When Zoe’s son left home and went to university his behaviour changed – he became uncommunicative and dropped out after his first year. Here Zoe talks about what happened and the conversation she wishes she’d had with him.
He was a very carefree, happy-go-lucky child, easy-going, a little bit mischievous, but nothing out of the ordinary.
I wouldn’t have said he was particularly academic but bright enough to carry things off. So he did well enough in his GCSEs, went on to do A-levels, and did well enough to get into university – admittedly through clearing – but he did get into university.
We took him up for Freshers’ Week. He seemed to immediately get in with a nice group of friends. They all bought their tickets for the Freshers’ Week entertainments and we left him in a hall of residence looking perfectly happy.
The first weekend he was away we did get in touch with him and he seemed quite chirpy. After that it was more or less total silence.
Part of the joy of going to university is getting away from your parents and finding your feet and being yourself, so we weren’t unduly worried at that stage. We thought, “We need to give him space just to be himself,” I suppose.
He didn’t call us and he didn’t answer our calls or emails. We were trying to phone him – in the end phoning almost every night, possibly a bit too much – and never getting anything back.
We didn’t really hear anything at all until it was time for him to come home for Christmas and he wanted a lift home.
By the second term of his first year we thought, “This is really a bit strange.”
We got my husband’s brother to visit him because he lived close to the university. He seemed to think things were okay.
We went to visit ourselves – probably two or three times because it was quite a long way from us – and on the occasions when we did he seemed absolutely fine, maybe a little bit hyper, a little bit over-the-top, but not enough to give us huge concerns.
He chatted and I think we played crazy golf and had a generally pleasant weekend, but again, after that, no contact.
So by that third term we were getting really seriously worried. We had no way of knowing how he was doing academically and he kept us clear of his friends and his girlfriend.
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After he’d come home at the end of his first year the weeks went by and he didn’t – apparently – hear about his exam results. So when nothing came through the post I called the university and was basically met with a blank wall. Their line was that at the age of 18 he’s an adult, he is entitled to privacy, and we weren’t entitled to know anything.
So eventually, after I called once or twice, they did tell me that he’d done enough to get through to the second year. But when I told my son it then came out that he hadn’t actually sat his exams, so he hadn’t got through to the second year – that was just a mistake.
Our fear was that he would just disappear from our lives by moving away and not contacting us, but I didn’t have any suspicion that he was depressed or was in any trouble.
We didn’t have any hold on him and we were just so very, very sensitive about what we said to him – possibly too much now I look back on it.
Initially he wanted to go back and change course and do something different, but in the end he decided he wasn’t going to.
We went through lots of options with him and he seemed quite keen on the fire service, but it’s very competitive to get into and you have to be really fit.
He wasn’t unfit but he wasn’t super fit, so we bought him trainers and my husband went running with him locally, we encouraged him as much as we could.
Eventually he said he went for an interview – we’re not actually sure whether he did or not – but he didn’t get in. That was such a shame because I think that was the one thing that kind of lit a spark with him, that he would have liked to have done.
After that he went back to his university town because he and his friends had organised a house together, which we were fine with, and he did actually get a clerical job which probably wasn’t going anywhere but it was something.
At the end of the academic year, he quit his job and came home. We’re not sure what sparked that – he still seemed to be in contact with his friends, he had a girlfriend too who was in that town. He did tell his colleagues that he was going travelling which wasn’t true, but that was what he told them to explain why he was leaving.
He came home, had a week’s holiday in Tenerife with his girlfriend, and then we were home for four or five weeks together with my younger son.
Things seemed to be going reasonably well – he told us he had got in touch with a number of job agencies.
I didn’t want to rock the boat – and I’m going to regret that forever – because I think now he had got himself into a state where he couldn’t see a way out, he couldn’t see a way forward.
Although he still had friends and he still had our support, I think he needed to know that he could start afresh, and I regret now not saying that that was the case. You can start again, particularly when you’re only 20.
We decided to go on holiday. I remember driving out of our village towards the ferry port and both of us saying we thought he’d turned a corner.
He appeared to be going out to work every day, he seemed relatively happy, he was quite communicative at home. When I came home from work he would say, “What sort of a day have you had?”
So we were quite relieved and felt happy enough leaving him. It was only a week’s holiday.
