Calgary mother copes through helping others

“People will ask me to this day how many kids I have, and I’ll say I have two; and I lost one to suicide,” said Nancy Gant, a Calgary resident who lost her oldest of two children in 2006.

Suicide affects more than 4,000 Albertans each year, according to the Calgary Mental Health Association. For Gant, losing her son was a distressing and heartbreaking loss.

Gant’s son, Justin McNeill, was in many ways a talented young man. Athletic and intelligent, Gant said, Justin was also a pianist, entrancing everyone who would hear him play.

“He was very angelic,” Gant said with a glimmer of motherly pride in her eyes. “He was a really good looking guy. He was gorgeous, right from the day he was born, and my mother even said to me ‘wow he’s almost even too perfect,’ and that’s what she says now.”

However, after years of family trouble and struggles with depression, Justin took his own life at the age of 20, making him one of 447 suicides in the province, as recorded in 2006 by the Alberta Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

“Suicide was not in my vocabulary. I knew that he was showing signs of depression,” Gant said. “I got him the help that I thought he needed.”

Justin had been seeing a psychiatrist and was on anti-depressants. Visiting an anti-psychosis ward, he had explored the possibilities of further treatment.

“But he obviously even put that mask on, and denied ever thinking of suicide,” Gant said. “Because looking at that in hindsight, speaking to the doctors after Justin had gone, ‘why wasn’t I told, why was I not informed on what the possibilities might be?’ I was livid, and of course devastated.”

A continuous effort

“Just not having him here,” Gant explained of her biggest struggle with coping. “I’d hate the word closure; there’s no such thing, because it’s ongoing.”

Gant insisted that despite her daily struggles, her methods keep her strong.

“What helps me a lot is my faith; I’m a Christian,” Gant said, squeezing the shiny gold cross around her neck with conviction. “Sometimes people go right back into the opposite of that. ‘If God were here this wouldn’t have happened.’ I don’t see it as that. I think it more as it wasn’t intended. An illness came over Justin, and he succumbed to that.”Nancy Gant gazes at a photo of her son. Justin McNeill, who took own life in 2006. Gant continues to cope with the loss, but remains strong by sharing with others about her experience.

Photo by Cameron Perrier

Gant acknowledged that not every day is a struggle, and said she has both good and bad days. She explained that sometimes, simply a song will send her into bereavement. On other days, Gant looks a painting on her kitchen wall – a boy walking into the forest with a dog in tow – fondly reminding her of “so much of Justin as he would’ve looked.”

“The coping I guess, it’s an ongoing thing,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be great, and most of the time I’ve moved forward with that….”

Moving forward

Following Justin’s death, Gant did her research, immersing herself in texts and volunteer work with the Center for Suicide Prevention and the Canadian Mental Health Association to find a path towards acceptance. Enlisting as a facilitator for Survivors of Suicide – an annual event that provides a space for those left behind by suicide to discuss and develop coping strategies – Gant shared her own experience with loss from suicide.

Angela Anderson, a representative for CMHA, which organizes event, said, “We have it every year to bring people who have lost someone from suicide together to make them feel less isolated in their grief.

“Often grief can be very isolating for people who have lost someone to suicide. It’s just a day that brings people together and gives them some hope for their healing process.”

Anderson explained that the Survivors of Suicide Day, which will take place this year on Nov. 17 at the Calgary Zoo, accomplishes this through guest speakers as well as a discussion panel comprised of people all who have experienced a loss through suicide. Similar to Gant, they share their story and what measures they have taken to cope. The day also includes smaller scale table discussions with event participants.

Sharing at events such as those, Gant said, has provided her with opportunities for growth and acceptance of her son’s passing.

“A lot of the times it’s ‘I’m on my own,’ and that’s the importance of sharing with other people. That’s my release – I can share, and hopefully I’m helping others,” she said.

Being open

“I would say seek help. Whether it’s through individualized counselling… talking to people, being open,” Gant said on the concept of being engaged in the healing process.

Gant also recognized that despite the importance of being open, the process of grieving and acceptance is something that progresses at a personalized pace, adding that in some instances, 10 to 15 years can pass before help is sought by someone.

“Sometimes people have a really hard time,” Gant said, noting that her own daughter has yet to attend the Survivors event.

That notion in mind, Gant maintains the concept of an ongoing journey.

“Other people may think it’s over. Don’t forget about this loss, this person, it’s still a part of our lives and that’s what I feel,” she said.

Six years after Justin’s passing, Gant remains optimistic for her son.

“I just believe that he’s in a good place.”

cperrier@cjournal.ca