‘Never underestimate the power of a bereaved woman’: The mother who turned the grief of her son’s suicide into a life-saver

On a cloudy Monday morning in August 2013, Ben Fitchett’s parents were beginning to worry when their 14-year-old son hadn’t returned home at his usual time after his paper round. Their repeated calls and texts went unanswered until his phone from him was eventually picked up.

When a police officer answered Ben’s phone, Sarah and Peter knew it would not be good news. The officer told them that Ben had died after falling from a bridge over the eastbound M62, near to junction 20, on his way to his paper round.

It’s a day that both Sarah and Peter will never be able to forget and one that still holds many questions for them. Just days before his death, Ben had been on a scouting trip for a few weeks in Switzerland. By all accounts, he was happy and had a great holiday with his friends from him.

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“Ben had just come back from the trip on Sunday evening,” mum Sarah, from Rochdale, recalls to the Manchester Evening News. “He had a great time and was full of the joys of his holiday from him. He set off on Monday morning to do his paper round and decided to take his own life.”

An inquest into Ben’s death found that his girlfriend had read a Facebook conversation while he was on holiday that suggested he had been involved with another girl. The night before his death, he sent a text to his girlfriend to say he had made the story up for attention. At around 7.15am the next morning, he called her for a final time.

Ben Fitchett

At the inquest, Peter and Sarah said they had noticed nothing unusual about Ben to suggest he had been having such a difficult time. After nearly ten years of reflection, his parents of him are still no wiser as to what led to Ben’s actions of him on the morning August 19, 2013.

“We don’t really know why Ben chose to take his own life,” Sarah said. “We’ve reflected on that day so many times and there was nothing that made us worried about his behavior. We had no thoughts that it was something that he had considered. He wasn’t under any mental health services and there was nothing really for us to suggest that he was unwell.”

Following Ben’s death, Sarah, who is a neonatal lecturer at Salford University, became aware of the Papyrus Prevention of Young Suicide charity. Discovering the work they did to help young children who might be in a similar position to her son de ella, Sarah decided she wanted to help their charity efforts.

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Just months after Ben’s passing, Sarah – along with the help of friends and family – arranged a Hopewalk in memory of him. The fundraiser saw 105 people take part and more than £12,500 was raised for Papyrus. The event was such a success that further Hopewalk’s have been taken in Ben’s memory since.

“Lots of Ben’s friends, fellow scouts and people who knew us joined in,” Sarah recalls. “The first one we did was one of the biggest Hopewalks that year. It was nice that we were able to bring the community together whilst also reflecting on and remembering Ben.”

In 2016, Sarah was invited to join the board of trustees at Papyrus. She said it was something she jumped at the opportunity to do. In her role as Ella, Sarah says she has found a way of using her grief to help others.

“Since joining Papyrus, I’ve found that sharing that lived experience can actually help to empower and educate others,” she explains. “Lived experiences can be a really good way of showing why the charity is just so important.

Sarah receiving the rose bowl Rochdale Woman of the Year award from previous winner Carole Kelly
Sarah receiving the rose bowl Rochdale Woman of the Year award from previous winner Carole Kelly

The charity was founded in 1997 by a group of bereaved parents who had each lost children to suicide. The charity’s Chair of Trustees, Harry Biggs-Davison, joined following the death of his 25-year-old son Patrick in 2015.

“I’ve met some really strong people through the charity,” Sarah says. “The trustees are all bereaved by suicide. I’m part of a group that you never really want to be a part of but I have found a massive support network in it. I think it has definitely helped with my own grief. I’ve learned how I can really utilize that grief for the power of good and empower people to either make a change or become more aware.

“Papyrus are really important and just £5 helps answer a phone call to a teenager who’s in distress and having suicidal thoughts. That could really prevent a family from experiencing the same tragedy and sadness that we did.”

Sarah says her work with Papyrus also ensures that Ben’s message remains as strong and relevant as ever. “Even though Ben will forever remain 14, he will continue to exist,” Sarah explains. “His story of him will still continue to make his existence worth every moment that we share it.

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“For every life that he touches and the impact it has, that could save someone’s life and that’s extremely important. My grief continues to be as big as it ever was, but my life keeps on growing around it. There’s an importance in continuing – you either thrive and survive to become a force for change or you can sit back and let it eat up at you.”

Ben and Sarah
Ben and Sarah

Earlier this month, Sarah was named Woman Of Rochdale 2022 at a glitzy ceremony for her work with Papyrus and her ‘determination to help others in her situation’. Acknowledging her win from her, Ged Flynn, Chief Executive of Papyrus, said: “Sarah is an incredibly brave mum whose story has touched so many others.

“Her gentle, compassionate approach belies a tough determination to let nothing stand in the way of young people when they are seeking help. She has doggedly fought for a society which refuses to hide suicide and which enables young people to find help. Her tragedy de ella has enabled hope for so many families like hers. She richly deserves the honor bestowed upon her by Rochdale. She literally is a lifesaver.”

Speaking about the win, Sarah says she is still in shock over the recognition. “When I got the phone call I was like ‘Me, really? Are you sure’,” she said. “I do what I do because of Ben’s death. I don’t do it for any accolades. You don’t see what others see in you until you get such a beautiful nomination from people. It’s quite overwhelming and emotional. I still feel a bit on cloud nine about it. It is quite an honor, but I’m also still in shock about it really.”

Samaritans (116 123) samaritans.org operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at [email protected] , write to Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, PO Box 9090, STIRLING , FK8 2SA and visit www.samaritans.org/branches to find your nearest branch.

For support for people feeling suicidal, if you are concerned about someone or if you are bereaved by suicide see http://shiningalightonsuicide.org.uk

CALM (0800 58 58 58) thecalmzone.net has a helpline is for men who are down or have hit a wall for any reason, who need to talk or find information and support. They’re open 5pm to midnight, 365 days a year.

Greater Manchester Bereavement Service Greater Manchester Bereavement Service can help to find support for anyone in Greater Manchester who has been bereaved or affected by a death. No one needs to feel alone as they deal with their grief. www.greater-manchester-bereavement-service.org.uk

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Childline (0800 1111) runs a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number won’t show up on your phone bill.

PAPYRUS (0800 068 41 41) is a voluntary organization supporting teenagers and young adults who are feeling suicidal.

Beat Eating Disorders: Beat provides helplines for adults and young people offering support and information about eating disorders. These helplines are free to call from all phones. Adult Helpline: 0808 801 0677, Studentline: 0808 801 0811, Youthline: 0808 801 0711. www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Anorexia & Bulimia Care: ABC provide on-going care, emotional support and practical guidance for anyone affected by eating disorders, those struggling personally and parents, families and friends. Helpline: 03000 11 12 13. www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk/

Students Against Depression is a website for students who are depressed, have a low mood or are having suicidal thoughts. Bullying UK is a website for both children and adults affected by bullying studentsagainstdepression.org

For information and links to charities and organizations that can help with substance abuse, visit https://www.supportline.org.uk/problems/drugs/

She added: “I couldn’t achieve what I do without my husband, my son and all my friends who form that fabulous community that empowers and supports me and my charity work. They say that behind every successful woman, there’s an army cheering her on. I couldn’t do it without a team behind me.”

Sarah hopes her win will continue to shed light on the work Papyrus and other suicide prevention charities do to address suicide and the rising mental health difficulties in people. “I hope this recognition will make people more aware of the work Papyrus does and hopefully drive other people to help them,” she says.

“We need to get rid of the stigma attached to reaching out for help. Some people don’t understand why they feel like they do and I just hope that the work we do is proactively done to prevent that tragedy really. “You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to just get over it in the same way that someone who’s feeling low or depressed might be told to get up and move on.

“The pandemic might have changed things and maybe made some people more isolated than before, that’s why these services are so important and that’s why I will continue to do what I do. Never underestimate the power of a bereaved woman.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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