert. He loved us and knew we loved him. But, like most people his age, at this stage of life it was all about him, his issues, his drama. He was too young to be considered or detached. He was always reckless, impulsive, emotional. And whatever his state of mind, in those last few hours, he was also fatally vulnerable and entirely on his own.
That is where everything ended for him. For us, the consequences continue and will never cease. Someone once said that a suicide is like dropping a pebble in a pool; the disturbance radiates out from the central impact, affecting many more than just those in the closest vicinity. It’s a simplification, of course, but it has resonance. Suicide doesn’t conclude anything; it forces open the door to a changed existence and the after shocks continue for years and can frequently be felt in the next generation. Once a suicide has occurred in a family, its shadow lingers; the possibility is there for it to happen again in the future.
Time is inexorable and the years pass. In so many ways, it seems inconceivable that we have survived an entire decade since that terrible day. What has changed?
It is, I think, true that while you never get over the death of a child, you can learn to live with it. A degree of happiness, even joy, returns, if you let it. Love, laughter and friendship are vital. We can function as effectively as most, holding down jobs and a social life. So well do we manage this that many must think we have healed and are “over it”. They want this to be true, for us and for them. The spectre of such a violent and tragic death is awkward. It gets in the way of enjoyment and relaxation, taints the atmosphere at a gathering. Shortly after Rupert died, one friend quoted the old saying “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.” At the time I was infuriated. Another smug cliché. But now I recognise its stark truth. Other people only have so much capacity for your loss. It becomes a burden, an inhibition, a barrier, a bore. Those with children can’t bear to think about it, because it is their worst fear come true, and too close to home. Those without children can’t always imagine the visceral nature of what has happened and how you have been wounded forever. One friend contacted me on twitter a few years after Rupert died, prompted by some superficially jolly post I’d put out there. “I was so sorry to hear that Rupert had died,” she wrote. “I meant to get in touch at the time but I didn’t know what to say. But I’m glad to see that you’re over it now and happy again.”
Well intentioned, perhaps, but I did want to reply, “How about I pop round, murder one of your children, and then you can let me know when you’re over it and happy again.”
Having a sense of humour helps, especially if you’re not scared to make fun of the dark. Mandy and I still laugh at the day she was sitting in the garden, crying and crying. She seemed to have been crying for days. I’d had enough and snapped, “Oh stop crying and shut the fuck up.” A friend who was with us at the time was horrified. But Mandy burst out laughing. She was sick of crying too.
Being busy is infinitely preferable to a vacuum of time with too much space for thinking. We have developed many techniques to deal with the feelings which can still hijack us without notice. Nourishing your interests and enthusiasms helps. Nothing is too trivial if it brings diversion and simple pleasure. There was a stage when just walking into town to get a decent cup of coffee felt like the only thread which was keeping me connected to the outside world. I’m grateful that is no longer the case – but I still like a walk and a good cup of coffee.
I think of Rupert every day, but had he lived, that would still have been true; I think of my daughter and grand-daughter every day too. Since he died at the age of 14, I was determined that I would never attempt to ‘age’ him in my imagination, to speculate about what he might have been or become. But it is a lie that time heals everything. The ache of his absence has grown not better but worse over the years. I miss him all the time, every day. The pain is like incurable homesickness. I very rarely watch the videos now. They hurt too much. They belong to then.
The oddest aspect of losing a child to suicide is the way that you can be moving forward in so many ways, when some slight, unexpected trigger will come along and in an instant, you will be transported right back to how you felt at the very beginning; as raw and broken and despairing as you were when your brain was struggling to process that this really had happened and wasn’t some extraordinary nightmare. I once explained this to a friend.
“Sounds a bit like malaria,” he said. “It can always come back to get you.”
The sense of loneliness has increased. Everyone else inevitably moves on but, whatever your progress, in many respects the parent of a dead child can’t. It isn’t natural or truly possible to move on from the death of your child. As the years go by, you no longer feel you have permission to express how this feels. It must largely be contained and kept to yourself.
Once, in the face of what must have been a particularly violent outburst of anguish, my mother said, desperately, “But you wouldn’t wish his life away, would you? I know he’s died and he’s broken your heart, but aren’t you grateful for the 14 years you did have?”
This provoked fury; no, I wasn’t grateful and often, I wished that he had never been born. Anything to spare this unrelenting, unceasing, merciless pain.
Ten years after the cataclysm of his death, I no longer feel the same. I have learnt to stop speculating about why he did what he did. I have learnt to put boundaries around the relationships which have the potential to hurt me and cause more damage. I have learnt that very many of the things people value and to which they devote time, energy and passion really don’t matter much at all. I have learnt that I can and have survived the worst thing that can happen to a loving parent.
I’ve been told I am brave, and strong, and even remarkable. I have never felt any of those things. I believe you only really have two choices; to stop in your tracks and retreat from life, or to try to find some way to continue. It wasn’t bravery or strength which made me choose the latter. I had to try because Rupert wasn’t the only person I loved or lived for. But I did love him and I will continue to love him for the rest of my days, to be thankful for the gift of such a truly original and wonderful son, while aching for the waste of his death and what it has meant for all of us who hold him in our hearts.