Oceans of grief: Mums who lost sons to suicide pleading for change

In the first six months of 2020, 49 Victorians under the age of 24 took their own lives. Today, three grieving mums share their pain in the hope that someone else’s son or daughter can be saved.

They were young, loved and full of promise but for reasons their heartbroken families will never know, teenagers Louie, Tom and Dan took their own lives.

In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mothers of the boys are courageously speaking out and pleading for change, as it’s revealed nearly 50 young Victorians have suicided so far this year.

Of the 49 suicide deaths under the age of 24 in Victoria this year, 11 were of school age and all but a few were male.

It comes as the State Coroner prepares to investigate — as a group — five teen suicide deaths in the Geelong region this year, and with the mother of one of the boys drawing a link to coronavirus isolation.

“If he had been able to go to school and roll around on the ground with his friends or just connect and talk and jam with his mates … it might have been different, but he wasn’t able to do that,” Ange Shearman said.

Sixteen-year-old Louie took his own life on April 26, and left behind an ocean of grief.

Kim Edgar, mother of Daniel, Catriona Barnett, mother of Tom, and Ange Shearman, mother of Louie. Picture: Alex Coppel
Kim Edgar, mother of Daniel, Catriona Barnett, mother of Tom, and Ange Shearman, mother of Louie. 
Kim Edgar, mother of Daniel, Catriona Barnett, mother of Tom, and Ange Shearman, mother of Louie.

His death came just hours after thanking his parents for dinner and taking an Anzac biscuit to his room, to eat as he watched a movie.

And with his death, “everything changed, nothing would ever be the same”, Ms Shearman said through tears.

“Because I couldn’t save my son.”

Frequently her mind plays tricks on her and she sees Louie walking through a door.

There’s a rush of elation and relief, followed by the crushing reality that Louie died.

Her grief, she says, is best described as a shipwreck.

Her mother’s heart has fallen to the bottom of the sea, and wants to rest there, forever.

But other people need her — and life for them goes on — so she has swum up to the surface of the ocean, grabbed hold of a piece of driftwood, and is floating there as waves crash over her.

“Objectively, I can see the sky is blue and the sea is sparkling — that it’s a beautiful day,” Ms Shearman said.

“But it doesn’t mean anything, because my son is dead. There’s no joy in it.”

Catriona Barnett, whose son Tom knew Louie and died just months earlier, is living with the same profound and crippling sorrow.

Louie Shearman, died through suicide on April 26, this year, aged 16.
Louie Shearman, died through suicide on April 26, this year, aged 16.

Her grief, she said, “never takes a breath”.

When “vibrant, outgoing” Tom took his own life, aged 16, on February 26 this year, he took with him a huge part of her heart.

“He wrote a two-page letter and in it he wrote, ‘I love you mum and I know you love me’.

“But still he went and did that … it’s too much to bear because the grief is so sudden and there’s no lead-up to it,” Ms Barnett said.

There’s been a Mother’s Day since, and birthdays, including Tom’s brother’s 21st.

Tom himself would have turned 17 this month.

But, like with the Shearman family, joy is elusive when a member of your tribe is gone.

It’s been hard, too, on Tom’s mates. COVID-19 restrictions made talking about his death harder than it might otherwise have been.

“Tommy’s mates really struggled because they couldn’t talk to each other and boys tend to talk about things casually, as they’re bouncing the footy on the way to training, or having a kick, but they couldn’t do that because, after Tom’s death, they were all in lockdown,” Ms Barnett said.

“The whole lockdown situation really escalated the anxiety and frustration because they just couldn’t see each other and talk in the way they usually do.”

Two years after her son Daniel’s death, Kim Edgar says she’s still “not OK”.

“How can I be? How can I ever be?” she asks.

Tom Barnett died by suicide on February 26 this year, aged 16.
Tom Barnett died by suicide on February 26 this year, aged 16.

Unlike Tom and Louie — who provided little clue as to their precariously fragile state of minds — Daniel had a long and fraught battle with mental health, and had previously attempted suicide before his death, at age 17, in August 2018.

The Geelong region’s mental health system — with a lack of dedicated, youth Prevention and Recovery Care (PARC) beds and long waits to see a psychiatrist — failed her son, Ms Edgar believes.

All three families want to see better services in regional areas, encouragement for boys to openly discuss their mental health, and the detailed method of death removed from the official death certificates of people who have suicided.

“Imagine how you’d feel as a parent reading the actual method by which your child took their life, rather than just ‘death by suicide’. It makes an unbearable thing even more unbearable,” Ms Edgar said.

Victorian coronial data reveals 10 males under 18, and 32 between the ages of 18 and 24, took their lives between January 1 and June 30, this year.

One female under 18 and six between 18 and 24 suicided in the same period.

While fewer girls than boys have taken their own lives to date this year, suicides of young women under 24 have risen steadily from 19 in 2010 to 27 last year. In young men, the number of deaths has climbed from 51 to 77 over a decade.

A Coroners Court spokeswoman said the suspected suicides of the five young Geelong region males this year were being investigated together, “to determine whether the group represents a defined cluster and if there are opportunities to prevent similar deaths in the future”.

Daniel Henderson died from suicide on August 7, 2018, aged 17.
Daniel Henderson died from suicide on August 7, 2018, aged 17.

Kristen Douglas is the national manager of headspace Schools, and charged with overseeing suicide prevention programs and “postvention”, which involves helping school communities deal with the aftermath of a suicide.

More than 1000 schools nationally — including primaries — have been visited by her team in the last 12 months, which means all have been touched by suicide or are fearful for a member of their community.

More school students were experiencing serious mental health problems than a decade ago and the number of students considered to be at risk of suicide was growing, Ms Douglas said.

They were also presenting at younger ages, with some at primary level.

“COVID is not creating or causing suicide but COVID is certainly making it more difficult for schools to help families keep an eye on kids, and it’s making it more difficult for kids to connect with things like footy and netball,” she said.

“It’s reducing the protective factors and reducing the wellbeing layers that are normally wrapped around kids.

“Suicide is very complex. There’s not just one thing that leads to a suicide.”

What was known, was that “romanticising” the suicide death of young people did not help, and could, in fact, lead to further deaths.

But parents talking to kids about mental health — and kids talking, and reaching out, to each other — could save lives.

The families of Louie, Tom and Dan said they wanted to speak out about their sons’ deaths in the hope it would help others.

If reading about the lasting grief of families stopped just one other boy from ‘going through with it’, sharing their pain would be worthwhile, they said.

They also wanted to shine a light on the need for more youth mental health funding and services, and encourage boys to reach out to each other and talk.

Now an advocate for suicide prevention, Ms Edgar addressed a function earlier this year and used the term “grief club” to describe families left behind after a suicide.

“We are not the people we used to be. We put masks on to get through every day and we have other children who are suffering too,” she said.

“The hits never stop coming. Every anniversary, every milestone missed, every Facebook memory, every room in the house, every everything can bring you to your knees.”

HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT SUICIDE

Give accurate information

Avoid blame

Don’t focus on the method of suicide

Address feelings such as anger and responsibility

Encourage help-seeking

Ask about suicidal thoughts

COVID MENTAL HEALTH

Research by national youth mental health organisation headspace reveals:

55 per cent of young Victorians feel their mental health is worse since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic

One in five young people believe they are not getting the help they need for their mental health

97 per cent of young Australians feel they have been impacted to some degree by COVID-19

Half of all Victorian parents feel COVID-19 restrictions have made their children feel isolated

36 per cent of parents say it has made their children worried or anxious

Nearly 30 per cent of parents say COVID-19 has led to family tensions in their household

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