Almost two years after losing her son, Renate Herberger is ready to speak out about her family’s experience with suicide.
“I chose this time to talk about my experience because Sept. 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day,” explained Herberger while sitting in the quiet sanctuary that is her North Saanich home.
Herberger’s son Silvan was only 23 when he took his life, something she thinks of every day.
“He was so young and he had his whole life ahead of him. He was an incredibly passionate, loyal and beautiful luminous individual, and that’s how I will always remember him,” she said.
Silvan, who grew up in Victoria and in his late teens became involved with the Capoeira community (a Brazillian martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music), touched many people’s lives, Herberger said.
“He had many friends and acquaintances he met through Capoeira. He was well-liked and he was an amazing athlete,” she explained.
Herberger continued that Silvan told her at one point that he was pressured to take anabolic steroids.
Another hurdle in Silvan’s life occurred two months later, according to his mom.
“He told me he had a lump in his chest which doctors suspected could have been malignant. Two weeks later he would have the surgery to remove the mass and he began his recovery,” Herberger explained.
Months later, Silvan would stop participating in an activity he had enjoyed.
“I think when he walked away from Capoeira he really had nothing and nobody. He had been a part of the community for many years. He took to it like a fish to water,” she said.
Herberger, who is a long-distance swimmer and swims in South America every year to raise awareness about marine ecosystems, had invited Silvan to go with her on her trip that year.
“I offered for him to come along knowing that he had quit Capoeira. The fact that he didn’t come with me on my trip will break my heart for the rest of my life,” she said.
“In hindsight, I see that these were signs of depression. He loved travelling, he loved Costa Rica, it just didn’t make sense.”
It would be during that trip that Herberger would get a call informing her that her son had taken his own life.
“I’ll never forget that night,” she said. “Getting that call, that is every mother’s worst nightmare.”
Moving forward through tragedy
Herberger said the stigma of suicide can affect a family — especially mothers — in a way that nothing else does.
“For me, I was shunned, and from talking with other mothers in support groups like Compassionate Friends, this is quite a common occurrence. People don’t know what to say or how to react when someone loses a child to suicide so their reaction is nothing. That can be devastating.
“A bereaved mother or father should never be abandoned, but it happens all the time. Which puts bereaved parents at the top of the list for suicide attempts of their own. Isolation is killer.
“When I buried Silvan I buried our Capoeria family, which was a group of people we had both grown close to.”
Herberger said the only solution to the problem is more education around suicide prevention and the effects of suicide on families.
“Suicide is still such a taboo topic,” Herberger said.
“It is something that, instead of being ignored, should be talked about. I think it should be a part of the curriculum in schools. Teaching children from an early age about suicide, in an appropriate way, is important. They need to know growing up what the warning signs are, what do to if they or a friend are experiencing those types of thoughts, and where to go if they need help. Parents need to be educated as well to be able to recognize the warning signs.
“In Silvan’s case, there were many factors. Because I didn’t have the information, I didn’t read and I wasn’t as sensitive to all the potential warning signs.
“If I had been more aware of the signs I could potentially have been able to help. Instead, that’s a question mark I have to live with for the rest of my life.”
Herberger said that education around how to deal with those who have been affected by suicide is also needed.
“As a group, we are often ignored, stigmatized and shunned. Especially as mothers.”
“People don’t know what to do or say when a parent loses a child to suicide, so they say and do nothing. All that’s needed is a hug or a invite to go for a walk to get those channels of communication open. Bereavement isn’t a contagious disease, people shouldn’t be so afraid of it.”
Herberger attends monthly meetings with support groups for parents who lost a child to suicide, but says there aren’t many options for people looking for support.
“The only support group up until about a year ago was in Nanaimo,” she said.
Because of that, she welcomes anyone who is dealing with the same things to reach out.
“It helps to be around other people who understand what you’re going through,” she said, adding that anyone who is interested in contacting her for information can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For now, Herberger said, she copes with her loss by remembering Silvan at his best.
“I try to remember him dancing and singing, all the happy times we spent together. When I swim, I swim for him. He will always be in my heart.”
Herberger, who has swam 6,688 kilometres already, sets out on her next swim in October. Her progress can be followed at costaricamermaid.net.