Just before Christmas 2006, Clare Milford Haven’s world was ripped apart. Her eldest son James, aged only 21 – who loved his family, loved his friends, loved his sport – killed himself.
She had no forewarning, no previous experience of mental illness. It just happened to her – and her family – and James’s friends.
James had elected to have a minor procedure that December. It was straightforward and successful but he came out of the operation in state of anxiety. Nevertheless he was intent on returning to university to get his exams done but, once there, he went to a walk-in centre and told them he felt suicidal. The centre sent him to A&E as a ‘Priority 4’ – a category given to sufferers of toothache. He went but stayed only for 30 minutes. If you are in a state of emotional distress, the Emergency Room is the worst place to go. Two days later James was dead.
This interview is particularly hard. We have been focussing on women who have turned their life around – who have made strong choices – who have taken the power back. Talking to Clare is nothing like celebration and a lot like invasion. But she is very clear. “I think it is important to tell James’s story because people do have tragedies in their life. The death of a child is the hardest of things to get through. But if my story helps anyone else then I want to tell it.”
She speaks in a clear, measured voice. She has learned to rein in the maternal grief. Only once does her voice crack and for a moment the pain seeps out. “For me the tragedy was that he went looking for help. That he was the highest risk category – a young man of 21, trying to express how he felt – and they didn’t help him. They didn’t’ ring his GP. They didn’t ring me.”
The immediate aftermath was a blur. She didn’t know how she was going to get through another day. “Then it dawned on me. Everyone was looking at me as a barometer of how they should behave. I had to think very quickly. How was I to act? As a wife, a mother, a daughter? There was no joy in that Christmas. I didn’t want a present, I didn’t want to sing a carol. But I had to get through for sake of the other kids. I had to get up. I had to brush my teeth, I had to get dressed.”
Eight years on, she is still grappling with her grief – and channelling it in to helping others. She has had to be as strong as she can be, for other people. “It could have ruined me, destroyed the family,” she admits, but, after months in an abyss of loss and despair, “a friend lent me a book which really helped.” Something in it made sense at last. “It taught me that in every situation – even in circumstances beyond your control, that take away everything you possess – you can still control how you react. You have a choice.”
Clare and James’s father (her ex-husband Nick Wentworth Stanley) reacted in a most constructive and resourceful way. They chose to create something very positive out of something almost overwhelmingly negative – The James Wentworth Stanley Memorial Trust.
She has now been working in the arena of suicide prevention and mental health for 6 years. It has really changed her life and given her a level of understanding she didn’t have before. The bald facts are something all mothers should know. “Men are 3 times as likely to kill themselves: they don’t know how to talk, to articulate their pain. They tend to act out rather then work through it.”
“Suicide is preventable, suicide is not inevitable, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I want to do as much as I can to raise awareness of this.”
The Trust they set up funds a lot of different charities and many necessary initiatives from helplines in universities to training college staff (from cleaners to academic and residential staff) to spot the signs of depression. They fund counselling and much more besides. “Suicide is something that people should look at rather than look away from,” Clare says with strength of purpose. “I look back and see how much we have done. And I look forward and see how much we need to do.”
The Trust is now looking to create places that people like James can go to in a crisis. To be called ‘James’s Place.’ It makes such sense.
There is no need to ask her questions. She lays out just how far she has come in her arduous journey.
“Suffering is inevitable – but there is some meaning in it.” She says. “It brings about a clarity – about the things you want to do and the things you don’t want to do. I now realise that there is a way forward.”
Recently I saw Clare at a noisy dinner. It had been a few weeks since she had talked me through her story on the phone. I went across the room and silently hugged this incredible, sensational, strong women, as the bustle of the party went on obliviously around us.
To read more of James’s story and to learn more the James Wentworth-Stanley Memorial Fund – visit www.jwsmf.org