For me there are two distinct lives: my life prior to the death of my son, and the radically changed life that my family and I had to learn to live following his death by suicide. The Coldest Night tells the story of a mother’s loss of her son through suicide. The author brings us from the moment she learned her son had taken his own life, through the postmortem, the funeral and the subsequent months of bewilderment and shock as she and her family tried to come to terms with a changed life and family structure.
She emerges eventually, a different but stronger person, with a deep desire to help young people who are suffering the pain of depression and suicidal ideation, and to continue to be involved in nurturing their spirituality, which she believes is key to a healthy sense of self-worth and value.
Carol Anne Milton takes us on an emotionally charged journey as she recounts her son Alans suicide. As she chronicles the events from the time she learned that her son had taken his life, through the aftermath of despair and grief, and ultimately her resolution to help others, her words pierce your chest and echo the tragedy of her loss in the chambers of your heart.
The Coldest Night offers a unique approach to the survivor experience as Milton called upon her family and Alans girlfriend to revisit their immediate feelings after learning of Alans death. The insight offered through their personal reflection mirrors the pain and confusion of many families as they struggle to redefine their lives. The stories affirm the anguish felt at the loss of a brother, cousin and boyfriend. This broad perspective is offered to help the reader, especially if an attempter, understand how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide.
Intentionally written to turn the most painful episode of her life into a teaching opportunity, the book imparts wisdom gained from experience and supplemented with knowledge gleaned from research. However, some of her data is much more conjecture and personal opinion than fact. The Coldest Night is an attempt to reach parents, educators, pastors and anybody (young people in particular) who think that life is not worth living. Spirituality and connectedness to God are highly touted throughout the book, with Milton stressing her belief that through a relationship with God comes strength, a powerful protective factor against depression and suicide ideation.
Milton illuminates two cogent and poignant thoughts: 1) there is no timeframe for grief that we must follow, and 2) the mind can only take in so much at a time. Working in the aftermath with survivors, we find that each family will experience the death of a loved one in their own way, in their own time, with their own issues.
There is no model or script that applies to suicide survivors. Grief is an individual process varying from person to person, family to family. Although it can be shared, it must be processed individually and each person must be given permission to grieve however, and at whatever, pace they need. It is a highly individualistic process for finding meaning from the loss and a way of learning to live in a new world - a world without their loved one.
Grief should not, and does not, follow a check list or stages. The mind and heart can only take so much. Grief will flow in and out like the tides. The grief will come upon you, flow in like the tide, but when the mind has taken in enough and reached its limit, it will not allow anymore in.
Miltons ability to analyze searing emotional distress and pervasive feelings of guilt allows the reader to experience the effects of coming to terms with the 'why' of suicide. Although not a large volume (just 127 pages) it contains a vast amount of information on the topic. The book is published, written, and based on experiences in Ireland and as such, there is some cultural specificity that is enlightening but, at times quite notable. It is an incredible exploration of the myths and misconceptions pertaining to suicide. Written to console and inform, the pages contain a pervasive message of hope and strength. I think Milton has hit the mark with this piece.
- Jodee Hankins, MA, NCC, American Association of Suicidology
Carol Anne Miltons coldest night began on the morning of Friday 1 March2oo2 just after she sat down as usual for a cup of. tea and to savour the peace and quiet after her family had left for their various jobs and school. She started to plan her day. Then she opened the front door in answer to a knock to be told by a Garda "Theres a young lad in a tree in your garden." She knew immediately - and then her mind shut down and she didnt know - who it was. Alan, her youngest son, just 22, had hanged himself. She had known Alan was troubled by depression and changeable moods since his teenage years, but there were no significant signs that he was considering taking his own life. Indeed in November Zoos Alan had been diagnosed with a mild cyclical disorder and some depression by a psychiatrist who recommended group therapy and a mild anti-depressant. But group therapy was anathema to this very private young man, and he started to gain weight on the anti-depressants so he gave them up as he was concerned his sports activities would be affected. Alan was generally known as a very good-humoured, likeable young man, who was mad about sport and very good at it. A lad who kept his feelings and emotions closely guarded, but just occasionally he revealed some of the chaotic thoughts and suffering he was going through, to his mother, his girlfriend and his brothers. They in turn assured him he was much loved and he should continue to seek help. Indeed, the gift of love illuminates this book from beginning to end.
