I have no sons left - Belfast mum Patricia Ferrin broken by grief after losing third child to suicide
No one would want to be where Patricia Ferrin and her family are right now.
To lose a child is, for the vast majority of us, utterly unimaginable. To lose three - and all having taken their own lives - is a scenario the human mind is almost incapable of processing. Yet that's where the grief-stricken Ferrins find themselves today.
The profound heartache, the nagging questions, the tortuous 'Could I have done more?' moments, the precious, cherished memories, the attempts to be strong for one another... once again Patricia, her 58-year-old husband Eddie and daughters Danielle (32) and Seaneen (34) are consumed by a maelstrom of emotions as they endeavour to come to terms with another devastating family tragedy.
It's 12 days since 31-year-old Stephen Ferrin's lifeless body was found by his mother, just over three-and-a-half years since Kieran (24) was taken, and six years since Niall (19) passed away.
Their cousin Christopher, also 19, took his own life in 2010; four popular young men who seemingly had everything to live for, whose sudden deaths stunned the local community and left loved ones racked with grief and grasping for answers that, sadly, will never come.
How does a close-knit family like the Ferrins even begin to cope with such an overwhelming catalogue of despair and pain?
And how do they tell Stephen's eight-year-old daughter Sophie that she'll never see her daddy again? On a shelf in the front room of the house on Belfast's Oldpark Road, where Stephen lived up until his untimely death, are photos of the three tragic brothers.
Fighting back tears, a distraught Patricia somehow finds the strength to articulate what it feels like to have lost all three of her sons to suicide.
She is not doing this for herself: she is speaking out with a view to helping others in similar situations and, hopefully, preventing such devastating loss from happening in the future.
"This is a pain that I hope nobody else experiences," she said.
"It's heartbreaking. I feel as if I've lost half my family. I don't have any sons now. No sons. My heart is torn away. There's nothing there.
"I have daughters and granddaughters, my father, who has Alzheimer's, really needs me and, in all honesty, I think that's what's keeping me on this Earth.
"I just feel like handing over the key because this house is not a home any more."
Patricia recalls that Stephen, a chef, wasn't eating properly and couldn't sleep in the last six months. "He was very agitated and irritated," she said. "He had lost three stone in weight, stopped going to the gym and no longer went out."
The day he went missing - Saturday, September 2 - he was expected at his only nephew Ciaran's first birthday party at a local restaurant.
But he didn't show up and he didn't come home the following day either, which wasn't like him.
"We didn't know where he was, he wasn't answering his phone, and no one had seen him," said Patricia.
"After an appeal on Facebook, a woman contacted Seaneen to say an ambulance had taken him to Antrim Area Hospital. He'd asked the woman for help after suffering a serious cut and falling into water in Carrickfergus."
Patricia learned that Stephen had been given medical treatment for his injuries and then discharged, before later ending up in a psychiatric unit in Londonderry after a nurse saw him leaving the hospital in Antrim barefoot and seemingly distressed.
Due to a lack of beds, his mum says she had to drive to the north west to bring him back to Belfast that Thursday. That evening, Stephen visited a specialist unit opposite the city's Mater Hospital, but was only partially assessed because he felt too fragile, and chose to go home. "I told him we'd get through this, but he said: 'There's no hope for me'," Patricia recalled. "I put him on the sofa, tucked a quilt around him, lit the fire and left him downstairs watching a film, to let him feel secure. He was like a wee boy. When he got up the next morning he seemed all right.
"On Friday, however, he said he needed help. I took him to a mental health facility on the Antrim Road but they wouldn't give him anything because he had a history of taking sleeping tablets.
"They gave me some numbers in case I needed them over the weekend. My last words were: 'He might not be here at the weekend'."
By this stage, beside herself with worry, 56-year-old Patricia took Stephen to a doctor at 3pm.
"The doctor told him she'd get him help but in the meantime gave me some tablets for Stephen and asked him if he could hold on to Monday," said Patricia, adding: "He came back home with me and I told him to go upstairs and get some rest; he was calm at that stage."
Indeed, despite her earlier concern, there was nothing to suggest to Patricia that that Saturday was going to be the last full day of Stephen's life.
"He came down for breakfast and he seemed fine," she said.
"He brought down three bags of washing, tidied up his room and I thought he was coming back. Now, when I look back, I realise he was getting his things in order."
Patricia heard her son get up at 4am that Sunday; he told her he was fine. It's only now that she realises he wasn't.
