Leeds nurse and mum's mission to help families affected by suicide after her husband and daughter took their own lives

Sadly, Karen Sykes knows all too well the “complex, multi-layered grief” that she says comes from being bereaved by suicide.

By Joanna Wardill
Saturday, 5th February 2022, 4:45 am

The 54-year-old, who works as a head of nursing at Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, lost her husband Ian to suicide in 2015 and then, devastatingly, four years later, her youngest daughter Beth took her own life at the age of 26.

She describes the tragedies as having changed her as a person, as she now navigates through a “very very difficult world” but said she has found solace in reaching out to others who have suffered similar losses.

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Karen Sykes, from Wakefield, who is tackling stigma surrounding suicide.

It follows the success of a similar initiative in Greater Manchester and invites those who have lost a loved one to suicide to create a special memorial square, 10cm by 10cm, which will be stitched together to form a quilt.

The finished quilt will then be unveiled on September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, before going on display throughout the region.

Karen, who lives in Wakefield, had been involved in the Manchester quilt’s creation because her daughter Beth was born in Bolton so was eligible for a square.

She said: “When I was looking at that quilt and you see every single square is so unique. It’s so beautiful. Because behind it you know that there’s an individual who is loved and missed.

Karen Sykes pictured with her late husband Ian, 51.

“And it doesn’t matter how long ago. Time passes but you’re still carrying that bereavement.”

They have now been joined in their quest by Pat Sowa, from Harrogate, who lost her son Dom to suicide in 2017.

Karen said: “There is still so much stigma and silence around suicide that this is a positive [project].

“It brings people together for support and also raises awareness about suicide prevention - but through a different avenue, a different platform, rather than just a campaign.”

She added: “And given the size of Yorkshire, it could be a very big quilt.”

A Facebook group for the project has already attracted over 50 members and the trio hope to reach as many people as possible as word of mouth spreads.

Karen said some of the people who have approached her to be involved are only speaking about their loss for the first time.

One, she said, was surprised to find themselves getting upset 20 years after their loved one’s death.

Karen said: “[But] weeks turn into months and months turn into years. I think grief is so personal - it’s lasting.”

“There are people out there who are really isolated and don’t have that support and hopefully the quilt and being creative will give them that opportunity,” she added.

The project includes workshops - but with no requirement to attend - and embroidery packs can be sent out to those who need them.

Talking to people bereaved by suicide has been so invaluable to Karen that she says helping others now means “everything to me”.

It was the morning after a family celebration that Karen’s husband took his own life in 2015.

A 51-year-old Yorkshireman, with a successful career as an electrical design engineer, and a “doting father”, Karen says, to his three boys and her three daughters - she said she had no clue about what he was about to do.

“He was absolutely devoted [to the children]. That was his key aim in life - being a good dad.”

But when she found him the next morning, she was left in “shock and disbelief”.

And what she said didn’t realise at the time, is that those bereaved by suicide are then in a high risk group.

Four years later, one day in April, her daughter Beth took her own life - the day after spending the day in Leeds with her mum and friends to celebrate both their birthdays.

Karen said one of Beth’s friends rang her, hysterical, urging her to come.

“And I just knew,” she said.

Beth, she says, was a “bright, loud, loving woman” with a “strong social network”.

She worked as an occupational therapist at St James’ Hospital in Leeds and was “so open she wore her heart on her sleeve”.

But, again, Karen said she would never have expected her to take her own life.

“It was a shock. We were so close. The impact of losing her was something else. She was my whole life - my youngest daughter.”

And she said: “The far-reaching effects continue on a daily basis.”

“Being bereaved to suicide is a really complex multi-layered grief. I know I felt guilt as a mum and wife - how did I not know or realise the pain they were in?

“I also felt I had failed them and helplessness that someone you loved so much felt their only option was death.

“I also feel lonely even when I am surrounded by lots of people. I think people think there is a time limit on grief but there really isn’t. Being bereaved to suicide isn’t something I would wish on anyone,” she said.

“It’s changed me as a person, I won’t deny that.

“The years have been hard and I suffer with anxiety and I still have really difficult dark days but I know these days do pass and I have learnt how to ride them.

“I think even as time passes I will carry their loss and the massive gaps they have left in my life forever now.”

Through the quilt project, she hopes to further open the conversation around suicide and connect with those alone in their grief, providing a safe, non-judgmental and comfortable space to talk about their loved one.

A booklet will also be provided alongside the quilt, for those who want to share the stories behind their squares.

“We are not counsellors,” she said. “But have that lived experience.”

“We are in a club no-one wants to join. That’s why we are reliant on reaching anyone. And we will support anyone in any way we can.”

To get involved, visit the Facebook group “Yorkshire Speak Their Name Suicide Memorial Quilt” or email [email protected]