On a winter afternoon in 1998, she slowly climbed the staircase of her Vaughan home and wandered into her son’s bedroom. Save for a bed and dresser drawers, the space that surrounded her was bare, the floor once strewn with belongings and the air once ripe with the familiar musk of men’s cologne now thick with emptiness. The vacuity of it all and the reality of its perpetuity weighed heavily on her chest, dragging her to the floor in a thunderstorm of tears. Cocooned in despair, all she could do to not fall backwards was to look upwards. And that’s when she saw it: a butterfly, on a winter afternoon in 1998, resting its wings on a picture frame fastened to the wall. An inconceivable sight, perhaps, until you learn of the tragic narrative of loss and courage by first-time author Francesca Cavaliere. Wish You Were Here, which will be released in fall 2012, reveals the true story of an ordinary Vaughan family bereaved by suicide, and how hope got them through the days. The photograph inside the frame on the wall was of her son.
Antonio (Tony) Cavaliere was the embodiment of cool at school, a big-brother protector, dutiful but occasionally rebellious. For someone so young he had big dreams: to marry his long-time girlfriend, to invest in real estate, to expand his education and secure a stable job. He’d been a hockey player, his aptitude and sportsmanship awarded with trophies and ribbons. He had been a patient coach to a children’s hockey team. He laughed often. At school and at work, he formed deep friendships, and his charm and good looks didn’t go unnoticed with the opposite sex. The bond he had with his younger sister Lisa was apparent, strengthened by their shared interests of music and family values. Every December, they looked forward to their annual tradition of selecting a tree to decorate. But Tony wouldn’t make it to Christmas in 1997. Despite the love and support of friends and family, and the resources of help available, he suffered in silence. Overcome by major depression, Tony died by suicide in October of that year. He was 24.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, some form of mental illness will affect one in five Canadians each year, with anxiety or mood disorders, including depression, affecting 12 per cent of the population. Hopeless and helpless, those that turn to suicide see no other way to escape their pain. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) states suicide as the second leading cause of death in the 15–24 age group.
“After that day, there was a painful, empty air in the house, as though it knew that something was missing. Tony wasn’t there, and he was never coming back,” writes Cavaliere in her book. The months that ensued brought forth profound stages of grief, causing her to barely attend social functions for close to two years. On the night of Tony’s funeral, while sitting on her front porch surrounded by her son’s friends, she vowed to take action once she was healed. She turned to the faces of the young men around her and promised to write a book that would raise awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, and offer hope to families coping with what the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes as a public health problem and a major source of preventable deaths worldwide.
Figures compiled by the coroner’s office reveal that the number of deaths due to suicide across Ontario was 1,143 in 2011. Nine of those deaths occurred
The release of Cavaliere’s book this November comes at a time when families coping with suicide loss are more forthcoming with their experience than they were 15 years ago, and a time when the stigma of asking for support and comfort — which can present a major roadblock to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness — has fallen by the wayside. “We are often afraid to talk about mental health, we are often afraid to talk about suicide. And the reality is that we all have mental health,” says Alisa Simon, vice-president of counselling services and programs at Kids Help Phone. While the national, free and confidential 24-hour telephone and online counselling service offers support to youths struggling with their emotional and mental health, it also encourages young people to talk to their loved ones. “We need to know that it is OK, and it is in fact appropriate to have conversations with the people that you love in your life.” A recent evaluation measuring the nature of calls to Kids Help Phone received between the years of 2010 to 2012 points to a slight increase of contact surrounding the issue of suicide, adds Simon.
Kids Help Phone recognizes that family, school and societal pressures that increase during adolescence create a stressful environment for a young person with little life experience. When faced with dramatic change and mental health struggles, young people are put at risk for suicide. “If it happened to us, it could really happen to anybody,” says Toronto resident Eric Windeler, who lost his bright, well-adjusted 18-year-old son Jack to suicide in 2010 while he was enrolled in his first year of university. “Jack was able to hide it very well when he was at home. I believe that was because he was happy and felt safe at home and he was away from what was giving him that pain, but in talking to some of the people at school shortly after Jack passed, there were signs.” The CMHA website includes apathy and withdrawal, depression and hopelessness, a preoccupation with death and a previous attempt at suicide as warning signs to look out for. While women have a higher rate of suicidal behaviour, males die by suicide four times more often.