We came back on the Sunday. I’d sent him a text the previous day just to confirm when we were coming back.
When we got home the first thing I noticed was that the car was missing. He hadn’t passed his driving test but he was learning to drive, so I was immediately worried that he’d taken the car and driven it without being licensed to do so.
Then when we got into the house there was a message, a handwritten message, saying, “Please could you call the police station.”
So I did that and I obviously asked what it was about. They said they didn’t want to tell me over the phone, that they would be sending somebody around.
So of course I was concerned, but my immediate reaction was to go around the house tidying up and unpacking and just keeping myself busy really, just to stop thinking about what it might be.
My worst thought was that he had driven the car and he’d had an accident, maybe he’d hurt somebody else or something. So I was already quite worried.
About half an hour later two policemen came to the door and I let them in. They said that while we were away our son had taken his life. I heard this almighty, animalistic cry from behind me, my husband. It just seemed so unbelievable.
The policemen asked us to identify his handwriting from a note that had been left, and then asked us to fill in some forms. We had to give dates of birth and that sort of thing. I was so shocked at the time I couldn’t even remember my son’s date of birth, it’s frightening really, your mind goes completely blank.
After that they drove us down to the hospital to identify him. Somebody showed us into the mortuary and we spent just a few minutes with him and then left.
The police officers took us home and left us, that was it. There was no follow-up or counselling or anything like that, but this was 13 years ago and my hope is that things have changed since then.
My other son was travelling at the time and I couldn’t get hold of him for about four or five days. Eventually we had a phone conversation with him and that was dreadful.
I had met my son’s girlfriend just briefly once, lovely girl. She was coming down with our blessing for the week that we were away. I believe she went on the Thursday, and I think he took his life on Friday, Saturday night, but nothing untoward happened between the two of them, they were fine, and she didn’t have any inclination at all that that was going to happen.
His girlfriend and his friends that he shared the house with were totally shocked. They couldn’t believe it, they’d never seen him have a down moment, they thought he was the life and soul of the party.
The only thing I can think of was that he was depressed, possibly about the future and his lack of prospects, and just was extremely good at masking it. Nothing’s come out of the woodwork to say that he was in any sort of trouble.
In the notes that he left behind he said that he realised we were always there to support him, so it shouldn’t have been that he felt he was alone.
He had good friends, he wasn’t a loner. He had school friends, university friends and us, and he kept them all very separate.
But he was embellishing his life, things like he claimed to have been a drummer in a band which he hadn’t been, just a few things like that – not wicked lies as such, just an embellishment of the truth, just what he wished his life was like.
At 18 the law might say you are an adult from day one but it doesn’t happen like that – there’s a transition. I would have thought a parent who was pretty anxious phoning up saying they’ve not heard from their son for several months would have triggered some alarm bells somewhere. There should have been some sort of pastoral care that could follow that up, but there didn’t appear to be any.
Even if they had just said, “Yes, we will follow that up. Would you like to talk to the tutor yourself?” and then got back to us to let us know whether they had spoken to him and what the outcome was, that would have helped enormously.
It might not have changed the end result, but I think parents should have some degree of say over their children at that age.
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After he’d gone we did find a list of the temp agencies that I assumed he’d contacted. I phoned them all up and none of them had ever heard of him, so we surmise from that that he probably wasn’t working. We don’t know what he was doing during those hours of the day when he was out of the house.
The first few months after he died I went over and over in my mind trying to understand what had gone on and why it might have happened. Eventually I came to the conclusion that no amount of me worrying and mulling this over was going to make the slightest bit of difference. He had gone and there was nothing else I could do about it.
It took me a long, long time to think about counselling of any sort. Initially I just thought I didn’t deserve to feel better, I just felt so guilty.
After 10 years I finally got around to going to a voluntary organisation for some counselling which was helpful. Obviously it can’t change things but it came at a time when I couldn’t keep talking to friends – they’d been immensely supportive, and I can’t thank them enough for helping us out over that time and just being patient and listening – but there comes a time when if you cry every time you see somebody they’re not going to want to see you. So it was useful being able to talk again to somebody who was sympathetic.
Within a couple of days of the news we had put together a photo album of my son’s life. We went through all of our old photos, pre-digital this was, and put together a nice album that showed his best bits and we had that on display at the funeral. And there were lots of very good bits.
Illustrations by Katie Horwich