Lancashire dad raising awareness of suicide bereavement after losing his son

Alan Unsworth will never forget the horror of finding his son after he'd taken his own life.

By Laura Longworth
Tuesday, 13th October 2020, 3:54 pm
Updated Friday, 16th October 2020, 4:41 pm

Now the Goosnargh granddad is on a mission to help save lives and prevent other families going through the same devastation. His family plan to walk up Ingleborough in Yorkshire on Sunday in memory of Alan's son, Aaron, a dad-of-two from Chipping who died by suicide last year at just 28-years-old.

They will be fund-raising for Papyrus UK, a charity for the prevention of young suicide (under 35).

Dad-of-two Alan, formerly of Penwortham, is also highlighting how traumatic suicide bereavement can be.

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Alan's semi-colon tattoo symbolises suicide bereavement.

He said: "I will never forget the panic, shock and horror of finding Aaron. The image of him is something I will never forget.

"The events of that night are implanted in my brain forever more. I still get flashbacks. It's like you're reliving it again.

"I had to give a witness statement to the police to rule out any foul play on my behalf. It was traumatic and mentally draining. But I fully understand the police have a job to do - you can't knock them for that."

Commenting on the feelings of emptiness that suicide bereavement brings, the 55-year-old senior engineer added: "Aaron's death has left me in a place that says, 'How will I ever get over this? How can I carry on?'

Alan Unsworth, pictured with his daughter-in-law Sabrina, is raising money in memory of his son Aaron who died of suicide last year.

"Somehow, through sheer strength and help from others, I do seem to manage, but the memory of this tragic loss and the heartache is there forever.

"It has left a big gaping hole in my life, and a mental scar on me, which is something I will live with forever more.

"Life as I knew it, has changed. Somehow, I and the family must find a new normal, however that be and however long it takes.

"Aaron was very gentle, helpful and unassuming. He loved nature and the outdoors. He loved his family and two children.

Alan and Sabrina are raising awareness of the impact of suicide on families.

"We did a lot of walking, fishing, wild camping and mountain biking together. People say, 'Remember the good times,' but they remind you that you can never do those things again."

And while he believes every death is tragic, and all types of grief are painful, he says losing a loved one to suicide has its own unique effect on those left behind.

He added: "You hear and see a lot of things that remind you about what happened, even on light-hearted TV shows. People say things jokingly like, 'I'm going to kill myself.'

"It's totally innocent but it seems you can't escape it."

One of the hardest parts of his grieving process are the feelings of guilt, according to the granddad.

"Everyone will feel it in their own way. It's part of my heartache," he said.

Guilt is something Aaron's wife Sabrina, of Preston, understands. The couple had split up a few months before his death due to the strain of Aaron's mental health on their relationship.

She says he had battled with mental illness since around 13-years-old but as his condition deteriorated, he became house-bound and was diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) a few months before his death. Symptoms are grouped under four categories: painful and rapidly changing emotions; disturbed patterns of thinking or perception; impulsive behaviour; and intense but unstable relationships with others.

The 28-year-old mum said: "He mostly had depression and his mood swings were very unpredictable. It was a strain. I love him to bits and would have done anything for him but it was hard juggling the children and looking after him.

"He struggled working and going out to see people. It just wore me down.

"I was speaking to him every day and was concerned about him the week before. I didn't think he was eating very well.

"The last time I spoke with him, he was very, very low.

"I think, 'What if the day [he took his own life] had gone differently?

"The guilt tears you apart."

Sabrina was also with Alan on the night Aaron was found and says the memory haunts her.

"It was horrific. My whole world just fell apart. Crumbled in a split second," she said.

"The biggest thing for me is the memories and the trauma of the night."

Alan has been so traumatised by his son's death - and the events of that night - that he was off work for nine and a half months, and has had counselling through his company.

"There's definitely no time limit on grieving," he said.

"One thing I don't like is when people say, 'It's been 12 months.'

"You don't wake up a year later and think, 'Life is rosy now.'

"Grief can put a huge strain on relationships but that is normal. It is OK for friction to be there. It's not like you're losing the plot. It's just how you heal."

But while Alan has also received therapy through the NHS, he's struggled to find ongoing professional support and has turned to private counselling.

"You have 12 sessions, then it just ends and you're back on a seven-month waiting list, and on your own," he said.

Sabrina has had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy but feels it hasn't really helped her. And she says one particular counsellor put her off when they called Aaron's death "selfish."

The mum, who is now on the waiting list for trauma therapy, says despite the anger she sometimes feels about being left behind, she will never call him selfish and instead her heart breaks for him, as he believed his illness made him a burden to people.

"I'm now looking after the children on my own, which is really hard. Then lock-down happened and I had them on my own in strange and scary times," she added.

"I would sometimes think, 'The one person who should be here right now isn't,' and I'd become angry but then guilty for feeling that way.

"Everything is thrown up in the air. I sway between feeling bad for not helping him enough and then asking why he left us when we loved him. Then I get mad at myself for thinking this way but at the heart of it all you love and miss them and want them back."

One of her biggest worries is the impact of Aaron's death on their two children.

"They will have to grow up without Daddy. It breaks my heart every day. I just worry they'll have feelings of not being good enough and think, 'Daddy couldn't stay for us.'

"I worry they're going to struggle with their mental health."

Alan added: "We do talk a lot about Aaron to them. When they get in the car, they put the seat belt on him. They're imagining he's still there. Sabrina tried to tell them they've still got a daddy but he's not here."

Bereavement charity Winston's Wish offered her advice about how to speak to her children about their dad's death but she's struggled to find further help for her family. Despite Preston being named the "suicide capital of England" in 2016, she hasn't been able to find a support group in the area specifically for this type of bereavement. In fact, she claims the nearest one is in Warrington.

Sabrina questions if this lack of support for families is making the issue worse and worries about the potential ripple effect of suicide.

As she said: "My children are the only thing that has kept me going - if I took my own life, they'd have no parent. But lots of people don't have that safety net."

Suicide in Lancashire

Suicide is the biggest killer of under 35s, with 402 people taking their own life in Lancashire between 2017 and 2019, according to Public Health England data.

It means the area's suicide rate was around 12.8 per 100,000 population – the highest since records began, having increased from 11.8 between 2016 and 2018.

Men accounted for more than three-quarters of suicides registered in the county over the three years – 302 compared with 100 women.

Help and support

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts and need someone to talk to, you can ring the Samaritans on 116 123 for free at any time and from any phone.

The NHS' Mental Health Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 0800 953 0110.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) offers information, help by email, details about support groups and a national helpline on 0300 111 5065 from 9am-9pm, Monday-Friday.