'We miss that he can't hug us'
Mickey Clancy was a gifted surfer and led a fulfiling and dynamic life, but at only 22 he took his own life. Here, his father talks about the immense pain of losing his son, the faith that has helped him to come to terms with his grief and what needs to be done to help others
'Suicide in Ireland has become an option for young people – it's like 'choose X or Y on your mobile phone'," says Michael Clancy with a quiet consideration. In the last 10 months, Michael, his wife Bernie and their son Sean, have learned more about suicide than any family should ever have to know.
Since the death of their 22-year-old son, Mikey Clancy, a gifted windsurfer who finished 13th in the World Championships in Denmark this time last year, Michael has travelled a dark, often desperate road.
Along that road, he has met and spoken to many young people, Mikey's friends, as well as those involved with suicide prevention charities. When he speaks, it is with authority and understanding.
We are sitting in the front room of the Clancys' pleasant house in Raheny. Around us are many reminders of Mikey – his surf board propped in one corner; a collection of smooth stones over the fireplace, gathered from the beaches of Europe where Mikey competed, and brought home to his mother ; photographs of a beautiful child, then one striking photo of him as a young man; and a glass award from DIT – Sports Star of the Year.
And yet the room isn't a shrine – it is a tribute to a young man who has died, within a family that continues to live.
Michael talks, his voice low and measured, rarely faltering, about the heartache of losing Mikey and the months afterwards.
In everything he says, there is an acceptance of what has happened, of the permanently altered world in which the family now lives. There is deep, deep grief, but also the solace of faith. This is a man who has allowed himself to feel fully what comfort there is.
"Bernie and I were in San Francisco when Mikey died," he tells me. "Hearing the news from that distance was almost more shocking because you can do something when you're here. When you're away, it's just absolute panic. And yet, at the same time, it gave us time to talk, to be with each other and think what the future was going to be like without Mikey, and what it was going to be like when we went home."
And yet, of course, there is no possible preparation for such a thing. "The first time you see your son dead, that is a tragedy," says Michael quietly. "But I'm a spiritual person, I believe he's everywhere. I believe I spoke to him on the plane on the way home. I said to him, 'Mikey, I need to talk to you one more time. How are you?' I got the reply, 'I'm all right.'"
Once home, a family friend called to the house and said that he too had spoken to Mikey. "What did he say?" asked Michael. "He said 'I'm all right,'" was the answer. "That was a dual confirmation," says Michael now. "We don't get a glimpse too often of the next life, but if there is one, it's through moments like that we see it. I believe in that, and that has got me through the heartache of losing.
"You lose so much – your best pal, your son, your flesh and blood. He was almost a faultless kid to have in the family – happy, affectionate. That's the part we miss the most, the physicality of Mikey, the way he is no longer able to hug you, to hold you."
Michael's faith is broader, more spiritual than any one specific religion. In fact, I would almost call it a great openness, rather than a religion.
He is prepared to consider teachings from any source, choosing according to the value and comfort he finds, whether they come from Catholic priests, philosophers or others who have suffered as he has.
His own contribution to the sum of understanding and kindness around suicide and sudden death is considerable. Mikey was cremated and his family have held several different ceremonies thus far to scatter his ashes across the world and the water he loved.
Four of these ceremonies have been private, and two have involved some of Mikey's many friends. "We had a ceremony last weekend in Magherorarty, Co Donegal, with about 100 windsurfers who all linked arms and walked together into the sea, and we put Mikey's ashes into the water.
"We have done that a couple of times with different ceremonies. It has been a very gradual parting." How else to say farewell to someone so loved, except gradually, gently?
When Michael talks about the way the family have helped each other, been strong for one another, I can see again this solid wisdom, the way he is guided by instinct and a mind wide-open to any kind of light.
"When an animal is wounded, it will unfurl itself in its own time," he says. "When it's ready to crawl, it will crawl, when it's ready to walk it will walk. Humans need to copy the animal way and recover at their own pace. Humans are often forced, or we force ourselves, into getting up when we're not ready."
Since Mikey's death, the family have been a source of comfort to his many friends who found themselves bereft by his passing, devastated by their first experience of loss.
"My niece Emma was killed when she was 17 on Valentine's Day in a car crash," Michael says. "My dad died when I was 18. My mother died. We've had too much loss of life and yet we've always come back and tried to keep going. Your world ends and then you keep going. Those experiences have given us back-up to help with Mikey's death. For some of these kids, this was their first experience of death." These friends have subsequently raised almost €20,000 for Pieta House.
