Let’s start with the something positive shall we? Last month, the High Court ruled that the civil standard of proof – not the criminal standard of proof – should now be used by coroners when reaching a conclusion of suicide.
I wrote back in March – and also in PAPYRUS’ annual review – about the difficulties that using the criminal standard of proof raised, ultimately resulting in more deaths being recorded as ‘narrative; or ‘accidental’ when the families and friends of the deceased know that their loved one had intended to take their life.
Samaritans CEO Ruth Jones sums it up well: “Until now, before a death can be clearly recorded as suicide, the burden of proof has had to be on a par with that of a crime – it’s almost as if there must be enough evidence to ‘convict’ someone of the act of suicide.”
You can read Ruth Jones’ article on the impact of the High Court ruling here.
This requirement placed on coroners meant that the already shockingly high suicide statistics weren’t reflecting the actual number of men, women, boys and girls who die by suicide every week. PAPYRUS, the Samaritans, and others have been campaigning for this change for years, so it’s testament to their hard work and tenacity that the law has finally been changed. We will now begin to get a truer picture of suicide in the UK and grieving families can get the support they often desperately need.
It may sound odd, but when we went to Joe’s inquest in July, we wanted suicide to be the verdict. Joe intended to take his life; it was the only way he could see out of the pain that consumed him, and for someone who didn’t know him to decide that hadn’t been his intention would have felt wrong and disrespectful. So it was a mixture of relief and incredible sadness that flooded over me when the coroner did indeed record a verdict of suicide. After 13 months, the formal and legal inquiry into Joe’s death was over, but for his family and friends the heartache continues and the memories still floor us every day…
I’m not a huge fan of summer and the heat this year has made me want to move into my freezer. I love September, with its promise of new beginnings, a new term and a shiny new pencil case, but summer can do one. And for the past few years in the Rees-Anderson household, August has also been the month of dreaded exam results…
In 2015, it was Joe’s turn to collect his A-level results and find out whether he’d got his place at Exeter. We were up early and I was waiting to take him to school when I heard him yelling from upstairs: “I’ve got in! Exeter have emailed me!” There was much jumping around and hugging and we headed off to pick up his certificates.
He was so excited. All that hard work had paid off. Joe only went to Roundwood for sixth form so as well as tackling four A-levels, he had the added challenge of meeting a whole heap of new people and teachers. He rose to it, of course, and from reading all the messages in his yearbook, it was his sense of humour and sassiness that he’ll be most remembered for.
I’d promised him a champagne breakfast so we headed to the Slug and ordered two full English breakfasts and two glasses of champagne as soon as the doors opened at 9.30am. Joe loved that.
It was such an exciting time for him – and for Claudia who’d taken a gap year so was starting uni at the same time. Over the next few weeks, we took them to IKEA to stock up on uni bits (no Joe, you don’t need a bizarrely shaped shoe horn* and a set of six measuring jugs), introduced them to the joy of a live performance at Ronnie Scott’s and helped them to prepare for their uni adventures.
Looking back, I wish I’d spent more time talking to him about how he was feeling and whether he was still happy to move such a long way away, now that it was really happening. He was only just 18 and we assumed he was excited about what lay ahead. But as we now know, his self-destructive behaviour began only a few weeks into his first term at Exeter, so perhaps he wasn’t ready? If we’d been told about his problems by the university then we could have tried to help but we were told nothing, and when he came home in the holidays, he was full of laughter and stories of uni life. Even when he was taken to hospital twice in his first term we weren’t contacted, but that’s a whole other story…
There had never really been any question that Joe would go to university. He was super bright and wanted desperately to study Physics, a subject he loved. David and I had told all three children that there was no expectation from us about going to university and that they should do whatever they wanted; try an apprenticeship, go to college, get a job – whatever would make them happy. But Joe was adamant, and after touring around several universities with David, he settled on Exeter.
I think there’s often a lot of pressure on young people to go to university – from schools, from peers and from families – and I don’t think they are are given enough support or information about the alternatives. A bugbear of mine is when schools – Joe’s included – refer to the ‘destinations’ of their leavers. It’s so final, like they’ve gone to university and that’s it; it’s not just a small step in their life journey but the final destination. You get into uni and you’ve arrived, you’ve made it, end of! And for so many young people, university is a disappointing, frustrating, difficult experience, and not at all what they expected.
Connor and Claudia both went to uni, decided it wasn’t right for them and are both now starting careers in London with companies who want them for their attitude, enthusiasm and potential, not their academic qualifications. I’m not at all suggesting that for thousands of students, uni isn’t the right option – it was for me and I loved every minute of it – but I also went at a time when I paid no tuition fees and there was no social media. It’s completely different now and we need to recognise that.**
As adults, we forget how it actually feels when exams are looming, results are imminent and life decisions need to be made. We advise, counsel and guide from a place of hindsight, life lessons, experience and perspective, none of which our young people have. Yes, we can tell them not to worry and that exam results don’t matter in the grand scheme of things but this is, in all likelihood, the biggest thing to have ever happened to them; this is their grand scheme.
Young people don’t have the benefit of our years of experience, our knowledge of failure and our certainty that you can pick yourself up and learn from all the stumbles and questionable decisions you make along the way. Their perspective is so completely different to our own and we must be mindful of that and not downplay the importance of these major life events for the young people who are living them.
As we celebrate Connor’s and Claudia’s new jobs and the next chapter in their lives, there is such sadness that we won’t ever celebrate the milestones in Joe’s life. His Exeter friends all graduated in July and it was incredibly hard to look at the photos. He’d always talked about doing his Master’s and a PhD, at the same time as earning a ‘shed load of money’, so he had plans, albeit potentially unrealistic ones!
Having Connor and Claudia back home so they can save up for their own homes is lovely, but it does make Joe’s empty bedroom feel even more empty now it’s the only one not being used. I cleaned it today and put new bedding on his bed – I don’t really know why.
I love having these memories of Joe from 2015, as painful as they now are, but I wish I’d taken more photographs and more video because now that’s all we have. It still doesn’t feel real that he’s gone and that we’ll never see his face or hear his voice again. Most days it’s incomprehensible and it hits me over and over again like the proverbial ton of bricks. All that love, life, laughter, intelligence, sassiness and potential…
I’m currently reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig and so much of it speaks to me about what Joe must have been going through and what I wish I’d known, at the time, about his illness.
I’ll leave you with one of Matt’s many reasons to stay alive: “You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling. There are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.”
* Joe could be very stubborn and insisted that he needed the shoe horn. It’s now hanging on the back of his bedroom door.
** Check out this programme on Radio 4 where Emma Kennedy looks at how there needs to be far more insight and support for young people at school and beyond to help them make informed choices about their future careers.