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How Ballymena mum Sharon Truesdale survived 'the madness of grief' after son's suicide

Sharon Truesdale, from Ballymena, tells Stephanie Bell how losing her son Matthew sent her own life spiralling out of control - and how she sold her home to help fund a book to assist others going through a similar experience

Sharon Truesdale

In a searingly honest account of the agony she went through after losing her teenage son to suicide, a Co Antrim mum has self-funded a book about her experience to help the many others going through the same pain.

Sharon Truesdale (46), a mum-of-four and grandmother-of-three from Ballymena, describes her own grief at losing her 17-year-old son Matthew in 2012 as "a type of madness".

As she tried to come to terms with her loss, Sharon's life spiralled out of control but eventually with the help of many months of counselling, she has learnt how to live again without her son.

The sheer scale of her pain prompted her to write a book to share her story and she even sold her home to raise the funds to self-publish Forever Young: A Mother's Story Of Life After Suicide.

"I thought I was going mad and I read tons of books about grief to try and understand why I was feeling the way I was but they barely touched the surface," she says.

"I couldn't put what I was going through into the usual cycle of grief as it didn't fit in.

"My children in some ways had lost their mum. I thought if I could help someone else make sense of how they are feeling then writing the book would be worthwhile."

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Sharon's son Matthew

Sharon's son Matthew

Sharon's son Matthew

Since publishing her book last year on Amazon, Sharon has been encouraged by many messages, not just from people here, but from around the world saying how much her story has helped them.

Sharon studied law before going on to become a qualified youth worker in special education. While struggling with her grief she also studied counselling, qualifying in 2017.

As well as Matthew, who was just 17 when he died on October 11, 2012, Sharon has two daughters Natasha (23) and Annie Jean (15), as well as a young son Daniel (8).

She also has three grandchildren: Nancy (2), Bonnie (17 weeks) and Matthew's son Tyler (7), who tragically never got to meet his daddy as he was born in February 2013, four months after his death.

Sharon says the day she found her son dead in his bedroom on October 11, 2012, "the old Sharon Truesdale" died too. Matthew had battled mental health issues in his teens but had appeared to turn his life around.

He had his future planned out and was training to be a chef, looking forward to the birth of his son and also planning his forthcoming 18th birthday party.

He had come through what his mum describes as "an amicable split" from the mother of his child and they remained friends. He very much wanted to be part of his son's life and accompanied his ex-girlfriend to baby scans.

But his mental health deteriorated alarmingly in the year leading up to his death when he started to self-harm and have suicidal thoughts.

His mum spent over an hour pleading with a local psychiatric team for support for her son but claims he was offered nothing.

"Matthew had very low self-esteem yet everyone would have described him as being the life and soul of the party, but it was a mask he wore. Eventually he was just broken.

"He did get into some trouble with the youth justice system which I have talked about in my book but he turned his life around and he was training to be a chef, which he loved. He also wanted to travel.

"He was really starting to find his feet and then he came through some relationship problems.

"It just seemed that things never went Matthew's way and yet he tried to please everybody. He was such a lovely, young sensitive soul."

Sharon says: "The Easter before he died he said he told me he didn't want to be here anymore. I took him to the doctor and he was referred as urgent to the local mental health team.

"We had a meeting with a psychiatrist, a social worker and a counsellor for an hour and a half when I cried my heart out to them. It was awful. I felt lost and in despair as I felt there was nothing else I could do physically as a mum.

"Not long after that his mood seemed to lift and he started planning his 18th birthday party and was looking forward to going on holiday the next year with all the boys to celebrate. Things looked a bit more positive."

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Sharon with daughter Natasha, sons Matthew and Daniel and daughter Annie Jean

Sharon with daughter Natasha, sons Matthew and Daniel and daughter Annie Jean

Sharon with daughter Natasha, sons Matthew and Daniel and daughter Annie Jean

Seeing her son happier made the shock of his death all the harder for Sharon to comprehend.

For the next four years at least she struggled to get through every day, turning to alcohol and excessive shopping. She even became suicidal as she tried to cope with her son's death.

"I never had anybody who died before and it was a very lonely time. It is hard to put into words, but it was like part of me died with him. It was a new life and one I didn't know as a big part of it was missing.

"I couldn't sleep. I started to read a lot and dissected the Bible to try and understand why it had happened. It was like Groundhog Day, as every time I woke up it was to the same loneliness and pain and numbness.

"I would leave the children to school and eight hours would pass and I would still be sitting in the same position, it was like I was stuck in time.

