Mags Gargan speaks to members of the Hayes family about their journey through suicide
The Hayes family from Co. Kilkenny have survived more tragedy than most people have to experience in one lifetime. Tommy Hayes died by suicide at the age of 32 in 2002, his son Thomas died through suicide nine years later at the age of 19. A strong faith, community support and finding peace on pilgrimage to Medjugorje has helped the family through these dark times and now Angela Hayes and her youngest son Alan have decided to speak publicly about their experience to raise the issue of suicide awareness.
Angela received a standing ovation when she told her story at the Kilkenny Suicide Awareness Gathering in St Mary’s Cathedral earlier this month, after which Alan (17) performed the song ‘Survivor’, which he wrote as a tribute to his mother. Since then there has been a whirlwind of media attention, including an interview on last week’s Late Late Show.
The Hayes’ message is simple – talk about how you feel.
“We wanted to raise awareness of how suicide affects a family and also for those dealing with suicide to show that we are coping and we are ok,” Alan says. “The reason I am talking about it is because there are a lot of lads and girls my age who have mental health issues and don’t talk about it enough. My aim was to get young people to talk about anything that is bothering them – that they have to talk.”
When her husband died in 2002, Angela was left a widow at the age of 32 with four young boys: Alan 4, Robert 7, Thomas 10, Stephen 13. It was a terrible blow to the family and just when it seemed like they were getting back on their feet, her oldest child Stephen became involved in drugs at the age of 15.
Drugs and alcohol
Stephen left school at 17 and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. He had suicidal thoughts and the family spent many nights driving around looking for him on the streets thinking the worse.
Stephen agreed to attend the Aislinn Centre, a drug free rehabilitation centrefor adolescents, andstarted on the road to recovery. He began to cope with life better and in 2010 he became a father.
The family thought they had been through the worse when in 2011, nine years and one day after his father’s death Thomas Hayes died through suicide at the age of 19 after attending his father’s anniversary Mass.
Thomas was preparing for a trip to Switzerland as a scout leader and was known as a caring, bubbly and outgoing young man who never showed any signs of how low he was feeling. He left a letter explaining his death was no one’s fault and that he wanted to be with his father.
Faith had always played a strong role in the family’s life – praying together every day and attending weekly Mass – but after the loss of her son Angela says she lost the ability to pray.
“My faith had been a big comfort through the tough times, but I couldn’t say a Hail Mary after my son died. I was not angry with God, I was in so much pain. Then in Christmas of 2011 everything changed for me when I went to Medugorje Youth Group Friday night service and from that day on I haven’t looked back,” she says.
“My two boys had gone to Medjugorje and my oldest boy was saying you have to go. After the road he was going down, he was now telling me he was concerned with how I was coping,” she says. “Stephen told me about the youth service and that’s why I went. I’m not sure what happened but it was a lovely experience. It was uplifting to see youngsters enjoying a prayer group. I started attending the meetings every Friday night and just loved it. It is a quiet, safe, peaceful time when I could pray.”
Stephen and Robert had already been to Medjugorje with the youth group following an invitation from the organiser, Cllr Joe Malone and they convinced Angela and Alan to go.
“My brothers went to Medjugorje the summer of the year of our brother’s death. They said it was amazing and told my Mam and myself that we had to go,” Alan says.
Sense of peace
“We went the next year with Stephen. It was amazing. When I went out there my faith was very low and I didn’t want to believe in anything and felt angry that anyone could do this to our family. Then in Medjugorje my brother and Mam said go with an open heart, whatever happens happens, give everything a chance. So I went for a week and did everything that came up and I did get a lot out of it. I got a great sense of peace. Everything feels so safe and you could feel you could walk through the streets with a million euro and wouldn’t be touched. Everyone being together, singing songs at Mass, walking up mountains together, everyone encouraging each other on and making sure everyone gets to the top – everyone is there for each other.”
Angela says he didn’t know what to expect in Medjugorje but also found peace there. “There must have been 60 youngsters from our group and we all stayed in one house. I brought my little girl Caoimhe, who’s three, and the boys and girls really related to her. She went to everything and even came up the mountain with Alan carrying her and he was barefoot. All the young lads helped me down. Lads I might pass on the street and think they are brats but they held my hand and guided me. It was so touching.
“Adoration in the church was lovely and I got a great peace. It felt safe and I felt Our Lady was there. I went to Confession and it was so emotional. The priest said Our Lady has been through similar to what I have been though and can understand me it and it just made my life a little bit easier,” Angela says. “I put my trust in Our Lady in everything I do in my life and that has given me contentment.”
Alan says his faith “puts me at ease even though I have lost my brother and father – it is easier to accept that when you have good faith. It helps you to cope a lot more”.
Alan also got great comfort and support from his school community.
“I got great support from the school chaplain and another teacher who provides pastoral care at the school. They were there through everything and checked in with me everyday to see how I was doing,” he says. “They helped me through it, as well as friends and the community. Everyone was there for us.”
Alan says he is more aware now of the need to talk about how you are feeling if you are down. “We never suspected Tommy was feeling that way and I am more aware of it and try to pick up on what is going with others. If you come home upset I know I can talk to my brothers or mother. Within five minutes they will know something is up with you and you won’t get away with bottling it up,” he says. “It’s better to talk.”