In a week when the community considers how to prevent suicide, Sue Frazer talks about losing her son Ben and how his death has inspired her to promote suicide prevention and awareness.
Before Ben Howard took his own life, he spring cleaned his Findon home and fed his beloved dogs.
His wife was spending the night at her mother’s house so Ben knew he’d be home alone. He placed 28 photos of his family, including his three children, in a circle on the floor and left a note on the bed. The note was for his mum Sue Frazer. Part of it read:
“Every day feels hard Mum but I just want you to know that I love you… Life goes on Mum.”
But life didn’t just go on for Sue Frazer. Suddenly, on that day in 2008, life for this happy, down to earth mother and grandmother was irrevocably shattered.
“I was angry about that [part of the letter] because my life would never be the same. I’m not the same Sue,” she says. “When a child dies, part of you goes with them. It’s a horrible grief. ”
Sue, 57, is stoic as she recalls the events that led to her son’s suicide. Ben had been struggling with anxiety and depression for many years but Sue never dreamed he’d suicide.
When she couldn’t get onto Ben that day on the phone, she called a friend who lived nearby and asked her to check in on him.
“The friend went around there but she didn’t call me back so I was getting beside myself. I called her and she just said, ‘Oh my god Sue, he’s dead’,” she explains. “After that I don’t remember a lot. I was on my own but the neighbours came in because they heard me screaming.”
The days afterwards are a blur but Sue found the strength to organise her son’s funeral. It was afterwards, when people had stopped ringing and helping, that Sue began her own downward slide. She admits that for the next two years she barely got out of bed and that she, too, contemplated suicide.
“The pain for me was…,” She pauses. “It’s extreme. I can’t even find the words.
“The suicide rate amongst people who have been bereaved by suicide is really high because suicide grief is so difficult. When he was little, as mum you put Bandaids on their scrapes, you rub their bruises, you hold them close and keep them safe and you fix things for them. So there is this whole sense of why couldn’t he come to me? Just the guilt and feeling what did I do wrong? Have I failed? The anger comes later.
“But then one day I just thought to myself, I’ve got grandchildren, I’ve got another son, I’ve got to get on with my life. I was consumed by grief, Ben’s death defined me. In the end I thought what can I do? And all I can do is honour his life.”
Looking back, Sue describes Ben as a sensitive boy who had always struggled with self-esteem and confidence issues.
The blue-eyed, blonde-haired little boy suffered with asthma and his severe attacks left him anxious from an early age. In hindsight, Sue wonders if she over protected Ben – smother love she calls it – in an attempt to keep him safe and healthy.
“He was so sensitive and caring,” she says. “I worked night shift in hotels and I came home one night when he was about 10 and he said, ‘Mum, I can’t sleep until you get home’. Things bounced off my elder son Terry but Ben took things to heart.”
The family, who lived in Paralowie, loved the outdoors. Ben was into his dirt bikes and water skiing, happy times often shared with his dad or step dad. But emotions were never a topic of conversation.
“I guess that they were men that didn’t talk about feelings,” says Sue. “The sort of guys that would get out with the cars and motorbikes and go carts and water skis, but when it came to talking about emotions, they weren’t good at that.
“And Ben didn’t like to burden people so he internalised everything. When I tried to talk to him about his issues he’d say, ‘I’m fine mum’.”
After school, Ben got a series of jobs in factories, but he never lasted anywhere long. He confided in his mum that he wanted to work with children as a youth work, but he didn’t have the confidence to study.
He also became a father of two at just 19 years of age, and had numerous relationship failures. His third child, Taylah, now 12, was the result of another failed relationship. While Ben was in and out of his children’s lives, he was never fully involved.
He married his next girlfriend Clare at age 26 but seven months into the marriage, the couple were not getting on.
Ben did seek professional help along the way and was diagnosed with depression but, for reasons unknown to Sue, he didn’t take the medication. Instead, he decided to self-medicate with illegal drugs.
“I knew about it and I tried to get him into rehab and get him help but he’d say, ‘Mum I’ll sort it, I’m on top of it,” says Sue.
“I don’t think it was a major habit, he was dabbling, but I think it really effected the way he thought. I got really concerned and I was riding him to sort it out and he kept saying, ‘I’ve got a lid on it mum’.”
But he didn’t have a lid on it. Gradually, Ben began to spiral downwards – he wasn’t working, he had marital problems and slowly he withdrew from family and friends.
“I just think he saw himself as a failure,” says Sue. “He was ashamed of his drug use … I could see him sliding and I was definitely worried about him but he kept reassuring me he was okay.
“I think in the end his depression was worse than I knew and he just didn’t have the energy to try and make things happen for himself.”
Ben took his own life on January 29, 2008. He was 28 years old.
These days, Sue is passionate about talking openly and honestly about suicide. She has completed suicide bereavement training and volunteers for a group called Bereaved Through Suicide.
True to herself, she is honouring Ben’s life by helping others through the tragic complexities of suicide grief.
She is also a member of the Port Adelaide Suicide Prevention Network which consists of community members touched by suicide, as well as service providers. Alarmingly, statistics show that the suicide rate in the Port Adelaide area is 37 per cent higher than the metropolitan average.
Last Wednesday, to mark World Suicide Prevention Day, the group held a memorial service at Semaphore to honour their lost loved ones and to raise awareness about suicide prevention.
“I think suicide prevention is a community responsibility of kindness,” says Sue. “That’s why it’s so important that we destigmatise it and start to talk about depression and mental illness.
“It’s so importance to ask someone, ‘are you okay?’, and to feel comfortable to talk about feelings and mental illness …
“People tend to not want to talk about suicide and they struggle to ask me about Ben,” she says, “For me, that’s really difficult, especially now because I don’t fall into a screaming heap, but I need people to know he did exist. I want to talk about him.
“I have good days and bad days and I think about Ben every day … I am still a mother of two sons, I just carry one of them in my heart.”
NOTE: If you struggle with mental health issues call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
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