The loss of a child is always heartbreaking. We talk to Durban mother Glynis Horning, who wants to break the silence of the taboo S word.
Glynis Horning and her husband Chris woke up on September 15, 2019 to discover their eldest son, 25-year-old Spencer, dead in his bed. It is, without a doubt, one of the most painful losses a parent could possibly endure.
In the weeks after, surrounded by loving family and friends, Glynis began to piece together the puzzle of his death. And although she will never be free from the pain, Glynis, an award winning mental health journalist, has been bold enough to share her grieving process in Waterboy – Making Sense of My Son’s Suicide, hoping her story will bring comfort to other mothers who have had to bury their children.
“Losing Spence was a tremendous shock, and it brought to my mind the need for more education about mental illness, especially the stigma associated with it.
“The South African Depression and Anxiety Group estimates there are 23 suicides a day, and 230 attempts, in the country. As I wrestled with the pain of loss, I was deeply moved as friends, colleagues and professional contacts of all ages and ethnicities reached out and confided about losing loved ones this way, or themselves contemplating suicide.
“Stigma and convention prevented them speaking before, often even in their families, so they nursed it in private agony. I wanted to help break the silence – to get people speaking the taboo S word, sharing and reaching out for the help that’s out there. If this book can help one person avoid suicide, or bring new understanding to those who have lost someone, it will have achieved its goal.”
Waterboy is raw. It will touch anyone who has directly or indirectly experienced this ultimate heartbreak. Glynis’ wisdom and insight are extraordinary, as she tracks the harrowing journey from Spencer’s first few days to his farewell attended by his childhood buddies and the unwavering support of her three best friends – her trilogy as she affectionately calls them.
As she stumbles through each day, Glynis attempts to understand the realities of depression and suicide, writing with a visceral intensity of loss and grief, but also of the joys of celebrating her son’s life.
“It was agonising to relive what happened, but also cathartic, working through the endless questions that plague you when you lose someone to suicide – especially a child. You feel you have failed at your most important job: to launch this precious life into the world, to fulfil the evolutionary imperative. But this loss, and writing about it, also opened me to the fragility of life and the planet. And to a profound love for it all.”
Glynis told us that of the many messages of motivation and advice that helped her in her anguish, the one that worked best was “Baby steps” – the advice of a friend who tried to end her own life after losing her partner to cancer. “It’s what got me through the darkest days. That and love.”
On those very dark days, and there will always be those, she says, she reaches out to her friends – especially her trilogy – best friends from schooldays – scattered across the world. “They have been my lifeline.”
“Whatever the hour, one will come back with loving support … or a verbal slap if need be. My WhatsApp and email exchanges with them form the backbone of Waterboy.”
Although the hole in her heart gapes and Glynis says she falls in periodically, she finds daily comfort in two quotes that are fixed to her noticed board: ‘Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind’ by Dr Seuss. And: ‘The best way to celebrate a great life that has gone is to relish and treasure the one that still breathes, thinks and feels, and live it to the full’ by Terence Blacker.
“Motherhood meant (and still does mean) everything to me. I was blessed with bright, beautiful, kind, humorous boys. Raising them with Chris has brought me the greatest pleasure in my life – and losing one, the greatest pain.”
Glynis says the values she’s tried to impart to her boys and what she hopes to continue to instil in her surviving son Ewan, as he journeys through life, are epitomised in the Alternative Ten Commandments cited by Richard Dawkins and pasted above the bath in their home.
“To treat all living things and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect, to live with a sense of joy and wonder, to always seek to be learning something new, to form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience, and not allow yourself to be led blindly by others. To question everything.”
As for Ewan, whom Glynis is exceptionally proud of … he forges on with quiet determination in his varsity studies and his music. “He supports me spreading the word on depression and anxiety and fighting the stigma, to help his brother continue to help others.”
Glynis remembers Spencer as a witty, caring, kind, super bright boy, who sailed through life, school and varsity, where he got his mechanical engineering degree.
“Just thinking about Mother’s Day, one of my favourites was in 2019, when Spencer picked me up from my editing shift as he always did, after using our old car to get to his part-time job teaching Master Maths. I’d forgotten what day it was, and as I buckled in, he dropped a Lunch Bar in my lap – a favourite. ‘Happy Mom’s Day’, he grinned, and gave me a huge hug before driving us home. Four months later he was gone … it’s the hugs I miss most.”
This Mother’s Day, she says, giving a nod to the fever tree above us, she’ll also be thinking of her own mom, Spencer and Ewan’s Granny Joan, whose ashes Glynis buried here when she planted the tree some 20 years ago.
“I think the most important thing that got me through my son’s death was sharing my grief, and practical things like swimming laps in cold water. You need to move – my husband and I swim a kilometre at dawn each day, rain or shine. It’s meditative and gets endorphins flowing.”
Glynis says other practices that have helped her cope have been to remind herself when she wakes each day or lies tossing, that she needs to survive it. “You can’t let yourself be crushed – your child (or whoever you lost) would not want it. And others still need and love you.”
Breathe deeply is another tip. “On the second anniversary of Spencer’s death, I had the word ‘breathe’ tattooed inside my wrist to remind me. It’s therapeutic.”
Waterboy: Making Sense of My Son’s Suicide (Bookstorm) is available from bookstores, Loot, Takealot and Amazon for R275 to R300. All royalties from the publication of the book will go to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and Survivors of Loved Ones’ Suicide, which is important to Glynis because handing her private pain to a public audience was not an easy decision to make.