It is estimated that more than 25 children lose a parent to suicide every day in the UK, according to childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish. Despite a degree of de-stigmatisation around some mental health issues, there is still a high level of stigma around a person with children ending their own life. This remains a persistent taboo in a world where the ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ mantra has become commonplace.
Our failure to talk about parental suicide doesn’t stop it happening and we know that across the UK each year many thousands of children are left to cope with the lifelong impact of their parent or primary caregiver taking their own life. It’s impossible to be more specific about how many are affected as nobody counts them, another by-product of the prevailing stigma faced by children left behind after suicide. I am one of them.
Earlier this year I formed the Luna Foundation to transform the support for children and young people who lose a parent or primary caregiver to suicide. Born out of my lived experience and international Churchill Fellowship research on parental suicide, Luna is a vehicle for positive change and hope is in our organisational DNA.
For many years I didn’t speak about my dad or how he’d died when I was nine. Not only did I not talk about him; nobody else did either. It was like not only had he gone but also every memory or mention of him had been obliterated with him. Taking the lead from those around me, at home and elsewhere, I accepted that as the norm. I felt a tangible knot in my stomach every time I dared to ask my mum anything about the man with whom she’d brought me into the world. Alone I struggled to cling onto my memories of him in silence.
That nine-year-old didn’t even know what the word suicide meant. I didn’t know anyone else whose parent, or anyone else for that matter, had killed themself. I secretly went to Sheffield’s Central Library to try to understand what had happened, reading academic books on suicide in the psychology section when I was just 10. Looking for clues as to why my dad had ended his life when all my friends’ dads were still there to see them grow up.
There was no support, just a shroud of silence. I finally had one hour with a psychologist when I was 14, five years later. Five years too late when I’d already gone off the rails, left alone with my complicated grief and the resulting fallout as I turned to substances and abusive relationships to numb out the overwhelming pain and sense of abandonment.
A child losing someone they are dependent on to suicide is an inescapably grim scenario, but one that is occurring up and down the country each day of each month of every year. One of my key roles as CEO of Luna is to act as a spokesperson for those children.
We know they face significant mental health risks. They are twice as likely to be hospitalised due to depression and at least three times more likely to take their own lives. Our mission is to ensure they get the support they need to mitigate these risks and break the chain of poor mental health and suicide risk they face.
It’s also important that we diversify the voices so that I’m not Luna’s sole spokesperson as suicide does not discriminate and impacts all sectors of society. Last month, we held our first information session for people with lived experience of parental suicide, and the passion to be heard and support our mission from those who attended was amazing.
Together we’re going to share what it means to lose a parent to suicide as a child to pierce the silence that has prevailed for too long. These children need to know they are not alone. They have been invisible for too long and they can no longer be overlooked.
I want to be a spokesperson so that no other child feels as isolated as I did through those lonely and traumatic years after my dad took his own life. I want to be a voice for those who feel they are the only one to have experienced the loss of a parent to suicide and those who don’t understand what it means. I want to make sure their unmet needs are not ignored. I want to speak out where the suffocating silence prevails, to shine a light for those in the grip of the darkness.
About the author:
Anna Wardley is an endurance swimmer, motivational speaker, and CEO of Luna Foundation, a social enterprise dedicated to transforming the support for children after suicide. Anna’s dad, Ralph, took his own life when she was nine and that loss had a profound impact on both her own life and the lives of those around her. Anna founded Luna in March 2022 to implement key recommendations from her Churchill Fellowship report entitled Time to Count, initially focusing on the provision of evidence-based suicide bereavement training for people working with children and young people. Anna is part of the Sounddelivery Media Spokesperson Network Programme. Follow Anna at @annawardley https://teamluna.org/