The family have also taken the time they need, going away, sometimes within Ireland, sometimes abroad, when needs be, to be alone together, to reconnect, to refocus. "Those have been wonderful periods of reflection and reading of books," Michael tells me.
They have discovered that, mercifully, grief doesn't hit them all at the same time. "We now understand that we don't all have our moments of intense grief at the same time, and we can give each other space and comfort in those times," Michael says. "We're not afraid to say it openly at all, to ask for help. When one is weak, another is strong and can help them."
During one such period of grief, he believes he was given a sight of heaven – something that has helped to carry him along.
"I suffered so much for three days that I didn't know whether I was alive or not," he says very quietly. "I had to stay in bed for those days, the pain was so immense. At one point, I felt I went into another world. It was very difficult to get into this world, but when I did, my mother was there, and she showed me around. It was heaven. I couldn't see people, but I could see the valley, the trees, the beauty of it."
He described that vision to Bernie and, some days later, a book arrived, Proof of Heaven, that had been ordered. In it was the same story – "The valley, the difficulty of getting there, a lady showing him around. That writer didn't know who the lady was. But the end of the story was that he was an adopted son. He had never known his mother. When he was finally shown a photo of her by his birth sister, it was the same woman."
Michael tells me this story without any self-consciousness at all. He doesn't try to qualify it, even explain it. "Whether you believe that or not, it gives me consolation," he says. "To believe my mother is looking after the dead gives me hope, gives me dynamism to get up for the next day. If you don't have faith, I think it's harder than if you do."
"Suicide is the oddest thing," he adds. "It is anti-life, anti all sorts of things we believe in." And yet, rather than focusing on the brutal curtailment of a wonderful life, Michael has his own beautiful perspective.
"The way I think about it is this – The Old Man And The Sea and Moby Dick, two books telling almost the same story. The Old Man and The Sea is about 100 pages long, Moby Dick is 700 or 800. Mikey's life is the shorter book, but tells the same story.
"That's the way I have coped. Sometimes people live a long book, but there can be little in it. Mikey's book was full, dynamic and wonderful. He was living about four lives. He was tremendously active in college, in windsurfing, and sports. He had many interests, including photography. He was a very fulfiled person and he was a very good kid. I know that's easy for me to say, but he was very genuine."
Mikey had suffered a difficult period in the months prior to Christmas last year and felt very let down by the general services available to him following an unsatisfactory clinic appointment. However, on his parents' advice, he then engaged immediately with Pieta House and was happy to be in their care.
He "returned to good spirits by Christmas", says Michael, but clearly still needed support. Tragically, the lack of this outside regular hours meant he was unable to access the very system that he needed .
It is this lack of help that Michael believes may have cost his son his life. "There needs to be continuity of services," he says.
"Mental help is not nine to five, and perhaps a re-evaluation of the functionality of these services will bring in an after-hours aspect, one I believe is really required. Some way to contact your counsellor, whatever the time, will save lives. If a cow in the Wicklow mountains is having a calf in the snow, a vet will turn up for it, but when it comes to saving a life, a human life, that service isn't there."
Since Mikey's death, he has engaged with Pieta House and other suicide charities on precisely this crucial point.
"The structures and links are broken along the chain. I feel very strongly about this. People could be rescued, eased out of their pain in those moments when they are in severe danger of taking their own lives because the moment will change.
"If they can be brought through that hour, that day, it will change. My primary aim going forward is to make that link. To hold that line. We need to work hard at a policy that everyone will know, every kid will know.
"Lack of knowledge costs lives. Everyone should know what the process is when they feel suicidal – that there is a system in place to help them, where there is connectivity and a clear path to follow."
And what about guilt, the dreadful spectre that can haunt the families of those who take their own lives?
"I don't feel it at all," says Michael "You cannot lead somebody else's life. No matter what I did for Mikey, I could have followed him around the world, put a chain on him, but in the end he had to make the steps.
"We all have to walk in our own footsteps. I don't feel guilt at all. I feel that Mikey is at rest from whatever was bothering him."
Does he look to the future? Or is life still a matter of one day at a time? "We do look to the future. If you don't have emotion in your life, you have no life. You may protect yourself from pain, but you have no life."
It is a remarkable answer – honest and deeply felt, from a remarkable man.