As the volunteer lead at The Jack Project at the Kids Help Phone, a school outreach pilot program promoting mental health in young adults, Windeler says that parents must delve deep when establishing lines of communication with their children. “If you see a change in behaviour, you need to follow your instincts, and if you can’t look into it yourself and get a little more reaction, you need to see what you can do to have someone who is close to that young person have a conversation, and maybe that’s a roommate at college or a university [residence] don or maybe it’s a favourite uncle or aunt. You really need to take it upon yourself to ensure that those conversations are happening to the best of your ability, so that you can get at what’s really happening and allow that young person to share their feelings.”
Families that have lost someone to suicide undergo a profoundly different grieving experience due to the intentional and preventable nature of the loss. Seeking professional help or attending a bereavement group proves critical in the healing process, while also providing a safe place to air psychological and emotional issues.
The butterfly resting on her son’s picture frame reminded Cavaliere that while Tony was gone, the memory of him would continue to be a part of her life. Windeler describes his life today as one where Jack is always with him. “The presence — if you can call it that — the awareness, is literally always there until the minute you’re able to get to sleep. I’ve often described it as something just out in front of you, just maybe off to the left. That’s where it is for me.”
“After all these years, I wake up every morning with a heavy sense of sadness … [but] I’ve learned that we are in control of our days,” writes Cavaliere, who hopes the release of Wish You Were Here will encourage readers to open up about a once-taboo topic. “You’re the only one who can make it a good day or a bad one, and if you put your mind to it, you’ll shape every day into something spectacular.”
A portion of Wish You Were Here’s proceeds will be donated to the Suicide Studies Research Unit, the Mental Health Service, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
For young adults seeking help and support, or to donate to the community-based national charity, go to www.kidshelpphone.ca
For family education groups offering community resources, mutual support and guest speakers provided by the Canadian Mental Health Association serving York Region, call Central Intake at 905-853-8477
Every once in a while, our minds dip into the past, sifting through the vast files of our temporal lobes for the memories and moments that shaped our early days. When I think of my grandmother, I think of a hot summer afternoon, the air so thick the kitchen walls seemed to melt onto the linoleum floor. I remember the crackling noise eggs make in a frying pan, the red of ripe tomatoes perspiring against fresh basil. She stared emptily at the vacant wall before her, glancing at her plate and eating reflexively, her tight white curls matted to her head. Midday came and went. Rimmed red, her glistening green eyes pleaded for help. A flurry of words escaped her mouth, her arms flailed about. She had not eaten, she said, she was left to starve. I didn’t know then not to feel a ripple of burning hurt freezing my insides. I didn’t know then that the woman who stood before me was dying while living, her brain being ravaged by synaptic failure. All I knew was that a strong woman who had borne Read more
Over the last couple of months, hello-kisses and pleasantries of ‘how are you?’ and ‘can you believe this weather’ have been replaced by distant smiles and rhetoric fringed with panic and utter confusion. All this – while worshiped Purell dispensers of a palpable deity status not seen since SARS’s heyday, oust Holy Water at religious gatherings.
Since health officials declared in October the ‘Second Wave’ of a pandemic that was first reported in Mexico this past spring – the 2009 flu pandemic, a.k.a. swine flu and politically appropriate, H1N1 influenza virus – the hottest topic these days is whether to sink or swim with the biggest mass vaccination program that has sloshed and frothed onto Canadian shores. Read more
After months of monitoring, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that swine flu is the first global flu pandemic since 1968. Since April of this year, H1N1 (swine flu), has spread globally to 74 countries across the world. With almost 30,000 people infected and 141 deaths, there are grave reasons why we all need to concern ourselves with our immunity. As pharmaceutical companies gear up to concoct vaccines that could take months to hit the market, boosting your body’s resistance to infection may be your best bet to avert the flu. Read more