Seven years later Carol Milton has written forensically about the effect on herself and her familys lives. It is without doubt one of the best deconstructions of a family tragedy I have read. Her searing emotional pain and guilt at the time paralysed her, and she writes with terrible honesty of failing to swing into mother mode; meaning she was unable fully to offer much support and love to her husband or sons or daughter or Alans girlfriend, all of who were equally distraught. This is no misery memoir. Instead Milton has turned the story into a chronicle of events, inviting each member of her family to write about their immediate feelings after their brothers death, and at the end of the book they again reflect on how each of them has been changed by this event. And it is in these final reflections that we, the readers, are made aware of the build-up of little things Alan was saying or doing, which could or should have raised the alarm about his intentions. But its all ifs and maybes. Smoke.
There is no formula for working through grief after bereavement by suicide, but since Alans death, Carol Milton has steeped herself in the whole area of suicide identification and prevention among the teenage and young adult population. The book is full of wisdom, myth-busting, information on different forms of depression, possible treatments and advice and information on contacting counselling and support groups. She is now a qualified counsellor specialising in helping those who are left behind after a suicide. Her cogent and intelligent book is full of insights and should be read by everyone with growing children as well as those concerned with listening.
- Books Ireland, Summer 2010
The grim reality of Irish society in recent years through both prosperity and recession has been the growth in the figures of those taking their own lives. Rich and poor, old, young and particularly young males; behind each sad statistic lies the worst day in the life of each family who have been bereaved through suicide.
In a brave, unflinching account of her son Alans suicide, Carol Anne Milton does a lot more than share with a wide audience the experience that forever marked a turning point in her life and that of her family. Alongside the almost unbearably poignant recollections of her sons death and its aftermath is the witness she bears to faith in a God who has been the primary source of comfort and renewal in the wake of the heaviest blow life can deliver to a parent. Having led a school retreat team for eighteen years she has both tremendous empathy and well honed skills for communicating with and understanding young people. That she can now turn the most painful episode of her life into an opportunity for reaching out even more deeply to young people as well as those who are depressed and bereaved speaks volumes for her strength of character as well as the faith that sustains it.
The early chapters of the book deal with the immediate aftermath of Alans death looking through the eyes of different family members and the painful, gradual restructuring of their lives. Further chapters explore many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding depressive illness and suicide. The final part reflects on the spiritual aspects of such tragedies and how a healthy spirituality may contribute to combating the loss of self-esteem, values and sense of purpose that often lies behind suicide. Concluding with individual family reflections on how they have been coping with their loss this book offers a helpful resource from which others can hopefully gain both wisdom and insight.
Fr Paul Clayton-Lea, Clogherhead, Co Louth
Intercom, May 2010
Carol Anne Milton is trained in adult education with an Advanced Diploma in Counselling, Therapy and Education and an MA in Christian Spirituality. Her special interest lies in the spirituality of young people, for whom she has led a school retreat team for 18 years. The Coldest Night is a short and remarkable account of the death of her youngest son by suicide.
Through nine chapters she recalls receiving this catastrophic news, initial reactions within the family, the funeral, and ensuing months of bafflement and shock. Personal reflections from family and friends allow a wider insight into the rawness of the pain and confusion suffered, while coming to terms with life following the suicide of someone very close and deeply loved. This book is written for parents, educators, pastors and those young people who feel that life is not worth living: that he or she is unlovable. It tells of living beyond tragedy and imparts much helpful researched information about depression and suicide. While considering how the grieving experience in young people may be linked with irresponsible sexual activity and substance abuse, she also explores the forms of depressive illness, dispelling common myths associated with them.
