Prior to 2015, Karen Sykes had always felt “indifferent” about suicide.
It was not something she often thought about from a personal point of view, suicide was something she only experienced professionally as her role as a nurse. Karen openly says she “thought suicide happened to ‘other’ people” and wasn’t something she thought would ever impact on her life.
However, that all changed for Karen after 2015, when she lost her husband Ian and then in 2019 her 26-year-old daughter Beth both dying to suicide within four years of each other.
“Before Ian died, I’ll be honest in saying I was indifferent about suicide. In fact, I thought I was immune to suicide. I knew it happened, I saw it all the time as a nurse in intensive care at work, but I had this assumption that it only happened to a certain demographic of people – certainly not me. We had a lovely marriage, lovely children, we were a really tight knit family. I had a good job, my husband was very successful. Suicide wouldn’t happen to our family.
“How naïve I was.”
Karen and Ian had been together for 12 years. Between them they had three children each from previous marriages and lived a “joyous” life together with many plans for their future. Karen describes Ian as a “kind and vibrant man”, a “brilliant” dad to his children, and “successful” in his career. His loss had a detrimental impact on the family, far beyond anyone could see, and left Karen, Ian’s three sons and her three daughters “shattered.”
“When Ian died, I couldn’t understand it. There were no indicators, we had no idea, and his death devastated our family. What I didn’t realise at the time is being bereaved to suicide also puts you at a higher risk of suicide yourself. You become part of yet another group you don’t want to be part of.”
After Ian’s death, Karen made a conscious effort to open the conversation about suicide with her family. She knew the death would impact Beth as she says she had been Ian’s “shadow”, the two were “very close” and Beth loved her stepdad. They spoke regularly about the impact of losing Ian on their mental health and supported each other through their grief. But over time, as it appeared like their grief was settling and their lives were slowly returning to a new normal, these conversations became less and less frequent.
“After Ian’s death, I thought as a family we spoke more openly about suicide and how it left us all. My youngest daughter Beth had always struggled with her own mental health and anxiety, but she was open and honest, and I felt this was our safety net; that our strong bond of love was enough to keep her safe. Sadly, it wasn’t. In 2019 as suddenly as Ian’s death, suicide crashed its way back into my life with Beth dying to suicide.
“We spoke quite a lot about suicide after Ian died, I made the assumption that we were alright really, so Beth’s death completely smashed our world as a family apart, and I don’t think we realised how much she was struggling. We did talk about it, but I think you think people are ok, so you don’t keep the conversation going, and it should be a conversation we really do keep open and ongoing.”
“Beth was loud and bold, very much like Ian. You knew when she was in the room. She was funny and she loved me more than anything. She used to say she was the favourite child, and she was the one who would look after me when I got old. She would joke about how the other two will put me in a nursing home when I was old and unable to care for myself, but Beth always told me she’ll build me an annex in her garden and even clean me up when I’m too old to do it myself – my other two girls even agreed!
“Losing Beth was heart shattering. With losing her, I felt like we had lost her legacy; she’ll never have children or get married, or travel like she had wanted to. We’re just left with the memories of her.”
Following both losses, Karen struggled navigating how to move forward in life. Her once busy and energetic life became quiet, and still. The rooms that were once filled by Beth and Ian’s laughter now missed their larger-than-life presence. But what she struggled most with was the external “blame” she felt others put on those who make the decision to take their own life. She encountered various situations where people would force negative feelings onto her regarding both Ian’s and Beth’s decision to take their lives, combined with endless conversations surrounding “what if’s”.
“Everyone wants an explanation after something like this, as though it can spread to them. As a society, we find it so hard to talk about suicide in reality. I had so many conversations, and even recently they still happen, where people will describe what they did as ‘selfish’ or ask the reasons why or present ‘what ifs?’. They’ll say ‘well, if that was different’ or ‘if that didn’t happen’, and suggest they might still be here, but nobody knows. People were so quick to blame them and I think that’s the case for a lot of people when somebody takes their own life.”
After being directed towards PAPYRUS for support following Beth’s death in 2019, Karen said similarly to many other people who “join the club they never wanted to” [bereaved parents], she felt compelled to want to help. Particularly, she wanted to use her experience and voice to help remove the stigma that she felt was still attached to suicide. She set out to make it her mission to change the narrative around suicide, with the ultimate goal of saving more families from having to experience the trauma and “horrific experience” she and her family have had to.
“I think when someone dies to suicide there’s still remains a stigma around it, people want to know why and people ask questions. When someone dies from another cause, such as cancer, nobody questions that, they don’t ask those similar questions. So, I think the narrative and the perception around suicide remains even though we are talking about it.
“I believe that we all have a part to play and with the positive work we all do, and I truly believe we can work together to prevent further deaths to suicide by changing mind sets and culture.
“The more I talk about suicide bereavement the more open others can be. And for anyone supporting someone that has lost someone to suicide, be there for your loved one, it’s about listening and not feeling like you must provide all the answers to what has happened.”
Over the last four years, Karen has dedicated her life, work and efforts to spreading awareness. She has taken her unimaginable story and used it as an opportunity to drive change. As well as her organised HOPEWALKs and fundraising activity for PAPYRUS and suicide prevention, Karen uses her social media platforms to keep Beth and Ian’s legacy alive and inspire others to talk openly about suicide.
“Sometimes I worry people are thinking ‘is she talking about Beth again?’, ‘is she talking about suicide once again?’, but I know Beth and Ian would want me to do this, they would want me to keep talking and raising awareness. Beth loved helping others, she definitely gave more than she took from life, and if by talking about her and suicide helps just one person reach out, then it is worth it. Just one.
“Suicide is indiscriminate; I sadly now have a much fuller and clearer concept and understanding.”