That tree over there, that’s where it happened.
”I’m driving through Sydenham’s winding streets with east Belfast man Bobby Cosgrove, who has just pointed out the spot where he lost his son Richard to suicide 22 years ago.
The car falls silent as we make our way to a cafe off the Holywood Road where I’m due to talk to Bobby about his suicide support group, which he set up five years ago. Before we arrive for our breakfast appointment, he breaks the silence.
“People in east Belfast, to this day, they don’t want to face up to suicide. They’re in denial.”
His words are startling. But so too is suicide itself, and Bobby has been on the frontline of suicide prevention work since that tragic night over two decades ago — so his words tend to carry weight.
He asks when was the last time I heard of a spate of suicides in east Belfast — I’m fumbling for an answer. It always seems to be north or west Belfast. He agrees and points out the vast difference in the structures in place in those parts of the city compared with his native east. He appears genuinely rankled. I vow to come back to this later; we order a breakfast and Bobby takes me back to Christmas 1988.
“It was December 21 and my son Richard left me at 7pm,” he begins.
“He was 16 years and nine months old. He had just passed out as a bricklayer from Dundonald Training School — I was a bricklayer myself and the two of us were going to start up a wee company together.
“He had been a bit down,” says Bobby, pain etched on his every expression.
“He was quieter than usual. But we put it down to the Christmas period.
“Anyway, he said ‘see you later daddy’. I remember that night well because it was the night Northern Ireland played Spain — and they beat us 4-0.
“I asked him was he not watching the game and he said, ‘No, I’ll be home around half ten’.
“I don’t know if it was a premonition, but I knew when he went out the door, something wasn’t right.”
By midnight, Richard hadn’t returned and Bobby’s wife had just arrived home from a festive night out.
“I said to my wife, ‘Richard’s not in yet and I’m a bit worried about him’. That was ok, he didn’t come home. But sometimes that wasn’t unusual, as he could have gone to his friends.”
The night passed and the next morning, with no sign of Richard, Bobby made his way to work.
“I went into the local shop beside where I worked off York Street. I rang home — those were the days before mobile phones — and told my wife to tell Richard to ring me when he gets in.”
Half an hour later the woman from the shop Bobby had been in came say there was a call for him and he better come quick — Bobby knew what was coming.
“Something hit me,” he says. “And I went down and it was the police. They said; ‘Bobby will you come home immediately, it’s about your son’.
“And I remember I asked them if he was alive or dead and they said ‘look just come home’. I don’t know why, but I did ask that question,” says Bobby.
The anxious father raced — quite literally — across Belfast, from the north of the city to the east, in just seven minutes and to this day, even wonders why he wasn’t stopped for speeding. The sight which greeted him at his front door confirmed his very worst fears.
“I knew the moment I pulled up. I knew by the state they were in,” he says referring to his devastated family, who informed him that Richard had been found hanging from a tree.
Bobby and Elizabeth set about arranging Richard’s funeral, but on the day he’d heard the worst news a father could possibly hear, Bobby had a sudden realisation that perhaps was his first tentative step into the healing process. It subsequently led him on to the road to help others who would later share his family’s anguish and pain.
“I was sitting on my bed, overlooking the George Best Airport. I remember looking out the window and seeing a bus, a plane and a train all travelling at the same time, and I said to myself ‘you know, life goes on. This is my own personal tragedy but life does go on’.”
Bobby also made another decision — he didn’t want have his son’s body in the family home over Christmas with his other two children, aged 15 and 13, there. Richard was buried on Christmas Eve and over 1,000 people from the local area turned up for the funeral.
“One of the things I did do — and you hear people talking about it more nowadays — was take the lid off my son’s coffin and I brought every one of his friends in and said ‘if you ever feel like that, please contact me, because there’s a better way than this’.”
As Bobby’s family set about trying to make sense of what had happened, they found little support. Locals, claims Bobby, crossed the street when he and his wife were out walking, such was the stigma that was attached to suicide at the time.
And worse still, when they went looking to talk to someone, there was no one. “My wife and I wanted to talk to parents of suicide victims but what we found was there was nobody to talk to. People didn’t want to know — social services didn’t want to know. I didn’t know anyone whose son or daughter had taken their own life. We had questions that were burning — was what we were feeling normal or abnormal, for example?”
Amazingly, Bobby and Elizabeth were pointed in the direction of a group for parents of stillborn children, which illustrated the lack of facilities for those bereaved through suicide.
“So I made a promise to myself,” 0says Bobby, “that I would make myself available to talk to anyone who needed me.”
Bobby Cosgrove, the campaigner was born. He quickly got involved with people from north and west Belfast who were trying to bring the issue of suicide on the streets of the city to the attention of the Government. “It was a lone battle,” admits Bobby, who would eventually set up Survivors of Suicide (SOS).
That was five years ago. SOS is different from other groups in that it deals mainly with families in the aftermath of a suicide “rather than doing the role of trying to mentor the young people”.
The group does, however, provide information to anyone feeling suicidal and strives to point families in the right direction.
“Because families were the forgotten people,” Bobby emphasises. “For many years, everyone felt sorry for the person who took their own life, but the families tended to be forgotten. People crossed the street and didn’t want to talk to us. People, who for years we were friendly with.”
Bobby’s words take me back to what he’d said back in the car earlier — that east Belfast, he believes, still can’t face up to a suicide crisis on its own doorstep.
He elaborates:”There was an event at Belfast City Hall back in September, I think it was called the Walk of Life, being run by Family Voices. It was a suicide awareness event.
“People came from all four parts of the city, nearly 500 people.
“Sinn Fein was represented by Gerry Adams and a number of councillors and MLAs. Alex Attwood was there from the SDLP, along with a number of councillors and Naomi Long was there from the Alliance. There was not one unionist there — not one unionist turned up.
“Now are they trying to tell me that unionists don’t take their own lives? That they didn’t feel the need to be there? I feel very passionate about this. Unionist politicians, in general, do not treat suicide as a serious issue.
“Towards the end of last year, and early this year, paramilitaries were taking their own lives. Guys who were involved in the conflict took their own lives. Instead of shunning these people, we need to start reaching out to them.”
And his message to people who may be feeling suicidal today?
“Talk, talk, talk,” he says.
“And that coming from an old trade unionist who never got anywhere in this life without talking. Should you go and sit and talk to a tree, at least you’re getting it out of your system.
“Sometimes you don’t get it from professionals, sometimes you will find it in other places. If you talk to someone like myself who lost a beautiful son to this evil death... people need to understand this: our loved ones had a choice — to live or die. And they chose to die. It’s very |difficult, that.”
He tells me of a case on Tuesday past, where he rushed back from an event in Dublin to help the family of a distressed 17-year-old.
“I got the call to say he was okay after — that meant a lot.”
It’s hard not to be impressed by Bobby’s passion for his subject.
He didn’t ask to become an expert on suicide — indeed he doesn’t claim to be one — but he is an expert in his own story and that makes you listen to his words. He has found himself right on the frontline. He wants to be heard — and he wants east Belfast to be heard.
And as a writer, local historian, novelist, friend of George Best and Van Morrison and diehard Glens man, there’s hardly a better man to fight its corner.