Interview: Mental health minister Clare Haughey on finding the strength to carry on after the loss of a child
Saturday 27th July 2019. The Merchant City Festival. Glasgow. A drizzly summer afternoon and Clare Haughey and her husband, Paul, have just sat down in a busy city centre bar with a beer, ready to soak up some of the carnival atmosphere.
They planned to catch up with their older son, Sean, who lives in the city, later in the day, but with their youngest son, Michael, at home in Rutherglen and their middle one, Charlie, a pharmacology student, on holiday in Amsterdam with old school pals, they were child free and ready to relax.
…And then they got a call.
Michael had just minutes previously texted to ask if he could eat the left-over Chinese takeaway from the previous night that was sitting in the fridge.
The mental health minister smiled knowingly as she picked up her mobile presuming this would be Michael asking how long he should microwave the food for. But before she could speak, Michael told his mother that the police were at the door.
“Even then, the alarm bells didn’t go off because I have a really good relationship with the local cops and if there’s any kind of major incident in Rutherglen, they tend to let me know,” says Haughey.
“They asked where we were and said they wanted to speak to me – now.
“I asked what was wrong. I think I asked that several times, before they said they wouldn’t tell me on the phone.
“When they said that, I immediately panicked and asked, ‘Is it my son?’ They said it was and that they were coming to meet me.
“Waiting on them was probably one of the longest 20 to 25 minutes of my life. My oldest son was in town, so I had phoned him in a panic saying, something has happened to Charlie, but I didn’t know what.
“I said I would call him back when I knew but about five minutes later, he messaged me back saying ‘Michael’s in the police car with them’.
“So, at that point, you just start bargaining with yourself…let it just be he’s been in an accident…he’s been arrested…he’s unconscious…he’s in hospital…he’s in trouble…
“All of those things, any of those things, just let it be that, let it be that. Honestly, I didn’t even let it cross my mind that he could be dead, I wouldn’t let it, it was something that I couldn’t even consider, I wasn’t going to go there...not yet.
“I had literally just had a sip of my beer when I got that call and Paul and I just left, just got up from the table and left our drinks. God knows what other people thought of these two people who had just left their table and were pacing up and down Bath Street.
“When the police arrived, they got us in the car and almost immediately told us that Charlie was dead and at that point my world fell apart.
“I could see Paul hunched over, just broken, in pieces. Michael was in the middle of the back seat of the police car and he just pulled his T-shirt up over his face and cried.
“When I asked him later why he had even come with the police he said that he thought Charlie must be in big trouble and he wasn’t going to miss out on that!
“It was all a daze then but we went and met Sean and his girlfriend who were in town so we could tell them face to face and then we had to get in a cab and get home.
“The police didn’t really know anything at that stage other than Charlie was dead and we had to tell family without really knowing any details. I called my mum and dad and got them to come over so I could tell them.
“And then obviously, news cascaded through the family. But we still didn’t know what had really happened, they couldn’t tell us anything because they just didn’t know.
“Luckily, one of his friends who had been with him in Amsterdam phoned and spoke to Michael that evening and I then spoke to him and got a bit more detail, but essentially they had woken up and found him dead in his bed.”
As Haughey and husband Paul flew out to Holland, the newspapers at home splashed with headlines saying police in Amsterdam were investigating whether Charlie’s death was drug related.
His death certificate says he died of cardiac arrest, and I personally don’t feel the need to explore the finer details of how he had died with his mother.
In some respects, none of that matters, he is gone, and she says she is comforted by the fact that she knows that his death was a tragic accident, and one that can’t be undone. What ifs become pointless.
Haughey, a mental health nurse for over 20 years both here and in Australia before she was elected as the MSP for Rutherglen in 2016, is only too aware of how grief could become all consuming.
As she approaches the first anniversary of Charlie’s death, I ask her how she has coped.
“Honestly…I don’t know, Mandy, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always been the organiser and the coper and the keeper-on-top-of-things person.
“I’m a wee bit of a control freak and I like to just make sure things are there in place and I have, aside from Paul and the boys, family and some really good friends.
“You also don’t realise how much good there is in the world until something awful happens and sometimes I’m quite overwhelmed by the amount of goodwill and support that people, certainly round about that time, wanted to offer.
“I think for a time I just lived in the moment. I didn’t think too far ahead and there were hours that felt like days and there were other hours that you would look at the clock and its two o’clock and then the next thing you look at the clock and think where did those three hours go.
“I just existed, to be honest, I wasn’t really aware of trying to manage emotions, it was just trying to deal with what I had to deal with in the here and now.
“The initial thing was just to get him home, that was my focus, and then when we got him home, it was about planning a funeral. So, there’s this focus there at the start that keeps you occupied with things to do, busy, busy…
“When I got to see him in Amsterdam, he’d only passed away two days before so he really did look like he was asleep and I remember thinking how grateful I was to the people that must have cleaned him up so nicely given he’d had been staying in a hostel, because his fingernails had never been as clean since he was a little boy.
“And you know, in the circularity of Charlie’s life the day that we brought him home and we closed his coffin was also his 21st birthday so, the first day I saw him was the 9th of August and the last day that I saw him was the 9th of August.
“I’m talking about it now to you like I can articulate the words, but the emotions behind that are still so raw.
“You take your comforts in small things; I know what happened, I know it wasn’t a deliberate act, I got to see him, I got to bring him home, I got to give him a funeral, I know where he is. I don’t have those unanswered questions that a lot of parents have when loved ones die abroad.
“You take small comforts from the things that you could do in a really awful, awful situation and you try and rebuild.
