Thursday, March 15th, 1990.
33 years ago I was sitting in history when we noticed some disruption over the field by the railway line. At break, we were all summoned into Chapel, unaware of what news we were to receive and the impact this would have on each and every one of us. This trauma would make a lasting impact on the rest of our lives. Rick had jumped in front of a train and killed himself. Rick was a popular boy in the school, well known for his exceptional trumpet playing. I doubt there are many from our school who do not think of him when hearing the last Post. He was 18 and had only a few months left at boarding school.
What was going on for him that caused him to end his life in this tragic way that morning? We will never really know. A devastating loss.
800 children ranging from 11-18 filed out of that chapel at break time, with news that was far too traumatic for them to make sense of. There were no parents there to offer support. Sickeningly, the only support I remember being offered was to talk to the chaplain who is currently serving 12 years in prison on accounts of child sexual abuse.
Yes, children become independent. Yes, they become resilient. But at what cost…. How does a child process a trauma such as this without the support of a loving parent or adult? A housemaster in charge of 50 children is unable to offer the care and love that is needed. These children muddled through. Supported themselves. Worked out how to grieve. Or I expect that many never did. How could they? Pushed it down and had to just get on with it. Unanswered questions, thoughts, feelings. How to make sense of this?
I expect many had already learnt the skill of dissociation that occurs when a traumatic event occurs that they feel unable to process. For many, it begins in that first week that they are left at boarding school, unable to process the loss and feelings of abandonment that may be present. Others report that they consciously remember choosing to turn off the switch to their emotions. What is the point of feeling? I hear this regularly from older ex-boarding clients today as they slowly start to thaw.
I remember that day. Groups of us wandering around in our 15th Century uniform in a dazed state, not knowing what to do with ourselves. I was 15 at the time. Maybe lessons were cancelled that day. I remember little of the days that followed. Apart from the funeral. I recall my mum came and sat over the other side of the chapel. I wanted to sit with my friends. Those attachments had been sealed and looking back now, I recognise the symbolisms of that gesture. My friends had become my attachment figures. My substitute family. My mum left shortly after, and life resumed.
Suicide at boarding schools has been depicted in literature such as Another Country and films such as Dead Poets Society. A film that holds so many correlations to our experience. In my work for Winston’s Wish – a charity that offers bereavement support for young people, I have supported young people as they process their grief concerning their parent or sibling killing themselves. It is a complicated grief that leaves such a mark. Those left behind are so often left feeling guilty and wishing they had been able to do something. “Why didn’t I realise? “
Suicide in a family can often cause a family to fall apart. A boarding school represents a family for those children living there. Systemically the impact is huge, and each one of us had to manage that and then continue in life, all knowing that we have had this shared experience. I really hope the children at Epsom College are being offered the support and counselling that each and every one of them will need to process the tragic event that occurred there a few months ago. Unfortunately, the “Survival Personality” that so many children will have inhabited will have already taken shape, and therefore they may give off the impression that they are “fine.”
So often in boarding schools, tragic events such as this are swiftly dealt with and then life goes on as usual. The imprint is huge. I have no doubt that Rick’s suicide influenced some of my life and relationship choices. Always hypervigilant for male fragility that may be hidden.
We may have suspicions but will never know for sure what caused him to walk to the railway line that day. Shame is a pervasive emotion that often silences those from reaching out for support. It is important to remove the shame surrounding suicide. For those who have suicidal ideation, and for those grieving someone close to them who has killed themselves. Being able to name it and talk openly about suicide is hugely important to remove any stigma and so people feel less alone.
In a boarding school, your friends can take on the role of your siblings as you live and sleep side by side with one another. There is a wonderful organisation called Sibling Link in Sussex, which offers support and walk-and-talk groups for those who have had a sibling die by suicide.
So, my heart goes out to all of us who share the trauma of that day, to Rick’s family and to all those out there affected by suicide in one way or another.
It is important to talk about it.