"I spent a lot of time sitting in the cemetery. I sat there for months wanting to be with him. I knew in my head I wasn't a functioning person.

"I even sat the edge of Matthew's bed where I found him and held my breath to try and see what he felt and the last things he saw. It was really bizarre behaviour."

Sharon started to drink to try and get to sleep and found herself abusing alcohol. When she didn't sleep she went online and soon became addicted to shopping on eBay.

"My spending was out of control," she says. "This lasted several months as boxes and boxes arrived, some I never even opened.

"I had one delivery of 31 spatulas, horse riding boots size 8 - and no one in our house is size 8 - and 20 hair nets!

"Natasha ended up helping me and trying to resell things. I spent around £3,000 on stuff I didn't need or want.

"I was bidding for things on eBay and didn't want the feeling of losing. I thought by winning the bids, I was in control. There was a lot of madness there in how I tried to cope.

"I was living two lives. I had this mask on when I went out as the perfect youth worker and perfect mum, but when I was on my own I was totally distraught and not myself."

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Forever Young: A Mother's Story Of Life After Suicide by Sharon Truesdale with Sue Leonard

Forever Young: A Mother's Story Of Life After Suicide by Sharon Truesdale with Sue Leonard

Forever Young: A Mother's Story Of Life After Suicide by Sharon Truesdale with Sue Leonard

Alcohol also became a comfort and she was soon drinking every night just to help her to get over to sleep. At the cemetery a chance encounter with a grieving parent whose son had also taken his own life left her shaken.

She explains: "I took alcohol to help sleep, one glass followed by another for months.

"Then I bumped into a gentleman in the cemetery who lost his son from suicide.

"I had seen him months prior and he looked well then. He told me he had started to drink and I saw what it was doing to him. He was unshaven and had slurred speech and was unable to sleep. He saved me. I never drank again."

At one point her own life became so unbearable that Sharon even contemplated suicide, convincing herself that her children would be better off without her.

She recalls: "It was the first Mother's Day after Matthew died. I couldn't stick the pain. It was a real pain I felt, as if someone was sitting on my chest.

"I couldn't sleep and I wasn't eating and I wanted to be with my son. I knew my kids would be well looked after.

"I had tablets, they were in my hand. I was on my own and had planned it. I cried and prayed and lived another day, flushing the tablets away. This feeling of ending life didn't just disappear, but revisited me occasionally.

"As I spoke more about Matthew to family, friends and to my counsellor, and started to try and force myself to do things I used to love, the thoughts became fewer."

Two years after Matthew's death Sharon enrolled in a counselling course in an attempt to try and make sense of her pain. It was the first time she started to understand her feelings and by writing about her experience as part of the course, she was able to explore her behaviours for the first time.

She developed new healthy coping strategies and enrolled in nine months of counselling. "Antidepressants helped me to sleep again and counselling gave me a place to talk and explore my feelings instead of repressing them," she says.

"I learnt to live in the here and now and I learnt to carry on living. I still think of Matthew all of the time and last Christmas was the first in seven years that I actually looked forward to.

"When it came to putting the star on the tree, that was always Matthew's job and I just started to cry uncontrollably, so I have those days too.

"I see Matthew's son Tyler every Saturday and he knows about his daddy and we talk about him very positively."

Sharon decided to write about her most personal thoughts, behaviours and feelings to help others affected by suicide and to help break the stigma attached to suicide and mental health illness.

As she pushed the button to release her book on Amazon last August she was nervous about putting so much of her personal life on public view but is grateful now that her book has had the impact she hoped it would.

She adds: "It has been worth all the sleepless nights, tears and revisiting old memories because I know it has helped others as I have had some lovely messages from other mums.

"I wanted people to see the aftermath... I also hope that as well as helping people going through it, if someone is suicidal hopefully my book will show them the devastation they would leave behind.

"My journey taught me that love, kindness and forgiveness are so important.

"I hope the book encourages people to talk and to look for support services as they do not have to be on their own and there is help out there.

"If one support service doesn't fit with you, then look to engage with others and never give up. At one point I tried group counselling which didn't fit with me at that time, but it would be something I would consider today.

"Counselling was something I never engaged with before but I was lucky to find a counsellor I connected with and she helped me process my thoughts, behaviours and feelings. One day our stories will help inspire others."

Forever Young: A Mother's Story Of Life After Suicide by Sharon Truesdale with Sue Leonard is available on Amazon, £9.99.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, please contact the Samaritans free on 116123 or Lifeline on 080 8808 8000.

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