Investigating suicide from a spiritual angle, she has come to believe that, particularly in adolescents and young adults, a connectedness to God and a healthy spirituality lead to a wholesome self worth: if God is the sub-text of life, we have a reason to live and to hope, especially in the bad times. She stresses the importance of this spiritual underpinning for young people whose prime experience of adolescence is grieving (consciously or unconsciously) the death of childhood and the birth of the adult person. From the depths of despair this bereaved mother returns to fullness of life, still wounded but with her wounds transformed so as to share what she has learned. A wounded healer indeed.
- Kate Barrance, The Reality, April 2010
Society at large and often also the surviving families seem to be at a loss as to why so many people take their own lives. Miltons son Alan killed himself in 2002 at the age of twenty-two. He was one of five children in the family and on the outside seemed a normal happy young man. His death completely transformed his family and his mother in particular. In this book she recounts her experience from the time of Alans death, taking the reader through the post mortem, the funeral and the weeks and months after the event. Milton is a religious woman; her faith helped her through this crisis and she emerged a stronger person. She wants to help other young people who may be suffering from depression and contemplating suicide. After graduating from the Dublin Institute of Adult Education with an MA in Christian spirituality, she works as a counsellor and speaks at schools about her own experience and wider issues relating to depression and suicide. The book is an extension of that work. As well as recounting her own experiences and the lessons she learned, she gives what seems very reliable advice and information on depression, suicide, bereavement and related issues.
- Books Ireland, February 2010
- A DAY LIKE ANY OTHER
Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.
- Kahlil Gibran
BEGINNING THE DAY
Friday, 1 March 2002 began as any ordinary day would in our house. By 9 a.m. my husband, Noel, and our sons, Stephen (25) and Niall (24), had left for work. Our daughter, Noelle (15), had gone to school where she would complete her Junior Certificate mock exams that day. Our youngest son, Alan (22), was, I presumed, still asleep. My eldest son, David (28), lived and worked in Copenhagen at the time and has since married and settled in Denmark.
I finished breakfast and sat down in my favourite armchair by the patio doors leading out to the back garden, savouring the silence that ensued when my family had left, after the noise and the rushing around that was normal in our home as everybody prepared for their day. As much as I loved the vitality, the music, the voices, all the sounds and noises of our lively household, I deeply appreciated these times of tranquility, when I could gather my thoughts and prepare for my own day. I remember closing my eyes for a moment and asking for the protection of all my family, something I had done every day since each of them in turn had moved from under my wing and into the wider world of school when they were children.
I was the coordinator of a school retreat team at the time and one of my tasks was to liaise with the religious education departments in schools, so I was waiting for two schools to open in order to finalise arrangements for upcoming retreats. Having made my calls, I was just about to stand up and go into the kitchen when I glanced outside and saw a row of garda?¡ in yellow jackets moving down the back garden, side by side. There was a garda at the patio door beckoning me around to the front of the house. I opened the front door to find two young garda?¡ waiting. I invited them in and asked what was going on. One of them replied: Theres a young lad in a tree in your garden. My first thought was that a young guy who was trying to escape would not have a chance against the burly garda?¡ in the garden! Not once in those few seconds did my thoughts turn to anything more sinister.
We went into the room where I had been sitting moments ago and one of the men drew the curtains. The other garda sat beside me on a settee and asked if I had sons. I told him the whereabouts of David, Stephen and Niall, and as I was saying that Alan was upstairs in bed, an odd stirring began in the pit of my stomach. I thought it strange that they didnt stand back, but went ahead of me up the stairs, while I gave directions to Alans bedroom from behind. I then began to realise that this was no hunt for a runaway youngster, and that young lad in the tree meant something else , something that I would not articulate to myself. By the time I reached the room the curtains were drawn here also, as Alans bedroom faced the back garden of the house. Alans bed was empty and had not been slept in.
