On occasion, our son Harry could only be described as a ‘full-time child’.
He had a permanent grin on his face and boundless sense of adventure, but an often frustrating tendency to cause mischief.
But as a family, we were always laughing. Happy.
Alongside his two siblings, we had a great life – until Harry’s death ripped a huge hole in it.
Ten years ago this week, on August 15 2013 – AS results day – Harry took his own life. He was only 17.
When Harry was around eight or nine, he was diagnosed with ADHD. He was cheeky, disorganised and often irritating – but never badly behaved. Medication helped during term time.
On one Duke of Edinburgh trip to the Atlas mountains, he even managed to lose his walking boots – god only knows how.
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
If you’re a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: [email protected] between the hours of 9am and midnight.
Everybody loved him, he filled a room with laughter – he was popular, and always eager to please. He would’ve given anyone the shirt off his back.
Looking back, there was some anxiety there, but not enough to make us worried. To us, he was like any growing boy, and teenager – sometimes moody and quiet.
He was a talented musician, too – playing the saxophone and piano, and even had an interview for the Royal College of Music. Except, when we discovered he’d have to practise everyday, we turned to each other as parents and laughed.
Not a chance.
Instead, we organised regular jamming sessions with him and a saxophone teacher – which he cherished.
Harry was creative, bright, but while he was studying for his AS Levels, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to go to university – or what subject he’d study.
Still, he worked hard, and on results day we were on holiday in rural France. He was his happiest, unmedicated, most free self – until an email came through.
His results weren’t what he was expecting.
Harry’s entire mood and body changed, and he sat with his head in his hands while we quickly compiled emails to his school. Exploring his options; if he’d have to resit the year.
If only we knew what he was thinking.
Shortly after, we realised he was missing – presuming he’d gone to the countryside to gather his thoughts. After a few hours, we became worried and started searching the local area – until we found the pool room door locked.
Suicide rips a huge hole in your family, and life as you know changes forever.
To this day, we’ll never know why Harry chose to end his life. We never had any inclination if Harry was stressed, or depressed – if he was self-harming, or had suicidal thoughts.
We can only guess that he suddenly went to a very, very dark place, and acted on an impulse. That he was terrified of falling behind, of his friends and familiarity leaving him.
To Harry’s siblings, they’d not only lost a brother – but their parents, too, while we grieved and recovered from this horrific trauma.
For a long time, we dreaded Thursday mornings, the time Harry died. But after the first few years of shock, numbness and raw grief; after we’d returned to work, had counselling, and tried to piece our lives back together, we celebrated August 15.
While it’s still, and always will be, a sad day – we always made sure to do something special together as a family.
Sadly, in January 2020, trauma ripped through us once again as Harry’s cousin, Charlie, also took his own life in his 20s.
There is a stigma around mental health, especially within young people – and we started to understand just how widespread the fragility of young people’s mental health was.
We discovered we weren’t alone – that there were other parents who were just like us. We were part of a club that no one wanted to be a member of.
Results day means little to us adults, as we know life goes on – with or without good results. Exams are not the be all and end all.
But to children, results day can be one of the most stressful days of their lives. It’s too much pressure for them to handle, without support. They think it defines the rest of their lives.
Schools teach children not to fall pregnant or take drugs, but pupils are self-harming, depressed – and with no support, or education on mental health.
As the 10 year anniversary of life without Harry approached, we realised we wanted to do something to celebrate him.
We decided to try and raise £17,400 for suicide prevention charities, Papyrus and Suicide & Co – Harry was 17 and four months old when he died – by cycling the route of a wonky heart around England and Wales. It’s 19 destinations, across an estimated 550 miles, and we set off on August 15 from Harry’s school.
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Now, we’re both unfit – coach potatoes, if you will. We’re 59 and 61, have hardly cycled, and our old bikes were from the nineties! Thankfully, Spokes of Bagshot sorted us out with newer models – teaching us how to get confident on two wheels again.
On the big day, so many people were there to see us off – friends, family, teachers, members of our community in Surrey, including Harry’s old schoolmates and saxophone teacher. Brian Blessed OBE even conducted our countdown!
We’re hoping to finish near our home on September 2 – but there’s a live tracker on our site, for anyone who wants to join in, or supply us with Mars bars. We’re stopping for plenty of coffee and cake on the way, too!
We know it’s going to be emotional, and we’re bickering already – sick of the sight of hills and each other’s bums! But it’s a thoughtful, emotive, beautiful time for us both. To commemorate Harry’s legacy by spending time with each other.
We want to prove that we’re literally just ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ – that tragedy could happen to anyone; any ordinary people, at any time without the right support. Just like it happened to us, 10 years ago.
This results day, we’re rallying for all parents to speak openly and frankly to their children. To open the door for conversations on mental health, and for schools to minimise the stress and impact this, quite frankly, unimportant day – in the grand scheme of things.
To keep an eye on their children, because you have no idea how they will react. And if you need help, PAPYRUS has a 24/7 helpline operating this results day – for parents, and children.
We want people to realise how hard it must be for young people who are struggling, or don’t get the results they were hoping for, to see their students jumping around waving, smiling on TV or showcased around the school.
As we prepare for the next 10 years for Harry, we want to remind people that everyone is good at something, whether you’re academically gifted or not. Just like our Harry was.
He’ll be in our wonky hearts forever, just like he has been in our minds everyday for the last 10 years – and will be in the next.
As told to Emmie Harrison-West
To donate to Mr and Mrs Smith’s ‘Wonly Heart Challenge’, visit: https://www.justgiving.com/page/wonkyheartchallenge. You can track them here: https://live.opentracking.co.uk/whc2023/
The PAPYRUS HOPELINE247 can be contacted on 0800 068 41 41 and is available 24/7
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