'We should be celebrating Jonathan's birthday...instead, we are visiting his grave'
The devastated parents of a young Belfast man who took his own life make an emotional appeal to others to seek help and think of loved ones left behind to pick up the pieces. By Stephanie Bell
Elaine and Norman Little should have been celebrating their only son Jonathan's 24th birthday yesterday, but instead the devastated couple started the day by visiting his grave.
It is just over a week since Jonathan - known as Jonny - stunned the close-knit Woodvale community in Belfast by taking his own life.
Last night, his heartbroken parents said they had been astonished by the outpouring of love for their son, and the support they have received in the past week.
And the popular young man's father made a heartfelt plea to young people who are struggling with depression to get help for their own sake, and for the sake of their loved ones left behind.
A shattered Mr Little (57), who works as part of a security team at a local grammar school, said: "I've already put a plea on Facebook to young people who are going through a tough time to get it out, talk to someone and get help.
"We had no idea Jonathan was so bad. He was being treated for depression, but we thought he was getting better. I would ask him how he was and he would just say, 'All right'.
"That's what kills us - not knowing he was so bad and not being able to do anything.
"To anyone who is thinking of doing anything like that, I would say just come up here and see what is left behind."
Jonny was well-known and liked in his local community, where he played football for Woodvale FC.
He had been with the club since the age of six and his parents said he was devoted to the sport.
Tragically, Jonny was not the first member of Woodvale FC believed to have taken their own life in recent years.
Fellow player David Hawthorne passed away in 2014 and coach David McCullough died in 2010.
Three weeks ago, team-mate Craig Faulkner (28) also died suddenly.
Jonny sustained a serious knee injury a few months ago which stopped him playing and also led to him having to leave his job.
His parents are convinced that not having his football or work caused his depression.
Norman said: "His knee was so bad that he couldn't get out of bed some days. He was in a lot of pain, and he had seen a specialist and was told he needed surgery. We were just waiting on a letter any day with a date for the operation.
"He had a part-time job doing an apprenticeship with the government and he had to leave it because of his knee.
"He couldn't even get out on Saturdays for his football and he was just lying about the house and that is what got him down. He lived for his football and it hit him hard that he couldn't play."
He added: "It is just horrendous - we had no clue, nothing, and there was no sign whatsoever. We actually thought he had been picking up and we just can't get our heads round it. Our lives will never be the same again. We think we are all right for a moment and then it hits us. It is just heartbreaking."
Jonny's mum, Elaine, said she doesn't know how she is going to carry on without her son, and she revealed how she had planned a special day trip to Scotland to celebrate his birthday.
Instead of starting the day with cards and presents, she and Norman laid flowers on their son's grave.
Elaine (49) said: "Jonathan hadn't a bad word to say about anybody, and nobody had a bad word to say about him. He would have done anything for anyone.
"He loved his football and he loved joking about and carrying on. He just loved life and everybody loved him. He was a real character and very lovable.
"From the day and hour he was born, I loved him with all of my heart and so did his daddy. We still can't get it into our heads he is not here. I can't stop crying and I keep thinking he is going to walk in the door. It is so heartbreaking."
She added: "Today, we went to his grave instead of celebrating his birthday. I had decided to take him on a day trip to Scotland - just me, him and my wee niece. I had told him what I had planned and he thought it was great.
"I said that maybe next year we could get a proper holiday away together, as he always went away with his friends.
"We actually thought he was getting better. We had no idea what was going through his mind.
"He had been to the doctor and got medication and we thought he was doing all right. He must have been bottling it up. It is just devastating."
It was Elaine who made the horrifying discovery of her son's body at their home early on Saturday, July 30. In the days that followed, both she and Norman drew some comfort from the many people who showed their support.
Just how highly their son was thought of was obvious by the hundreds of well-wishers who called at the family home and thronged the street outside.
Similar numbers turned out for his funeral last Wednesday, when a guard of honour was provided by his team-mates from Woodvale FC.
Norman said: "Hundreds and hundreds of people gathered all night when they heard the news.
"He used to be in a band in the Shankill called Purple Star, and that wee band came down and played outside our house. You could have heard a pin drop.
"It was the same at his funeral. I said if he could look down and see how much he was loved, maybe he wouldn't have done it.
"The only comfort we have had is in the support from the Woodvale community and we can't thank people enough.
"We got hundreds of cards and food and the support has been unbelievable. The send-off that he got was unbelievable and, from the bottom of our hearts, we would like to thank everyone."
A former pupil of Belfast Boys' Model School, Jonny was a popular member of Woodvale FC and tributes poured in from players and management.
Woodvale FC manager Frank McAllister said the team, which has been in existence for 26 years, was in a state of shock.
"This is the fourth death of one of our team members in the last six years," he said. "When I heard the news, I just felt numb.
"Jonny had played football for me since he was six years old. He had been to all the tournaments in England and Spain and had played at the Foyle Cup. He just loved football. He was a tenacious player and he was always great fun."
His team-mates said he was someone who "loved banter", was always game for a laugh and loved attending the football club's social events.
"He had such an infectious laugh," said Mr McAllister. "The boys would wind Jonny up and, if they didn't, he would start the banter off.
"He was once known as Woodvale's hardest man after the club set up a competition assault course where he had to do all sorts of things like walk barefoot over stones and eat disgusting things while the team threw water bombs at him. He won £100 for it and would enter every year for the fun.
"Jonny was always smiling and always laughing, but sadly it was a mask that was hiding his demons."
- If you have been affected by any issues in this story, contact Lifeline on 0808 808 8000, or the Samaritans on 116 123