Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

The darkest drive in a dark time: A story about tragedy, survival and getting through it

Maybe you're lucky enough that suicide and depression have not been a part of your life, especially during the Christmas season, writes Alyson Samson.

Grief and Christmas make for mixed emotions. This is my first time knowing them together

Alyson Samson was shaken to learn about her cousin Stephanie's death one year ago. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

"Don't come home."

That's all my mother said when I was awoken at 6:01 a.m. by a jolt of the Mariah Carey song that was set as my ringtone.

It was Dec. 1, last year.

"I have to go, I have to drive to the Northern Peninsula."

I was still waking up, fairly confused as to why my mom didn't want me to come home for the weekend and help her put up Christmas decorations.

"It's Stephanie. She's gone."

Then it made sense, why she sounded out of breath, why she was crying. She had clearly been up for hours.

We were on the phone for three minutes and 43 seconds before I slid out of bed and absentmindedly started throwing things in the bag I already had out to go home that day.

Not ready to process what I was told 

Black. You're supposed to wear black. Right, OK, that's half my closet. Which things do I take.

I was not ready to process the little information I had, so early in the morning. 

Stephanie killed herself the night before. That's all I knew.

I got in the freezing car with wet hair — I should shower now; it's a long drive to Plum Point — because I didn't have the energy, or more likely the will, to dry it.

Three times, I pulled over on the highway between St. John's and Clarenville, because it isn't safe to drive when you can't see where you are going through your tears.

No Spotify playlist could console me. Nineties pop tunes played much softer than how I would typically rock them on a long drive.

After two hours, I met my mom on the highway in Clarenville. We switched cars. I hugged my dad.

Sitting in anxious silence

It would be another nine hours to the Northern Peninsula.

My mom and I sat in silence, both knowing we could not cry, because then the other would start. We didn't have enough daylight to pull over.

Stephanie and I had not been close for years, growing up and apart, when the age difference of four years really mattered. Of my cousins who are girls, we were the closest in age. I don't have siblings, so cousins are the nearest thing I've known.

Despite an age difference of four years, Alyson Samson was close to her cousin Stephanie when they grew up. (Submitted)

I called my roommate, chewing the side of my mouth to keep my tears back. I asked him to feed the cat. "I don't know when I'll be back."

I emailed work to say I was away and unavailable. There's been a death in the family. It was the first time I've had to tell work that.

Most of the way, I felt guilty. I should have called Stephanie last week when I wore the yellow scarf — my favourite shade of yellow — that she knit me last Christmas. It had made me think of her when I wore it.

It's too late now. And I can't bring myself to wear it this year. I'll probably never wear it again. Too bad, it's really cute.

What happened wasn't a huge surprise. She had been in and out of the mental health system for years. There had been varying diagnoses, frequently changing doses, suicide watch. Some might have said it was a matter of time. 

I heard it all second-hand.

I didn't know much first-hand from her anymore.

I, too, was struggling 

"Don't you ever."

My mother shouted at me after a long silence, as we drove through Terra Nova. It was picturesque outside the car, lightly blanketed in frost.

She knew where my head was, and how I understood Stephanie more than most of our family.

My own depression had taken a turn that fall, and I too was struggling.

I was the only person not questioning, "how could that thought have even entered her mind." 

Easy, as a solution.

Alyson Samson and her cousin Stephanie at a family wedding. (Submitted)

I remember a Matt Wright comedy sketch on CBC Radio marking the first time we could possibly have laughed that day. I think we were near Botwood. Silence broke out in manic giggles of exhaustion.

Grief and Christmas make for mixed emotions, and this is my first time knowing them together. 

Last year, we were numb, filtered through Instagram smiles, going through the motions. 

I know I'm not the only person dwelling on these thoughts as the holidays approach again.

Pulling out totes of Christmas stuff is an impossible task this year. I know it doesn't look like I think anything of it, but I do.

I think about how empty it felt to hang lights and decorations last year, and how I gave up halfway through.

How many times I hid in the bathroom at work crying.

And that I took a break from writing this to do exactly that.

This time last year, I was holding it together for myself, because I had already fallen apart before Stephanie died.

I was battling my own depression and it had taken a turn. It's too bad they don't give out Oscars for acting like you're fine.

That was not my solution

But a lot can change in a year, and I worked hard to change it. 

I feel like I woke up to a brand-new life after she was gone, that I will never let it get that bad again.

I had seen it as a solution, not an end, but when I saw her end — I knew it wasn't my solution.

And, in the end, it was Stephanie who saved me from my own deep depression, because it certainly wasn't the answer when you see it right in front of you.

Everyone experiences the holidays differently, and until last year I took for granted that we're all celebrating happily together.

Maybe you're lucky enough that suicide and depression have not been a part of your life.

However, when you're putting up lights and baking cookies, try to remember the holidays don't bring the same joy to everyone.

Mental health resources, and where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free: 1-833-456-4566.
Text: 45645.

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

CHANNAL peer support line

A "warm line" is available across Newfoundland and Labrador seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

Local: (709) 753-2560; toll-free 1-855-753-2560 

Kids Help Phone:

Toll-free: 1-800-668-6868.
App: Always There by Kids Help Phone.

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feelings of being trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Alyson Samson is a journalist working with the CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador.