The Coldest Night tells the story of a mother’s loss of her son through suicide. The author brings us from the moment she learned her son had taken his own life, through the post-mortem, the funeral and the subsequent months of bewilderment and shock as she and her family tried to come to terms with a changed life and family structure.
Carol Anne Milton has a special interest in nurturing the spirituality of young people and has led a school retreat team for the past eighteen years. Through writing this very personal book on her son’s suicide, Carol Anne emerges eventually, a different but stronger person, with a deep desire to help young people suffering the pain of depression and suicidal ideation, and to continue to be involved in nurturing their spirituality which she believes is key to a healthy sense of self-worth and value.
‘The Coldest Night’
127pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie
Sometimes we hear people refer jokingly to a ‘past life’, for example, ‘In a past life I was a such-and-such’, meaning one had a previous career or relationship. For me there really are two distinct lives: my life prior to the death of my son, Alan, and the radically changed life my family and I had to learn to live following his death by suicide in 2002. When I look back on my life before that event – what I see as my own ‘past life’ – it was a relatively comfortable and secure life with the normal ups and downs, joyful and sad occasions, births, marriages and deaths that are part of everyone’s life – the times of calm and the times of turmoil that exist in every family. My world consisted of my immediate family, my retreat work with young people, my extended family and my friends.
I felt blessed with my four sons, David, Stephen, Niall and Alan, and my daughter, Noelle, who at fifteen was showing signs of growing into a lovely young woman. My sons had all grown into intelligent, generous and compassionate men, aware of the needs of the world around them, but at the same time full of the mischief, exuberance and frequent outrageousness of young adulthood. My children had been my greatest source of joy since they were born and my gratitude to God for them flowed into a desire to work with young people, which I have been doing now for eighteen years.
Surrounding these elements of my life was, and is, my deep faith in a great and powerful Other, whom I call God – a word that I have long ago ceased to grapple with the meaning of and so am content to call the ‘Unnamable’; something that is within me and within all living things. Many years ago I read somewhere the lines: ‘God and I are a majority; no force can overcome us.’ This stayed with me; I knew what it meant with my mind, however, today I know it with my heart and spirit. For me it is a truth because I am healthy and alive today. There is a permanent scar from the pain of the loss of my youngest son, but also a renewed capacity to feel joyful and to live life to the full having survived the horrendous evil that is the suicide of a beloved child.
I have written this book for parents, educators, pastors and for every young person who thinks that his/her life is not worth living and that he/she is not worth loving. It is written in order to tell the story of survival after the suicide of one’s child, as well as to pass on information from my research into suicide and depression and how nurturing a healthy spirituality could go some way towards combating suicide being looked at as an option.
In the book I have moved from a personal account of the details of Alan’s death to sharing my journey of research, questioning and my attempt at understanding depression among young males and why it is that a growing number of these complete suicide.
In the first three chapters I have described what it was like to hear that Alan had taken his life. Included here are the personal memories of that time contributed by my daughter, Noelle, my sons, David and Niall, Alan’s girlfriend, Íde, and his godmother, Frances, who is also my cousin and friend.
Chapter four describes what it was like for us in the first weeks and months following Alan’s death and how we had to learn to construct a changed life after losing a family member. Chapter five explores the features, forms and some common myths surrounding depressive illness, and chapter six examines suicide in a similar way. Chapter seven looks at the ‘why’ of suicide in an attempt to answer the unanswerable question.
In chapter eight I attempt to explore suicide from a spiritual perspective and to explain my belief that a healthy spirituality leads to a healthy self-esteem, an increased sense of our value and purpose in the world and how this helps me to live a life that is joyful and fulfilled. Finally, chapter nine deals with moving on from grief and the personal reflections of my family regarding how they have coped with a changed life after Alan’s death.
One voice must lead the chorus that is represented in this book, but I feel that it is important to include the reflections of family members in order that the reader may receive a more complete account of our journey through bereavement and the grieving process. I hope that this doesn’t interrupt the flow of the book, however, perhaps a parent or teacher reading will will think it worthwhile to show the reflections and reactions of Alan’s siblings to young persons in their care. These young people may be able to identify with the feelings expressed here, or may see for themselves the destructive impact that suicide can have on the family and close friends of the deceased.
My deepest hope for young people is that they will come to know the immense value that their lives bring to this world, not their academic or sporting achievements – useful as these are – but how the very fact that they exist can enrich their family, community and the wider world. I hope that they will come to realise their immense power to be co-creators of a world of freedom, justice, truth, beauty and love.
I hope that we, the nurturers of our young people, who are the soul of the next generation, will have the wisdom to prioritise the importance of a healthy self-regard in our children over material success; that we will look within ourselves to discover that Other which provides a deep and authentic self-love, allowing us to love selflessly these precious beings who have been put into our care.
The title of the book was inspired by a poem that Niall wrote immediately following Alan’s suicide, and with which I begin this story.
‘The Coldest Night’
by Niall Milton
Here I am
My blood has stopped its frantic rush
My hands lie still at my sides
The wind caresses my unfeeling skin.
My depth I could not bear
Others’ love I could not believe
So I chose this escape
And in my release, I hope
Not for happiness, but for peace.
Perhaps I will be found soon
My solitude ended
I almost see myself
My body like a ghost in the darkness.
Upon my action
My mind freed from guilt
For family, friend and foe
Freed from regret and pain
Freed from life and learning.
Perhaps I would retract
For the sake of five minutes
Perhaps I ought …
Perhaps the loss I cause will be fleeting
Then again, perhaps not.
A DAY LIKE ANY OTHER
‘Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’
Beginning the Day
Friday, 1 March 2002 began as any ordinary day would in our house. By 9 a.m. my husband, Noel, and our sons, Stephen (25) and Niall (24), had left for work. Our daughter, Noelle (15), had gone to school where she would complete her Junior Certificate mock exams that day. Our youngest son, Alan (22), was, I presumed, still asleep. My eldest son, David (28), lived and worked in Copenhagen at the time and has since married and settled in Denmark.
I finished breakfast and sat down in my favourite armchair by the patio doors leading out to the back garden, savouring the silence that ensued when my family had left, after the noise and the rushing around that was normal in our home as everybody prepared for their day. As much as I loved the vitality, the music, the voices, all the sounds and noises of our lively household, I deeply appreciated these times of tranquility, when I could gather my thoughts and prepare for my own day. I remember closing my eves for a moment and asking for the protection of all my family, something I had done every day since each of them in turn had moved from under my wing and into the wider world of school when they were children.
I was the coordinator of a school retreat team at the time and one of my tasks was to liaise with the religious education departments in schools, so I was waiting for two schools to open in order to finalise arrangements for upcoming retreats. Having made my calls, I was just about to stand up and go into the kitchen when I glanced outside and saw a row of gardai in yellow jackets moving down the back garden, side by side. There was a garda at the patio door beckoning me around to the front of the house. I opened the front door to find two young gardai waiting. I invited them in and asked what was going on. One of them replied: ‘There’s a young lad in a tree in your garden.’ My first thought was that a young guy who was trying to escape would not have a chance against the burly gardai in the garden! Not once in those few seconds did my thoughts turn to anything more sinister.
We went into the room where I had been sitting moments ago and one of the men drew the curtains. The other garda sat beside me on a settee and asked if I had sons. I told him the whereabouts of David, Stephen and Niall, and as I was saying that Alan was upstairs in bed, an odd stirring began in the pit of my stomach. I thought it strange that they didn’t stand back, but went ahead of me up the stairs, while I gave directions to Alan’s bedroom from behind. I then began to realise that this was no hunt for a runaway youngster, and that ‘young lad in the tree’ meant something else – something that I would not articulate to myself. By the time I reached the room the curtains were drawn here also, as Alan’s bedroom faced the back garden of the house. Alan’s bed was empty and had not been slept in.
My immediate thought was that he had stayed in his friend’s house, but as that was practically next door to our own it didn’t make sense. Then I thought he might have stayed in his girlfriend’s house, but ruled that out also because she had called late the previous night looking for him. He had gone for a drink with his friends, but would have let me know if he had been going somewhere after that. Standing in Alan’s room, my mind searching desperately for possibilities that would explain his empty bed, I could feel my heart beginning to race and my throat constricting. I took a deep breath and told myself to get a grip on this silliness! There had to be a perfectly logical reason why Alan was not in his room. Maybe he had gone for a spin on his bike; maybe he had just gone for a walk. My mind would not accept what I knew in my heart.
Downstairs once more, one of the gardai asked me to describe Alan, which I did, and the garda said he would go and check outside. I was glad of this, because it would prove once and for all that I was being silly in thinking it could be Alan. Any moment now, Alan would walk in the door having been for a swim. I brightened up: ‘That’s it! He went for a swim … or something … or anything. God, no … this will be perfectly okay, right?’ Confusion. The young garda returned, took my hand and very gently said that from my description, it could be Alan. I told myself that there was still nothing certain so it would be okay. A second later, another garda came into the kitchen holding a bank card. He held it out to me, and as I read Alan’s name etched clearly on the card, all hope died. Alan had carried out the final act that he believed would relieve him of the anguish with which he had struggled valiantly for the last three years of his life.
At that moment, my life and the lives of Noel and our family were irrevocably changed. The joie de vivre that I was beginning to recapture after the death of my father and my brother, in 1998 and 1999 respectively, was shattered as the bank card confirming Alan’s identity was shown to me. I recall that as soon as I knew that it was Alan, that he really had gone from me, my immediate feeling was one of gratitude to God that Alan had been released at last from the agony of the unpredictable mood swings, the crippling anxiety and the periods of depression, which had dogged his life for years. This was a very fleeting sense of gratitude, barely lasting a second, and I have wondered why I can remember it so clearly, or indeed how I could feel grateful at all in a situation so terrible. I have learned since that this is quite a common initial reaction; that when depression, despair and previous suicide attempts have been experienced by a family, there may be relief following the final successful attempt, because the deceased is no longer in despair and the constant threat of suicide is over.
I only have snippets of memory of the time following this and I am inclined to confuse the sequence of events, but I do remember trying – and failing – to swing into ‘mother mode’, wanting to protect Noel, my sons and my daughter from this horror. We got everybody home except Noelle, whom we decided to leave to finish her exams. David would have to learn the devastating news over the phone. It was heartbreaking to watch as Niall and Stephen learned what had happened, and I felt so helpless that there was nothing I could do to alleviate their pain. The hurt on Noel’s face as he tried to take in the horror of what had happened to his child is one of my most terrible memories of that day. Here was a father who had taken part in every moment of his children’s lives, who had been involved in every stage of their growing up, who had taken them out for drives and treks in the mountains every weekend, talking to them about the wonders of nature, exploring with them old castles and cathedrals, teaching them the history of places they visited. Here was a father who had passed on to his children his love of the mountains and waterfalls, summer days and the joy of swimming and fishing in a river, who had so often brought them home, muddy and dripping wet after a day of adventure, who had so often lost patience with their squabbling in the car, threatening to throw them out and make them walk, until they all collapsed in giggles at their dad’s irritation – all squabbles forgotten. Here was a man who deeply, deeply loved his children, and who now had heard that his treasured youngest son had just been cut down from the tree where his children, and he himself in his childhood, had played. I found this almost unbearable. I would have taken all his pain on myself if I had been able to. It was dreadful to watch his heart breaking like this.
Support from Neighbours and Friends
The day wore on in a haze of people coming and going; neighbours, friends and relatives bringing tray upon tray of hot and cold food; everyone crowding into the kitchen and around the table, from which neither Noel nor I had moved since morning. I remember looking at Noel and wondering how he was managing to chat about ordinary things to people. I realised that this was his way of coping with his devastation – being surrounded by people, being his usual sociable self. I recall being glad for him, however, I couldn’t bring myself to enter into it. Listening, I silently screamed: ‘Why are you not talking about Alan? How can you all talk about ordinary things when you can see what has happened?’ I remember the rage I felt, when some well-meaning soul launched into a story of how sad they had felt at the funeral of some distant cousin or other. I was screaming inside again: ‘I don’t care about your cousin’s funeral or the gruesome details of his terminal disease, or how his widow crumbled in a devastated heap on her way out of the church. Why can’t you just shut up and either talk about my son or go!‘
I wanted to run, to escape from the incessant chatter, to be alone with what had happened, to process this nightmare in my mind, and yet I was afraid to be without all these people, afraid to be left alone with the reality of what had happened. This is all I remember of a day that no parent should ever have to go through. Noel and Niall went to the hospital where Alan had been taken for an autopsy. Noel said that this was one of the more traumatic events of that time, knowing that Alan was there and not being allowed to see him, because they were about to begin the post-mortem examination. He hated the thought of what was about to happen to Alan’s body and assured the person dealing with the formalities that Alan was not a heavy drinker, nor a smoker or any type of drug abuser, hoping that they would take his word for it and not carry out the autopsy. However, this is a legal requirement in all suicide cases. The post-mortem examination revealed that, in fact, Alan had quite a high level of alcohol in his blood at the time of death.
Some time between the Friday that Alan died and the removal of his body to the church on the following Tuesday, I felt strongly drawn to Glenealy, Co. Wicklow, where my grandparents and my father are buried. My godmother is there too, but my desire was to go to my beloved grandad and my dad, two people whom I had truly loved and whose love for me I had always been certain of. Noel drove me and I remember I had my eyes closed to block out everything around me. I couldn’t bear to see life outside going on as usual. I felt safe in my own interior world. I was aware that Noel was coping better than I was by facing reality head-on, while I wanted to run from it. We didn’t speak much and, soon after we began the journey, I silently pleaded: ‘Where are you, Alan?’ and had an immediate impression of Alan’s face, radiant and smiling at me, saying: ‘It’s deadly, Mam!’ This lasted for just an instant and then it was gone. ‘Deadly’ is not a word that I use, and six years later the memory of that couple of seconds is as vivid as when it happened. I make no judgement on this – I am aware that intensity of emotion can cause a person to conjure up all sorts of things – but this was real to me that day and it brought me some comfort.
When we arrived at the old graveyard overlooking the village of Glenealy, I sat down on the stone edge of the grave and looked down at the little village church, and behind that the ‘fairy hill’, which was inhabited – according to the stories my father told us when we were children – by mischievous leprechauns whose trickery on the local people was the subject of these exciting tales. This came into my mind that day, along with other sweet recollections of my childhood in this beautiful place. It was so peaceful here now, so tranquil, like a balm gently soothing the hurt in my soul. I remember wishing I could stay there forever and not have to return to the heartbreak and chaos from which I had been given brief respite. I wished that Noel, my children and I could stop the clock – and the pain – right here.
Very softly, into my mind came my father’s voice: `That’s the stuff! That’s the stuff! Then my grandfather’s voice saying: ‘Carol Anne, Carol Anne’. Over and over these words were repeated, all very softly, all seeming absolutely real. ‘That’s the stuff’ was always my father’s way of saying, ‘Good for you!’ or ‘Well done!’ when we did well at something. My grandad was the only one in our family who had always called me by my full name, and it always sounded like ‘Carlann’ in his Wicklow accent. The memory of hearing those two distinct voices, soft and loving, stay with me to this day. Again, I make no judgement; if hearing these voices was a product of my intense grief and desire for consolation, so be it. If there truly is such a thing as the spiritual presence of our loved ones after death, I thank God. However, the fact that all this happened within a couple of hours on the same day, that each seemed to speak in his own voice, that each brought me – and continues to bring me – solace, and that this has stayed fresh in my memory for six years, makes me wonder … In my fear of being overwhelmed by the loss of Alan, in my trying to cope with the horror of his suicide, was my dad trying to tell me that I would survive, that I would be okay? Whatever the explanation, it brought me comfort in the aftermath of Alan’s death.