Sarah says her son Zak was intelligent, funny, well-loved, kind and thoughtful (Picture: Supplied)

To all who knew him, Zak Petherbridge was a normal, happy and funny teenager at the beginning of a bright university career.

When his mother received the news that he had taken his own life at his halls of residence at the age 18, she – along with all his friends and family – was shocked and devastated.

‘At no point in Zak’s life were there any signs of anxiety or mental ill health. He was intelligent, funny, well-loved, kind and thoughtful with a busy social life, part time job, a loving family and a huge group of friends,’ Sarah, Zak’s mother, tells Metro.co.uk.

But in the early hours of Thursday 15th October 2020, Sarah was woken from her sleep by banging on her front door. She assumed it was Zak coming home unexpectedly from Newcastle where he was living. She pulled on a dressing gown, climbed down the stairs and looked through the window. When she saw two police officers on the doorstep, she knew something was terribly wrong.

‘I opened the door with the most overwhelming feeling of dread inside me,’ she remembers. ‘I asked them if it was about my son.

‘They asked to come in. They said he was “deceased”. I remember thinking it was a really weird word to use. I asked how and why. 

‘The officer filled up when she had to tell me that he’d taken his own life. She told me: “That’s the worst part”. I said: “You must have the wrong person. He wouldn’t ever, ever do that.”’

When Sarah told the news to her daughter Freya, she was ‘destroyed’ says her mum (Picture: Supplied)

Sarah, 52, screamed and broke down. Her daughter, Freya, now 14, barricaded the door in her bedroom as she didn’t know what the commotion was downstairs. When Sarah told her the news, ‘Freya was destroyed’, she says, describing how close the two were.

Family members were contacted and friends sprung into action. Around Sarah, everyone mobilised, making the decisions that she couldn’t.

‘In the midst of this activity, I remember crying, screaming, saying over and over that I just wanted him to come home, that it was too much to bear, that I couldn’t do it,’ she recalls. ‘I felt like I was suffocating and could hardly breathe.’

The night before, everything had seemed fine when Zak and Sarah had been texting. He’d just started a new job at a supermarket and told her he was getting used to it, that his colleagues were lovely and college work was going well.

‘I actually wrote: “Are you happy with your life up there?” And he replied: “Yeah, I am.”’

The pair told each other they loved each other, and ended the chat.

PAPYRUS Prevention for Young Suicide

For practical, confidential suicide prevention help and advice please contact PAPYRUS HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967 or email [email protected]

‘Then he was gone’, Sarah, from Royston, South Yorkshire, tearfully recounts. ‘I’ve lost both my parents and a brother. I thought I understood grief. This is like nothing on earth.

‘Losing a child is the worst kind of grief that you can ever experience, and losing a child to suicide is like that grief with the volume turned up. He was such a special boy. He was funny, kind and thoughtful. He was so loved. A bright, shining light. We were incredibly close and I’d assumed our bond would keep him safe.’

Sarah is now speaking out in a bid to help others who have been bereaved in the same way, and to help remove the stigma around suicide, in the hope that people who are struggling feel able to talk about it. Along with PAPYRUS, a charity fighting to prevent young suicide, Sarah wants to raise awareness.

She says: ‘There had been no indication that this would happen. Nothing. He’d had a really great life. He always seemed happy and so together.

‘Even in hindsight, there is nothing to suggest the way he was feeling. He was working, he was at university where he wanted to go, Zak was doing what he wanted to do. He had a wide circle of friends, he was busy during lockdown. He never missed a day of work, he was never even late for work. He was incredibly intelligent. He just had a really bright future and a family who loved him dearly.

‘I’ve realised since losing Zak, if it could happen to my family, and my boy, it literally could happen to anyone.’

How you can help PAPYRUS

Join us on our amazing Metro.co.uk Lifeline challenge and help raise funds for PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide.

Just before midnight on Saturday 2 July, 2022, we’ll be heading off into the dark sky to climb England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike in the Lake District, for an unforgettable fundraising adventure.

