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O my son, I miss you so - but as we carry on, we cannot let others go the same way

Five years ago Campbell Spray lost his eldest child to drugs. He remembers his son at this time of global grief - and asks if, while we focus on the pandemic, are others falling through the cracks


Daniel Spray

Daniel Spray

Daniel Spray

Recently two homeless people slept under a duvet in our front garden. We left out clothes, food and a small bottle of hand sanitiser. On the third night, I met the pair coming in just as I was closing the gate.

They asked for blankets and help in getting a proper place to stay. That didn't happen as the gardai who came knew the woman well and told them to go back to where they normally stayed. They went off, taking their stuff and asked if they could keep the blankets.

Next day cleaning the area I found a lot of empties - vodka bottles and a dozen cans. The hand sanitiser was also there, unopened. An air of despair and reality struck me; that right now anxiety, loneliness and addiction issues are magnified while charities and mental health organisations are struggling to survive.

It was also very personal, as five years ago this month I last saw my eldest son. He lay in a coffin a few hours before his funeral. Four weeks earlier, late at night, I had received a call that in my heart I half-expected.

Daniel had been found dead in his flat, probably from a drug overdose. I worry that many others might soon be getting the same news. Daniel was 38, extremely bright, a great traveller and climber but someone whose drug use had got out of control. Over the previous few years, he had lost his job with a notable legal firm; his girlfriend had left him; he had attempted suicide and his drinking and general behaviour was making him hard to be with.

However, more recently there had been a sea change. The shock of waking up next to a dead friend, after both had taken heroin the night before, jolted him into a new reality. He was talking to therapists and other support staff, had begun training to give financial and legal advice for a charity and was making real efforts to engage with family and friends again.

So much so that he came to stay with us in Dublin for Christmas, although not before certain ground rules had been laid down and after I had had great support from Al Anon meetings.

That Christmas was a success. Daniel was back to his witty best. He got on brilliantly with us all, especially his half-siblings Marcus and Rachael. He was extraordinarily good with my partner's mother who had started on the long, lonely road to dementia. He would listen again and again to the same stories with kind attention.

When I thanked him, he replied, "Oh I'm used to it. She's just like some of my druggie friends, repeating themselves over and over."

Daniel returned to Leeds, seemingly happy and, I thought, resolved. We had talked of doing the Camino walk and I gave him a book on it. The next time I saw him would be in a coffin on the morning of his cremation five months later and almost a month after he had died, lying on the floor wearing only his boxer shorts. The Camino book was by his bedside.

At his inquest that August, ironically on what would have been Daniel's 39th birthday, the facts of his life and death were laid brutally bare. He may have been on the up but was still very troubled. However, the coroner took the view that there probably weren't suicidal intentions and that the cocaine, heroin and other drugs that killed Daniel had a particularly devastating effect because his return to taking them made him a "naive user" again. The article I wrote for this paper the weekend after the inquest was, I believe, both the hardest and best thing I ever penned.

After Daniel's death and inquest, I was bowled over by the incredible support I got from friends, colleagues and, most of all, Sunday Independent readers who sent me many messages. Some of Daniel's friends stay in touch and have raised money for a mental health charity in his name. I also found that I was part of a large tribe of people who suffered the same loss, often to drugs and many by their own hand.

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Daniel was an avid reader and traveller. A few years ago, I had 12 boxes of his books shipped over. However, it was only late last year that I could bear to unpack them. I could sense Daniel's spirit as I did. There were travel guides to China, Vietnam, Tibet, Paris and his beloved Highlands of Scotland; and many novels.

I had a frontispiece printed which has been gummed in all the volumes I unpacked. It says "The book was in the care of Daniel, son, brother, friend and traveller who voyaged too far when too young one April night. Daniel Morrison Spray 25/8/1976 - 9/4/2015."

I look at Daniel's picture every day. He stares out from a snowy mountain slightly squinting into the sun. I miss him dreadfully. I hope I am a better person since his death, more compassionate.

While Daniel was never on the streets, that could have been his trajectory. Equally his path might by now involve success, love, children. Who knows? He was probably lying dead for two days before his front door was broken down. Nobody should die alone.

I am especially aware that during this time when the concentration is on fighting the pandemic, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people like my son are falling through the cracks and that a horrible toll on our vulnerable will be taken, many of them Daniel's age and younger. Everybody has their story; the woman sleeping under our hedge, the man drunkenly leaning against the lamppost, the parents in despair and the person cooking crack cocaine in tin foil the night before they die.

May is a month when hopefully a few shards of light and warmth will gradually cut through the gloom. But it will take a long, long time to clear entirely. There is just so much grief.

For myself, I have Daniel's books, we talk of him often and, as I look at his picture, I know I loved him and for all the faults on both sides, I think he loved me too.

It would be a great legacy for Daniel if people don't forget troubled souls like him at this time.

Anybody affected by issues raised in this article should contact Samaritans 24-hour helpline 116 123 or Pieta House, call free 1800 247 247

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