Christmas is hard on families who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, says Sharon Reed — who knows this first hand.
The last holiday season “was the worst Christmas of my life,” said Reed, who was still trying to process and grieve the death of her youngest brother, who took his life in March 2020.
The Red Deer resident is now raising money and awareness about suicide prevention in memory of Neil Reed. “I’d like to do something positive,” she explained — especially since depression and mental health problems are taking more of a toll on people because of the pandemic.
A raffle for a six-foot Christmas tree, decked out with elves and other whimsical creatures to reflect Neil’s playful personality will be held next month at her workplace, Salon Harper in Red Deer. Proceeds will be donated to Red Deer’s Outreach Centre, which runs programs about suicide prevention and help families who have lost loved ones to suicide.
Reed admitted her own grief about her brother’s death was compounded by the fact she couldn’t even fly to attend his funeral because of COVID-19.
The two had been separated by thousands of miles: Neil, who was 42, had been residing in the U.K. while she had emigrated to Canada nearly 22 years ago. But her brother had come to visit her during two previous Christmas seasons. “He loved Canada and also dreamed of living here one day,” she recalled.
While Neil had attempted suicide before, it came as a shock to hear about his death. “I fell apart,” said Reed.
The first thing she did was call a friend, who works at the Outreach Centre, to express her anguish and anger. This friend advised Reed to attend an eight-week grief support program, where she could talk honestly with others who had also lost loved ones.
The participants understood that losing someone to suicide is different than having someone die of an illness or accident as it often leads to feelings of self-blame, said Reed.
“There was a lot of darkness, sadness…” The thought ‘if only I had been closer, I could have saved him’ plagued her. But Sharon came to realize this is a fallacy as her brother had been battling addictions and mental health problems for most of his life.
The siblings were raised by alcoholic parents. Reed said, “There had been abuse,” and Neil coped by inventing an imaginary childhood friend. But this “friend” stayed around for an unusually long time.
He later tried suppressing the voices in his head by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol — which took him to a bad place.
When sober, the painter and decorator was a hard worker and “wonderful person, who hardly ever lost his temper,” said Reed. She recalled that Neil could relate very well to her teenage kids with his fun, youthful outlook on life.
Since the COVID era is a dark time for many people, Reed believes it’s timely to raise awareness about local suicide prevention programs at the Outreach Centre, which can lead to counselling and other forms of mental health assistance.
The tree raffle at Salon Harper runs to Dec. 15. If all 125 tickets sell out, $2,500 will be raised for the Outreach Centre.