My immediate thought was that he had stayed in his friends house, but as that was practically next door to our own it didnt make sense. Then I thought he might have stayed in his girlfriends house, but ruled that out also because she had called late the previous night looking for him. He had gone for a drink with his friends, but would have let me know if he had been going somewhere after that. Standing in Alans room, my mind searching desperately for possibilities that would explain his empty bed, I could feel my heart beginning to race and my throat constricting. I took a deep breath and told myself to get a grip on this silliness! There had to be a perfectly logical reason why Alan was not in his room. Maybe he had gone for a spin on his bike; maybe he had just gone for a walk. My mind would not accept what I knew in my heart.
Downstairs once more, one of the garda?¡ asked me to describe Alan, which I did, and the garda said he would go and check outside. I was glad of this, because it would prove once and for all that I was being silly in thinking it could be Alan. Any moment now, Alan would walk in the door having been for a swim. I brightened up: Thats it! He went for a swim or something or anything. God, no this will be perfectly okay, right? Confusion. The young garda returned, took my hand and very gently said that from my description, it could be Alan. I told myself that there was still nothing certain so it would be okay. A second later, another garda came into the kitchen holding a bank card. He held it out to me, and as I read Alans name etched clearly on the card, all hope died. Alan had carried out the final act that he believed would relieve him of the anguish with which he had struggled valiantly for the last three years of his life.
At that moment, my life and the lives of Noel and our family were irrevocably changed. The joie de vivre that I was beginning to recapture after the death of my father and my brother, in 1998 and 1999 respectively, was shattered as the bank card confirming Alans identity was shown to me. I recall that as soon as I knew that it was Alan, that he really had gone from me, my immediate feeling was one of gratitude to God that Alan had been released at last from the agony of the unpredictable mood swings, the crippling anxiety and the periods of depression, which had dogged his life for years. This was a very fleeting sense of gratitude, barely lasting a second, and I have wondered why I can remember it so clearly, or indeed how I could feel grateful at all in a situation so terrible. I have learned since that this is quite a common initial reaction; that when depression, despair and previous suicide attempts have been experienced by a family, there may be relief following the final successful attempt, because the deceased is no longer in despair and the constant threat of suicide is over.
I only have snippets of memory of the time following this and I am inclined to confuse the sequence of events, but I do remember trying , and failing , to swing into mother mode, wanting to protect Noel, my sons and my daughter from this horror. We got everybody home except Noelle, whom we decided to leave to finish her exams. David would have to learn the devastating news over the phone. It was heartbreaking to watch as Niall and Stephen learned what had happened, and I felt so helpless that there was nothing I could do to alleviate their pain. The hurt on Noels face as he tried to take in the horror of what had happened to his child is one of my most terrible memories of that day. Here was a father who had taken part in every moment of his childrens lives, who had been involved in every stage of their growing up, who had taken them out for drives and treks in the mountains every weekend, talking to them about the wonders of nature, exploring with them old castles and cathedrals, teaching them the history of places they visited. Here was a father who had passed on to his children his love of the mountains and waterfalls, summer days and the joy of swimming and fishing in a river, who had so often brought them home, muddy and dripping wet after a day of adventure, who had so often lost patience with their squabbling in the car, threatening to throw them out and make them walk, until they all collapsed in giggles at their dads irritation , all squabbles forgotten. Here was a man who deeply, deeply loved his children, and who now had heard that his treasured youngest son had just been cut down from the tree where his children, and he himself in his childhood, had played. I found this almost unbearable. I would have taken all his pain on myself if I had been able to. It was dreadful to watch his heart breaking like this.
