Stephanie’s journey of hope and suicide support

 The most important thing I want to share with you is that every person can be resilient. Simply put, it means we each can bounce back from anything that life throws at us in a way that is unique to us. You reading this is an example of resilience, doing something for yourself and your grief journey. I’m going to share with you parts of my grief journey, and what provided me with hope and healing.

On the 19th of April 2011, the day after celebrating my 22nd birthday, I woke up, and my life changed forever. My beautiful Mother, Josie, had died by suicide and the reason I point out it was after my birthday is to emphasize how normal my life was up to until my mother’s passing. 

My mother was full of life and devilment. We were best friends. She worked incredibly hard her whole life and welcomed everyone into our home house 24/7, while maintaining a no-nonsense approach. There was a great balance of fun and mischief; she always laughed and offered a listening ear to anyone who needed to talk and cooked enough to feed half of my estate. Our family, neighbours and friends lived around our kitchen table.

Nobody could have prepared me for the loss, the gut-wrenching shock, the anguish, the pain and for what was to come. Life after losing Mam to suicide was a journey through shadows, where the weight of the grief initially seemed insurmountable.

I’ve quite a logical mind; in the immediate aftermath, the focus was firstly on surviving by making sure those around me had eaten, taken a shower, and drunk enough water. The eating part was easy; we were grateful for the 25 lasagnes and 300 ham sandwiches dropped off at the house for the first few weeks. 

I helped my dad organise the funeral, pick out my mam’s clothes, jewellery, planed the mass, helped pick out the music and I wrote and delivered the eulogy. These tangible actions helped me do things to get through the initial few days.

During the wake, hundreds and hundreds of people arrived at the funeral home and offered their condolences by shaking my hand and/or giving me a hug. This was the strangest experience. These condolences brought serious solace and comfort to me and my family, and to this day, I still see it was a key step in surviving.

No one could have prepared me for the days after when the dust settled, after the funeral. Something weird happened to my friend group, I suddenly had zero tolerance for nonsense. I cut a lot of people that were draining out of my life for good.

Fortunately, I was surrounded by the best people who helped me at that point and continue to be extremely supportive these days too. I’m forever grateful to those people.

I remember one almost immediate reaction: gathering as many photos of my mother and putting them into a photo album. Once it was made, I couldn’t bring myself to open it. I opened it maybe once a year for about 10 years. Every time I looked at it, I would burst into tears, but now I’m so grateful to have that album close to me. Every time I look at those pictures, I obviously feel the loss, but now I allow myself to feel joy, love, and happiness for the moments we had together.  

The logical mind kicked in again; I found grief leaflets that provided definitions of grief. They also contained information what to expect with grief and suicide and how to cope with the loss of a parent. This helped me initially to rationalise my feelings and seeking information on suicide loss/ statistics/prevention/stigma, etc, has become deeply rooted in my grief and educational journey.

I tried individual and family counselling. For me, it was way too early for both.  I was distraught. As a family, we argued about everything: who didn’t mop the floor, who was making too much noise, when it was someone else’s turn to do the dishes. Neither types of counselling worked for me at the time, so I stopped.  

In short, what happened next was I spiralled out of control.

I was back to work less than a week after the funeral. I threw myself into working three jobs and volunteering. My first day back to work, a colleague greeted me with open arms and said “‘I’m so sorry for your loss, I lost my Mam and I didn’t start to feel normal for 3 years”’. My world stopped moving in that very moment and I thought to myself, I’m going to feel like this for 3 years, how will I cope? How will I survive? That comment was not helpful, but it did teach me that I can respectfully stop people trying to give me unsolicited advice.

I was totalling over 100 average working/volunteering hours per week for at least 18 months to burn myself out and not feel anything. I stopped sleeping. I was erratic. I turned to food and partying. I gained a serious amount of weight. I began to hate myself. I was in a very low, dark place. I kept questioning why, why, why.

In the summer of 2012, I had an interaction with a manager of mine in a nightclub where I worked at the time. In short, he sat me down and started sharing a personal story of his life. He mentioned that he had known me for many years and could not ignore the change in me over the last while and felt it would be wrong not to sit down and talk. 

There was silence. I was confused. He wasn’t a friend of mine. What does he have to say, I thought. 

He said he felt I was now coming to a serious crossroads in my life, that I had to stop for a moment and really think about the road I was turning towards, which was a very dark road he had once walked.

I’ll never forget him saying,

Stephanie, you can choose to let what happened to your mother define you for the rest of your life in a negative way, or you can choose to accept what happened, try to come to terms with it and move forward in a more positive way’.

At that exact moment, a penny had dropped for me. I hadn’t been living. I was pushing boundaries. It was at this point that I really began to turn my grief journey around. 

I don’t know if that person remembers that conversation, but that was a pivotal moment in my life.

What I heard him say was:

You do not have to feel guilty.

You are allowed to grieve and to live.

You’re allowed to smile.

You’re allowed to be happy. 

You’ve the power to dictate your life.

At that moment, I started looking forward and believed I had a future. I was responsible for shaping that future. I’m goal-oriented and wrote down what type of life I wanted and what type I didn’t.

I handed in my notice to that night-time job to start moving to take action. I changed to morning shifts in my retail job. I retained the volunteering because it gave me purpose and hope. I gave up the party lifestyle and started training and eating right. I’ll never forget the first month; all I did was sleep. I think I was making up for all the sleep I had not gotten in the time that passed to this point. I leaned into it and allowed myself to sleep without guilt.