"I called up to him to see if he wanted breakfast about 9.30am but he didn't want anything," she said.
"Then I took my parents to church, but when we arrived I told them I didn't feel good and that I was going home to keep an eye on Stephen. I told my daddy to light a candle for him so that he'd be okay. When I came back at 11.55am I just knew something wasn't right. I had an awful feeling.
"I went up the stairs and the first thing I heard was the television. Then I saw his door lying open, which is unusual. I then went to a spare bedroom that's never used. I had to force the door open.
"I screamed when I saw him. Eddie, who's a first aider, ran up the stairs and tried CPR, but I knew he was gone."
Ironically, the Ferrins had lost their middle child and only remaining son on World Suicide Prevention Day - with Patricia due to attend a candlelit vigil that she had co-organised for later that evening.
Her granddaughters - Morgan (14), Ava (8), Cara (8) and Sophie - had drawn pictures of Kieran and Niall to bring to the ceremony.
"I couldn't go, but another family member added Stephen's photo to the others," she said.
At the funeral the priest told the Ferrins not to torture themselves with "whys?", but Patricia says that has proved impossible.
"I already knew Stephen was going to take his own life; I knew it was going to end up that way," she said.
"He never got over his brothers' deaths. He lost both of them, his cousin and seven other friends to suicide.
"I honestly believe I started to lose Stephen when the first of his friends - Philip McTaggart - took his own life 14 years ago." (Philip's death prompted his father, who is also called Philip, to found the suicide charity Pips. He now runs Mindskills Training, a community organisation that promotes mental wellbeing through education).
She added: "He told me he'd lost all of his friends, that there wasn't one of them left. He actually found the body of a friend who'd taken his own life; Stephen always kept describing to me what that was like."
Patricia remembers Stephen as a caring, devoted son who often took her shopping and spoiled her with gifts.
He loved his daughter Sophie, who is autistic, and even though he wasn't with her mother Brenda (30), they remained friends.
"Sophie knows her daddy wasn't well," said Patricia. "I told her he had to go to Heaven to be with her other two uncles - and that he was at peace.
"It's her birthday at the end of the month. She talked about the present her daddy had promised her and I told her that it'll be sent from Heaven."
Coping with Stephen's death will not be easy. What makes it harder for Patricia is that she believes it could all have turned out so differently.
"The medical profession could have done more. I feel as if they betrayed me. I'm angry," she said.
"I was told there weren't any beds and it seemed as if nobody could do anything when Stephen was on his knees begging for help."
She says Belfast urgently needs a dedicated mental health facility, and wants more money put into mental health in Northern Ireland.
"They've spent thousands on the 'Balls on the Falls' (RISE sculpture on the M1) - and not too far away from that huge artwork, people are so desperate they're taking their own lives," she said.
"I love art. I do art classes myself, but I think more money should be put into mental health."
She added: "When anybody comes for help they should get it - even if they have taken alcohol or drugs.
"I told one of the nurses that I'd already lost two sons to suicide and that I would be burying Stephen if I bring him home, but I got the impression no one was really listening."
Patricia believes her family is now weighed down by a grief that they may never overcome.
"We are broken," she said. "It's really hard to console each other now. We tried very hard as a family to keep Stephen alive. We tried everything. We knew he was in trouble. We're all struggling to cope with losing him."
Patricia says there is a glaring problem with suicide and young men here, which is why she will be supporting the first ever March for Life rally that is taking place in Belfast on October 7, co-organised by HeadStrong Life Campaign and Mindskills Training.
"These young people can't see any other way out," she said. "They are not getting the help they need. People are not listening."
"There are more pressures on youngsters than ever before. There have been so many suicides, it has almost become the norm. I'm speaking out because I'm scared people are becoming immune to it."
Patricia wears two silver necklaces she never takes off.
One holds a locket containing locks of Kieran and Niall's hair; the other bears a heart pendant that Stephen designed, and which carries small photos of both of them.
"I told Stephen I'd need to get a bigger pendant if he didn't pull himself together," she revealed.
She also shows me the names of Kieran and Niall tattooed on the inside of each wrist.
"I'll have to get another one now," she said.
"And I usually set two personalised candles on the table every Christmas in memory of the boys; this year there'll be three."
If you or someone you know is in distress or despair, you can call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. This is a confidential service, where trained counsellors will listen and help immediately on the phone and follow up with other support if necessary. The helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also access the Lifeline website at www.lifelinehelpline.info