Mother had to regain confidence in caring for children after the suicide of her son
Amanda Smytaniuk is honouring her son's life by helping others through mental health struggles
This piece was originally published on Sept. 8, 2019.
When Amanda Smytaniuk lost her son to suicide, people said all kinds of things to try to comfort her. They told her about the dreams they had of Ethan. They said he was now a star in the night sky.
But none of that resonated with Smytaniuk.
"One of the things that happened with Ethan is his energy was just always so strong and so present. When I conceived him it was like instantaneous. I could just feel his presence and when he was gone, that energy was gone. I couldn't feel him anymore."
Smytaniuk describes Ethan as the kind of kid teachers would gush about having in their class. He was an honour roll student and a member of social justice media program at his school. He was also a hard working athlete; an article he wrote about the pressures adults put on kids in sports was published in The StarPhoenix newspaper last summer.
What his mother was most proud of, is the kind of friend Ethan was. Smytaniuk learned from his buddies that it was Ethan who made it a safe space for the boys to express emotion to one another, to tell each other "I love you." In Smytaniuk's words Ethan "brought a softness with him wherever he went".
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Smytaniuk said Ethan was not just an amazing kid, he was one of her favourite people to be around — period. That's why her life, as she knew it, seemed to come to an end last January.
The call that changed it all
It was the first week back to school after the Christmas break, and the Smytaniuk household was easing back into the swing of things, balancing work and schools schedules. Smytaniuk was asked to pick up an extra serving shift at a restaurant and asked Ethan if he'd be able to find a ride home from school. He said he was doing homework with friends and it wouldn't be an issue.
He then texted at 7 p.m. to ask if he could go to a basketball game. Smytaniuk texted back "yep". She didn't give it a second thought: she trusted him. According to Smytaniuk's 19-year-old son, Cole, Ethan had seemed to be in a good mood when he came home at supper, and even asked him for a ride to school the next morning.
But shortly before 8:30 p.m. Smytaniuk got a message from one of her friends who said Ethan had posted something strange on his Instagram account. She sent a screen grab of his post: A dark red square with the words "I'm sorry to let you down."
Smytaniuk was confused. She went to her son's Instagram page and found she was blocked. Panic set in and she called his phone. On the second ring, someone picked up.
I felt like I had lost the right to take care of living things.- Amanda Smytaniuk
"Saskatoon Police Service," is what she heard on the other end of the line.
"What did you say?" she responded.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry. We answered the phone because it said 'Mom."
"What, where are you?"
"We are on the side of the Broadway Bridge."
Ethan's death had blindsided the family. He'd confided in his mother that he'd had suicidal thoughts before, but he'd been seeing a counselor and Smytaniuk was under the impression those feelings were a thing of the past.
Those first few days, there were always people around. Her ex-husband had delivered the news to their eight-year-old daughter and brought her up from Regina.
Smytaniuk noticed she started feeling uncomfortable around her young daughter. To Smytaniuk, it felt like whenever her daughter would see her, the girl's grief was intensified. Once everyone went home, she was overwhelmed with an irrational feeling.
"I felt like I had lost the right to be able to take care of living things," she said.
Taking care of her dog was overwhelming, she was afraid of being with her eight-year-old daughter by herself, and she even wanted someone to take away all of her house plants.
Life was not always easy for Smytaniuk but she always had her children to hold up as shining examples that she was doing something right. Ethan's death shook her confidence in a profound way.
She'd learned children who lose siblings to suicide are statistically at a higher risk of taking the same action. She was with her older son Cole on a daily basis. Meanwhile, eight-year-old Elizah had a solid support network and had started seeing a therapist, but Smytaniuk was worried her daughter had lost some of her spark.
They were told by counselors that it's important to be very honest with children.
"We always want to protect our children from these types of realities but if we don't give kids all the information they will make things up in their mind and often tend to blame themselves," said Smytaniuk.
On the February break, Elizah came to stay with her mom for the first time since Ethan's death, and Smytaniuk "had to fight the idea that she would be better off without me."
Smytaniuk said one of the most challenging things was re-establishing her role as mother. She gradually started spending more time with her daughter, and over the last seven months, she's been able to watch her daughter regain her enthusiasm for things in her life. Smytaniuk is proud of the progress she's made with this relationship.
"We faced it head on and we moved through it, and it's been really powerful and positive."
Starting a new life
Three months after Ethan's death, Smytaniuk had a conversation with a therapist that stuck with her. She confided that despite feeling strong most days, she had an overwhelming feeling that her life was over.
"She said to me, 'Well, your life did end. Your life as you knew it ended when Ethan died. Then it started again and you're now essentially an infant in that life.'"
That gave Smytaniuk the freedom to admit she didn't have to have it all figured out. She committed to not making any major life choices or changes for first year — she said she can't fully trust her emotions or thought processes at this time. She is working on what she describes as "peaceful healing," trying to stay in control of her thoughts.
"I can blame myself and think about how I could have done things differently, the 'what ifs', but none of that is helpful. I know if I get lost then I can go to a dangerous sort of spot and in all honesty, at this stage in the game, it still feels like a life or death situation for me."
Gratitude through grief
Smytaniuk said one of the most bizarre things she's experienced is that society as a whole seems a lot more comfortable when she's "not doing well".
"When they see me as strong, or staying in a place of gratitude they don't know how to respond. They feel they are helping me more if they can console me."
Smytaniuk is working on trying to stay in a place of gratitude, grateful for the close she formed with friends and family as they've supported one another through this tragedy.
Grateful that she was able to know and love her son for 15 years.
She tries to spend her energy focusing on the gifts that Ethan gave her and the world.
"I am a much better human being having parented him and I just need to continue down that path in my life to honour him."
Part of honouring Ethan's life and legacy is trying to make connections with his friends and other young people who may be struggling with mental health.
Smytaniuk said there's a lot of grief and shame when your child decides to end their life, but she said Ethan's life and his story are just too important to be silenced.
She used his eulogy as a platform to speak directly to Ethan's peers, and she remains active on social media so that she is easily accessible to Ethan's friends.
"Love is the most powerful thing. We honour that love we had for Ethan in the way we love one another, in the way we take care of each other," said Smytaniuk.
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there.
For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.
You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566, the Regina Mobile Crisis Services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.
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