SUPPORT FROM NEIGHBOURS AND FRIENDS
The day wore on in a haze of people coming and going; neighbours, friends and relatives bringing tray upon tray of hot and cold food; everyone crowding into the kitchen and around the table, from which neither Noel nor I had moved since morning. I remember looking at Noel and wondering how he was managing to chat about ordinary things to people. I realised that this was his way of coping with his devastation , being surrounded by people, being his usual sociable self. I recall being glad for him, however, I couldnt bring myself to enter into it. Listening, I silently screamed: Why are you not talking about Alan? How can you all talk about ordinary things when you can see what has happened? I remember the rage I felt when some well-meaning soul launched into a story of how sad they had felt at the funeral of some distant cousin or other. I was screaming inside again: I dont care about your cousins funeral or the gruesome details of his terminal disease, or how his widow crumbled in a devastated heap on her way out of the church. Why cant you just shut up and either talk about my son or go!
I wanted to run, to escape from the incessant chatter, to be alone with what had happened, to process this nightmare in my mind, and yet I was afraid to be without all these people, afraid to be left alone with the reality of what had happened. This is all I remember of a day that no parent should ever have to go through. Noel and Niall went to the hospital where Alan had been taken for an autopsy. Noel said that this was one of the more traumatic events of that time, knowing that Alan was there and not being allowed to see him, because they were about to begin the post-mortem examination. He hated the thought of what was about to happen to Alans body and assured the person dealing with the formalities that Alan was not a heavy drinker, nor a smoker or any type of drug abuser, hoping that they would take his word for it and not carry out the autopsy. However, this is a legal requirement in all suicide cases. The post-mortem examination revealed that, in fact, Alan had quite a high level of alcohol in his blood at the time of death.
Some time between the Friday that Alan died and the removal of his body to the church on the following Tuesday, I felt strongly drawn to Glenealy, Co. Wicklow, where my grandparents and my father are buried. My godmother is there too, but my desire was to go to my beloved granddad and my dad, two people whom I had truly loved and whose love for me I had always been certain of. Noel drove me and I remember I had my eyes closed to block out everything around me. I couldnt bear to see life outside going on as usual. I felt safe in my own interior world. I was aware that Noel was coping better than I was by facing reality head-on, while I wanted to run from it. We didnt speak much and, soon after we began the journey, I silently pleaded: Where are you, Alan? and had an immediate impression of Alans face, radiant and smiling at me, saying: Its deadly, Mam!This lasted for just an instant and then it was gone. Deadly is not a word that I use, and six years later the memory of that couple of seconds is as vivid as when it happened. I make no judgement on this , I am aware that intensity of emotion can cause a person to conjure up all sorts of things , but this was real to me that day and it brought me some comfort.
When we arrived at the old graveyard overlooking the village of Glenealy, I sat down on the stone edge of the grave and looked down at the little village church, and behind that the fairy hill, which was inhabited , according to the stories my father told us when we were children , by mischievous leprechauns whose trickery on the local people was the subject of these exciting tales. This came into my mind that day, along with other sweet recollections of my childhood in this beautiful place. It was so peaceful here now, so tranquil, like a balm gently soothing the hurt in my soul. I remember wishing I could stay there forever and not have to return to the heartbreak and chaos from which I had been given brief respite. I wished that Noel, my children and I could stop the clock , and the pain , right here.
Very softly, into my mind came my fathers voice: Thats the stuff! Thats the stuff! Then my grandfathers voice saying: Carol Anne, Carol Anne. Over and over these words were repeated, all very softly, all seeming absolutely real. Thats the stuff was always my fathers way of saying, Good for you! or Well done! when we did well at something. My grandad was the only one in our family who had always called me by my full name, and it always sounded like Carlann in his Wicklow accent. The memory of hearing those two distinct voices, soft and loving, stay with me to this day. Again, I make no judgement; if hearing these voices was a product of my intense grief and desire for consolation, so be it. If there truly is such a thing as the spiritual presence of our loved ones after death, I thank God. However, the fact that all this happened within a couple of hours on the same day, that each seemed to speak in his own voice, that each brought me , and continues to bring me , solace, and that this has stayed fresh in my memory for six years, makes me wonder In my fear of being overwhelmed by the loss of Alan, in my trying to cope with the horror of his suicide, was my dad trying to tell me that I would survive, that I would be okay? Whatever the explanation, it brought me comfort in the aftermath of Alans death.