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‘I spoke to Toby the week he died — there was no sign he would take his own life’

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Toby grew up in London before going to university and getting into debt (Picture: Anne Stephens)

It was 10pm on a Sunday evening, when Anne Stephens, 55, heard a knock on the door.

She had just moved to Penzance, Cornwall, from London, and was adjusting to a slower pace of life by the sea.

But when she opened the door, she was faced with a policeman, who told her that her only child, Toby, 23, had taken his own life.

‘It felt like a TV drama, except I did not fall to the floor weeping hysterically,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Instead, I started comforting the ashen-faced policeman.

‘It was obvious that he had not done the ‘death knock’ before and was finding it difficult. Bizarrely, my first thought was to cancel the chimney sweep due the next morning.’

When the policeman left, Anne closed the door and just stood there. ‘In that instant, the life I knew, and everything that I thought was safe, had been smashed into a million pieces.

Anne lost her son Toby to suicide when he was 23 years old (Picture: Anne Stephens)

‘I liken it to being beaten around the head with a baseball bat, as my brain felt like mush and I could not think or breathe properly. The immense pain and anger were unbearable.’

Statistics from the Office of National Statistics show that the rate of suicide is increasing. In 2023, 5,579 suicides were registered in England, the equivalent of 11.1 suicide deaths per 100,000 people – and the highest rate recorded seen since 1999.

Suicide is the main cause of death in young people under the age of 35 in the UK, and young men, like Toby, are three times more likely to die by suicide than women.

Anne had brought up Toby as a single parent in London and throughout her life had worked full time in IT to support them both. Toby had been to university and was making his own life in Cambridge when Anne decided to make a big leap, to quit her job, sell her house and move to Cornwall with her dad. She been living there happily for three months.

Anne spoke to Toby on the phone the week he died in July 2011. ‘Nothing seemed wrong, other than normal young man worries,’ she says. ‘There were no clues and his friends were as shocked as I was – it came totally out of the blue.

Toby had been worrying about mounting debts, and he had a £8,000 worth of debt at the time of his death. An inquest later ruled that the debt was a major contributory factor in his suicide. ‘The police gave me some of his belongings and I discovered, from notes he had made, that he had planned when he was going to take his life,’ says Anne.

Anne felt unbearable grief and was in shock after Toby’s death (Picture: Anne Stephens)

In the days and weeks after Toby’s death, Anne went into autopilot. She started calling people – each one broke down crying as she spoke calmly and without emotion.

‘When I look back, I know I was in shock,’ she says. ‘But what should a grieving mother look like? A pale tear-stained face with no make-up or smile? There were days I cried and howled but, if anyone saw me on the street, they would never have guessed that I had just experienced the worst tragedy of my life.’

Anne drove from Cornwall to Cambridge where Toby had lived, and met the policeman who had found him. ‘I went to see my son’s body and arranged his funeral but simply felt numb.

‘It’s as if you can’t access the emotions because you’re in shock. All his friends came to the funeral and I remember thinking as I looked at this sea of young students –  how awful it was that these young people were going to a funeral when they ought to have been going to a party.

‘After the funeral, I went back to Cornwall and just carried on – it was like I was going through the motions. I even went online and bought a puppy, as something deep inside me knew I needed to find a reason to go on after the funeral.’

Already in the depths of grief, shortly after, Anne’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

‘As time went on, the grief began to bubble up,’ she says. ‘I was in the garden with my puppy Elfie and found myself looking up to the sky, silently crying out for help.’

But at that moment, Anne says she had something of an epiphany.

Anne struggled with her own emotions wondering if she could carry on living after losing her son (Picture: Anne Stephens)

‘I saw three clear choices in front of me,’ she says. ‘The first was to take all the diazepam the doctor had prescribed and walk into the sea.

‘The second was to live every moment of my remaining life in misery and pain, and the third choice was that I could find a way to live the best life I possibly could.

‘Nothing would change what had happened, Toby was not coming back.’

As Anne stood there in the garden, she made the decision to try to live life again.

‘The loss of a child is so deep and suicide loss comes with a whole layer of other complex emotions,’ she says.

‘You often think about them and the future that you were supposed to witness. The constant question of why, the guilt, the stigma – all these were yet to come but, at that time, I knew I was going to find a way to live again. I thought this was what Toby would have wanted.’

Anne went to her GP to seek support, but they did not signpost her to any organisations. ‘I set about searching myself. With my dad dying from cancer, I felt utterly alone.

‘I needed to believe that it would get better. I needed advice and connection from someone who understood, to make me feel I would survive.

‘I found an organisation in the UK called Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS), which had a helpline and ran support groups. I called the helpline a lot. Everyone at the end of the phone had been bereaved by suicide, but I found that I could only relate to other parents who had lost a child.’

Searching the internet, Anne found groups for parents who had experienced the loss of a child, although not specifically by suicide.

‘Through this, I knew I needed to connect with parents who had the same experience as me and, with some help from a friend, I wrote a blog Losing a Child to Suicide UK and started a support group.

Toby (pictured) had planned to take his own life and Anne now works to raise awareness around suicide (Picture: Anne Stephens)

‘From my experience, when you are going through hell, the first thing you need is someone to let you know that you are not alone. I have had parents tell me that my support group has saved their lives. There is nothing more valuable than that, and it has also helped me to cope better.’

Anne continued to write her blog and was asked to become a trustee for the charity, Papyrus, that works to prevent young suicide. She has been on TV and radio, trying to raise awareness of young suicide and let people know what support is out there.

‘In hindsight, I did too much in that first year. My dad died four months after Toby, and I was left alone and lost. I threw myself into finding a job, campaigning and started a counselling course in the evenings.

‘Looking back, I do not know how I did it all – I just kept going. I tried counselling but it made me cry too much. I found that joining a choir and a walking group helped me the most, as I met people who did not know my sad story and I could feel normal and tell them later when I felt ready,’ she says. 

‘I like to think Toby would have wanted me to live a good life. I do live a good life in his memory and aim to honour him. I went to university three years after Toby died and did a degree in journalism. I got a first and wrote my dissertation on how the media report on suicide.

It’s been 12 years since Toby (pictured) died by suicide (Picture: Anne Stephens)

‘On my 60th birthday, I did a trek in the Sahara Desert and raised £4,000 for a charity that works to prevent young suicide.’

Anne still writes her blog and plans to turn it into a book. ‘Toby was my only child, my world, my everything. It has been 12 years since my beautiful son died. I know it was not my fault and that suicide is complicated.

‘I also know I will always feel heartache for the loss of my son, but I want to ensure that I live the best life possible.’

Anne’s story is featured in Knocked Sideways: Discover The Extraordinary Power of Hope by Sarah McGeough which is available for pre-order now. For more information, read Anne’s blog.

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