The thing I learned on my grief journey was to be aware of the extremisms that can come with it. With the switch, I lost significant weight in less than 12 weeks. I felt strong and healthy, but deep down, my head was too busy. I returned to college and turned all the energy into training, studying, volunteering and working. 

I also started doing as many fundraising/creating events, etc, to try and raise money for suicide prevention organisations,to reduce the stigma around suicide/mental health. 

It sounds like everything was going great, and was all sorted. But no. I was still not ok. I had just shifted the extremism.

I didn’t talk about my mother for years. I locked those feelings and that experience deep down and moved on with my life. This did not work, but that was my coping mechanism. It’s strange when you do this because new people come in and out of my life who never knew of my loss because my throat was closed and I couldn’t say it out loud. This did not help me. 

I’ll never forget the first group work class as part of my masters in Community Development. I ended up drawing a very dark-coloured, gloomy portrait for my life story. I missed the instruction at the start where I’d have to stand up at the end of the session and talk through my life portrait. This was the first experience I had of opening up about my loss, and I was distraught in front of a group of strangers.

I learned I needed to talk about my mother; say her name. Doing this through the picture creation and discussion was therapy for my soul. 

Sport also became a massive coping mechanism for me. I would do anything to stay busy and would do it 150%Swimming, cycling, walking, reading, baking, boxing, circuits, weights, and a bit of yoga/forced meditation for good measure.

Rowing found me at the end of 2016 through a random encounter with a friend of a friend at a party. I did rowing as a junior and swore I’d never go back. They convinced me to come for a spin and from that very first spin, I was hooked.

Rowing became one of the biggest features of my life. Nothing else mattered. I was surrounded by strong women, and this social support was monumental for me. It gave me hope. It forced me to see my own strength grow. However, the extremism crept in here, too. I was training 15 times a week, pushing myself to the limit. I’m extremely grateful for rowing and all the experiences, friends, and coaching experience it brought to me at the time and continues to bring me. 

Life moved on with ups and  downs, opportunities, issues and struggles throughout. Life happened in a way that I could no longer ignore the deep-down sadness and grief that was affecting everything, and I was tired of the extremes.

I had tried counselling once or twice again over the years and found yet again it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get the words out and hated repeating myself. I always felt worse after going.

I was feeling terrible one day in or around August 2020 (8 years on) and thought, I’m going to see if I can get a hair appointment in my friend’s salon and in the spirit of trying to mind myself, I asked my manager could I take the afternoon off. Both happened, and off I went to the salon. 

The salon was really quiet, and I started expressing my woes to my friend. She listened patiently and mentioned a bio-energy therapist she had visited. I didn’t know anything about bio-energy, but I was desperate to feel different. I made an appointment and went 4 days in a row, and after, I genuinely felt as if someone had taken a huge weight off me. I cried a lot, expressed my feelings and the sessions felt real for me. I didn’t repeat myself to the therapist. She just listened. My life changed forever; my mind had quietened. I felt joy, I felt happiness. I found a therapy that suited me.  

On reflection, the reason I believe these sessions were so pivotal in my life was because I was ready.  I was ready to find balance and work on maintaining that balance.

After that point, my mind quietened. I found self-compassion, I was grateful for every simple pleasure –  swimming in the sea, walking the prom, watching the sunset/sunrise, and having freedom to live. I found value in being present.

I found my voice, I began to speak about my mother. I allowed myself to mention her and relive moments through stories/conversations with friends and/or strangers. I found I loved doing this. 

I moved out to the countryside near to where my mother grew up. I often meet strangers who stop me in the street and say, ‘you have to be Josie’s daughter’. At one time, this would not have made me feel good, but now I love to hear it. It brings me joy and happiness knowing that after nearly 13 years, she still comes to mind for people.

Most recently, joining HUGG in 2023, I have found a new layer to my grief process. Attending HUGG and then volunteering with HUGG has really given me a new voice and space to think and talk about my grief journey. It has taught me that grief really is a life-long journey. 

To summarise what has helped me on my grief journey and what I have learned is:

  • Trying to understand ‘the why’ brought me great trauma and upset. I made a conscious decision within the first few days to stop asking myself why. I chose to believe she was at peace, which was of more value to me.
  • Grief is different for everyone. Self-compassion is needed.
  • Understanding that each member of my family has different coping mechanisms is okay. Being respectful of that is key for us, which means we won’t force conversations.
  • Accepting the pain and choosing to use it constructively I leaned into activities I enjoyed, which encouraged me to get out of bed in the morning and take life one step at a time.
  • Accepting I was allowed to feel love in my heart again changed my life.  
  • Being open about my loss, speaking my mother’s name, Josie, and including her in stories, keeping pictures close by and her spirit alive helps me every single day. 
  • Seeking out the professional support that worked for me, when I was ready for it, was life changing. 
  • Organising fundraising events in memory of my mother helped me push forward. 
  • Allowing myself to move with the ebb and flow of life in a way that respects that the grief never goes away, and life grows around this grief.

 I have learned since 2011 that we have no idea what the future holds. You can only control the controllables. Resilience was and continues to be key to my survival and my ability to cope with loss. 

I hope anyone mourning the loss of a loved one will get some solace knowing that although life changes forever, you can survive the grief – you just have to have hope and the belief that you can keep moving forward minute by minute. 

Finally, throughout my grief journey I have said to friends and family if they are ever feeling down and out that, it is important for them to feel their feelings and to reach out to a specific service or, at a minimum, someone who can support you in the interim. Despite what their head is telling them, they are, in fact, not alone, and suicide is not the only way out.

Thank you for reading my journey. I hope you find hope in your grief journey.


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