Although our journey will start at night, to reflect the vital work the charity does in helping families and young people find light during their darkest times, it will finish just in time for us to catch the sun rise across the stunning scenery.

Registration costs £39 and fundraisers have to pledge to raise a miminum of £325 for PAPYRUS.

Places will be limited, so to take part sign up here.

Before he took his life, Zak left a deeply personal letter addressed to his mum and sister, explaining that he had been struggling with feelings of isolation and emptiness.

‘He said in his letter that when he was with me and his sister he felt able to push aside how he was feeling, but being without us up there had brought everything crashing down for him. It didn’t help that he was in isolation [due to Covid].

‘One of the hardest things I’ve struggled with is the thought that my child didn’t want to be alive. But one of the things I’ve learnt since is that it’s not that he didn’t want to be alive; he just didn’t want to be in pain.’

Sarah concludes that Zak must have been suffering from depression, but that he didn’t recognise it. He’d never sought help from his doctor, and had never spoken to friends about how he truly felt.

‘Zak might not have understood that was why he was feeling the way he was,’ says mum Sarah (Picture: Supplied)

‘Zak might not have understood that was why he was feeling the way he was. In theory he had everything, he had his uni place, lots of friends, a job, a bright future, an incredibly loving family. He could have been thinking “Why do I feel like this when I’ve got everything?”

‘There isn’t one thing that you can put right to make you stop feeling like that. And somewhere along the line it got worse, and was left unaddressed. He’d not spoken to anyone about it, who would have told him to go to the GP, possibly get some anti-depressants or mental health support.’

This is why it is so imperative for Sarah that parents talk about suicide to their kids, that friends don’t feel afraid to talk about it with each other.

‘I worry that the stigma around suicide leads to young people feeling that they can’t reach out,’ she explains. ‘It makes them too ashamed to talk about how they are feeling. I will never be able to reconcile what Zak has done with the person that I knew.

Zak shared a close bond with his little sister, Freya (Picture: Supplied)

‘The way that he hid that struggle, the way he functioned and continued to engage in every aspect of his life, that will never cease to amaze me. He and I were incredibly close, he knew he could come to me about anything, and he did come to me about most things. And I just wonder why he didn’t come to me about this.

‘So we need to talk about suicide. Say the word. I wonder if I had ever said to Zak, “Do you ever feel so sad that you might not want to be here?”, that could have been an opener for him. But for some reason we’re so frightened of saying it.

‘We need to ask our kids: “Have you ever felt like that? Does that sound like something you could identify with?” And just open up those lines of conversation. Don’t wait for them to seem not okay before having those difficult words.

‘We need to be having those conversations, even when everything seems okay.’

Sarah believes Zak may have been suffering with depression (Picture: Supplied)

Sarah says that since Zak died she has been to some very ‘dark places’, but somehow she has managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She keeps busy now – aside from her work as a screening and immunisation coordinator for NHS England, she reads a lot, writes, walks ten miles a day and visits Zak’s grave regularly, tending to it and keeping it nice.

‘I spend a lot of time with him. I talk to him a lot. I know that he wouldn’t want me to give up.’

And in July, Sarah, along with other bereaved family members and supporters, will climb England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, by moonlight, as part of Metro.co.uk’s 2022 Lifeline Campaign, in support of the young person suicide prevention charity, PAPYRUS.

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She says Zak will be with her for the challenge. ‘We walked and climbed a lot as a family,’ Sarah explains.

‘Zak loved walking up mountains and getting to the top. We climbed Ben Nevis and Helvellyn – we never did Scafell Pike together, though.

‘He had a trip planned to the Lakes and he never got to go on it. So I will feel him with me on that climb.’

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METRO.CO.UK LIFELINE 2022

This year sees the return of our brilliant charity campaign: Metro.co.uk Lifeline.

Our aim is simple – to raise as much money as possible for charity with YOUR help.

For 2022 we have chosen to support PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide, a vital organisation that works hard to reduce the number of young people who take their own lives.

As well as sharing their story to help raise awareness, readers, charity supporters and celebrities will also be taking on England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, at night on July 2, 2022.

Click here to find out more and sign up.

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