“As you say, it is every mother’s worst nightmare. A friend of mine, one of my staff, she’s a friend too, her friend lost her daughter the week before Charlie. She suddenly just collapsed with one of these congenital cardiac conditions and I had said to her the day before, that I didn’t know how she was coping, I mean how do you deal with that? And then 24 hours later I was dealing with it, and you don’t know how you are dealing with it.
“Inner strength is probably the wrong word, it’s like survival, even at a time when you really don’t want to survive, but you somehow get through it and you are still here. I’ve got Paul and I’ve got the boys and I need to keep going for them.
“I read in the papers, probably about six months ago, about a case down in Manchester, I think, about a woman whose house had burned down in an arson attack and her four kids died and the week after the sentencing she’d killed herself and you just think ‘yeah, I can relate to that,’ you really can relate to that.
“I was never suicidal and never thought about killing myself but if I hadn’t woken up in the morning you know it wouldn’t have mattered.
“It’s that sort of passive thing that you know that you feel that way but that you have got reasons to go on and I have got reasons to go on.
“I know that my other kids will have lives and will develop and will do things and that will bring some joy back into my life, I know that.
“I look back and I think, ‘my God, I had a charmed life’, and I just didn’t appreciate it. This puts a whole new perspective on to everything and the plans, whether consciously or unconsciously you have of how you think life is going to play out, that just all of a sudden, one part of that, has ended.
“No, I was never angry with him, Mandy. I find it quite hard to get angry with my kids apart from like the trivial things like ‘oh you left that there’ but I don’t, no it’s an emotion I never felt, I never felt anger.
“I’m not angry, I’m sad. I’m sad. On some levels I have accepted he’s gone and on a lot of levels I haven’t. I just miss him so much and I don’t think that’ll ever go away
“We talk about Charlie in some context every day, whether it be a small thing like I was complaining on Sunday about how many jars of chutney we had in the fridge because there’s like six jars of open chutney, and I held one up asking what this was and Michael said that’s the one that Charlie liked. He’s mentioned in conversation like that all the time.
“He was a really, really, lovely young man. You know how you hear people talk about their children dying and they’re like ‘oh, he was just an angel’ and all that stuff, and I used to look at Charlie and think, I’ve got one of them, I have an angel because he just was the perfect child.
“He was so friendly with everyone, so loving, very chatty, very engaging, he could go in and work a room of adults when he was like three, you know, going in talking and chatting, being charming and they would say, ‘oh, he’s lovely’, and actually, he never really lost that.
“He was just a genuinely warm, friendly boy and he was always the one to come and give you a hug.
“He knew he was loved.
“He wouldn’t want me to be upset. He would be distraught at the pain he’s left behind. He would be mortified at being on the front page of the newspaper. He would just be so upset that that happened, he didn’t like to be centre of attention.
“More than anything, I think he would be really sad at the pain and the heartbreak he’s caused, and he would be really sad at what he’s left behind.
“I have good days and bad days. I say good days, but they are better days and bad days, and there’s no rhyme or reason for why some day seems particularly bad but yesterday, for instance, was a really awful day, one of the worst days I’ve had in months, and yet, probably about two weeks before I had a day where, actually, I thought, ‘oh my God, I actually feel almost normal for a whole day’.
“I think anyone who’s gone through what we’ve gone through would say similar, that it’s not something you get over, but you learn to live with it.
“I do have a faith, but it has been severely tested. I was brought up Catholic. I’m not a good Catholic in some respects but in times like that, that’s what I needed and I want to believe because I want to believe that I’ll see him again.
“I always thought if something had happened to my kids, and I don’t know if you have this, Mandy, but I always thought if something happened to my kids, I’d know, I’d just know. Gut instinct, I would absolutely know, and I didn’t. And that’s one of the other things that I sort of beat myself up for, ‘how did I not know?’
“Logically, what could I have done to make things different? But it just came as such a bolt out the blue. I thought that I would have had an inkling that day that something was just not quite right, but I didn’t have that.
“But there was something…that morning, about 20 past five, Paul was woken by a loud thump in Charlie’s rooms upstairs. It disturbed him that much that he got up and he went through to the kitchen.
“Michael was in the kitchen doing his usual teenage nocturnal cooking and he said he’d heard it too so Paul went to check Charlie’s room. There was nothing, you know, nothing had fallen over or whatever.
“We think that’s round about the time that he died. I didn’t waken up, so I don’t know. I don’t know, but I’d like to think that was him coming home. I don’t normally believe in those kinds of things, but I’ll take comfort where I can get it, and well, you know, it’s not going to do me any harm to think that way.
“It’s true that you’ve got to take your comforts where you can, and just try and get through the day. Try and get through the day and adopt positive coping mechanisms rather than negative ones.
“I’m not saying I don’t wallow at times, no, because I do, but you know, there’s other times that you just feel almost normal.
“I did think you couldn’t keep living with this pain, but we were very fortunate that we’ve got a good friend who lost his son, I think probably about 15 years ago, and John came down to see us a couple of times and I remember saying to him ‘when does this stop, when does this pain stop, when does this feeling of just barely being able to keep your head above water stop?’ And he’s like, ‘it does’.
“That really did help because he had lived it. His son had died suddenly as well and so that really did make a difference, speaking to someone who you knew and trusted who had actually walked in your footsteps and obviously it’s not the same path but just that, that gave me hope that actually, I wouldn’t know just by looking at him that he’d gone through this tragedy and if he can do this, so can I.
“We all have things that are difficult to deal with, whether it be relationship difficulties, or infertility problems, or whatever, you don’t necessarily know what’s going on with other people and we just assume that everybody’s life is much more perfect than ours.
“We all think we are invincible and then things come along like this, or what we are all living through right now with this virus, and you realise how vulnerable we all actually are, how fragile it all is, but we can get through. You do recover.”