Paul Shanks took his own life in 2007. The incredibly powerful and personal BAFTA-nominated documentary Kingdom Of Us – directed by Lucy Cohen – details the Shanks family’s story of loss, bereavement and their journey through poignant childhood memories.
In this, Part 2 of CALM’s Kingdom Of Us long-read, we discuss the experience of making the film with Paul’s wife, Vikie, and their seven children Jamie, Kacie, twins Lorie and Mirie, Nikita, Osborn and Pippa. Catch up on Part 1 here.
CALM: What was the family's motivation for wanting to make this film?
LORIE: Initially, the idea of the film was to explore the way people with autism deal with a trauma. Which would have hopefully helped people on the spectrum understand themselves better by living through us and our experience. The biggest motivation for me personally was raising awareness about mental health and autism. If my dad had accepted the help he needed when my mum tried to get him to see doctors I believe he would still be here today.
OSBORN: The suicide of a loved one can flip your life upside down. Recovering from an event like this can take years, not only emotionally, but in many other ways too. The repercussions of suicide can potentially tear families apart and ruin lives forever. Raising awareness of this can encourage people suffering from depression and other mental illnesses to be open about their feelings and seek help. Being aware of how your loved ones could be suffering is just as important. If you notice signs of mental illness in a loved one, you have more power to aid them in being open about their feelings, which can start the journey of recovery. Understanding that we aren’t alone lifts some of the burden of mental illness off our shoulders.
Knowing that by sharing our story, our issues, our struggles we could help other people... it really kept us going when the future of the film was uncertain.
PIPPA: Honestly? We had no idea where it was going. It began as a documentary about autism. Then, to be a six part series on mental health and autism. After that we thought we'd make it a cinematic film. We eventually landed on a documentary about us. Which, in itself, covers all those things.
I had my doubts at times. However, I came to the conclusion that if I’m saving lives, then it will all be totally worth it! Although it was hard to be so open, I know I have saved lives. The number of messages I received after Kingdom Of Us was released was crazy. I even had someone name their dog after me!
These people told me that after seeing the film, they decided to get help. Complete strangers to me were opening up to me and telling me their story.
MIRIE: If I’m honest, we never really knew where the film/documentary was going to go and who or how many people were going to see it. So our main motivation and hope was just that whoever, if anyone, saw it would hopefully feel they could come to terms with how they are feeling and also feel that they can actually ask someone for help.
KACIE: The struggle after dad's passing was a storm we almost didn't make it through. All we had was each other. When Lucy came to us with the idea, we all knew that if anything could have given us the crutch we needed at the time, it would have been the comfort of knowing we weren't alone. I think for us making the film was going to give others that comfort in their hour of need. Whilst it was obviously quite therapeutic for us, a problem shared is a problem halved, we can all ride through the storm of mental health and the loss of loved ones through suicide together.
The number of messages I received after Kingdom Of Us was released was crazy. I even had someone name their dog after me! These people told me that after seeing the film, they decided to get help. Complete strangers to me were opening up to me and telling me their story.
JAMIE: There was so much motivation for wanting to make the documentary. It started with Lucy coming along to film for a half an hour long documentary but, as time went on, she realised how open and honest we all were with talking about our dad, the impact of his death and our own struggles. I think she saw something that none of us did. We were just being ourselves and staying true to that throughout the entire film. The biggest motivation for me especially was not only to help people experiencing a bereavement from suicide, but to encourage those struggling with their mental health to seek help. You should see it as your drive to seek the help you need to enable you to live as fulfilling a life as you deserve. My dad has missed out on so many things since his death, and he will miss out on so much more, which saddens me because it’s not just the upset it will cause us for all of our futures, but it’s the future that he is sadly missing out on too. We received a message from a man who lives in a different continent to us, telling us he had a wife and two young daughters; he had set a date for taking his own life but one of his friends knew of his struggles with depression and recommended our documentary to him. He messaged us to say that he was now seeking help as not only did he not want to put his daughters and wife through that, but that he deserved a second chance at living a life, his life. That was one of the most incredible feelings for us as a family as we all felt that if we could save just one person with our film, then we have achieved more than we ever hoped. Mental health is something we each have our own personal struggles with and we are all now advocating for the mental health system, not just in this country but all around the world, be given the same care as the physical health system, and something needs to change.
VIKIE: The film happened very slowly, and then, very quickly! From my perspective, I was motivated by the people around us who were so passionate about making the film and had such huge belief in there being a story that needed to be told. I was also very aware that such a brutally honest film would probably do more to help people than the sugarcoated dramatisations that we normally see.
NIKITA: When the process of the film started, we didn’t know what was going to happen, where it was going to go or if it was even going to happen at all, because we have had so many projects in the past where nothing had come of them. But we all wanted to help others who had gone through similar situations to ours. Knowing that by sharing our story, our issues, our struggles and how we overcame those struggles, we could help other people, it really kept us going when the future of the film was uncertain. And that it is exactly what it has done, the number of messages we have received and tweets has been overwhelming, so knowing it has helped thousands of people is incredible.
CALM: It's incredible that your family has shared this story - we know it will help others. What might you say to anyone who has or is experiencing a bereavement by suicide?
JAMIE: If you are suffering with bereavement from suicide, one thing I will say is that it’s totally normal to feel anger, denial and abandonment. They are all very normal, human reactions to have to suicide, but PLEASE, do NOT hold it against them. Imagine being so desperate that the only way out YOU could see, is to take your own life. I spent seven years feeling glad that my dad was dead, I’m not ashamed to admit that, he put me and my family through hell and I felt so much anger that he’d just abandoned us after putting us through that hell that I couldn’t forgive him, but after seven years and hours and hours of therapy, I forgave him, because it wasn’t him that killed himself, it was the demons he was battling with his mental illness that killed him. I now feel emotions of great upset and frustration that we didn’t see the signs before it was too late and maybe we could have saved him if we had...
If you are suffering with a loss from suicide, speak to people. Seek help. Look after your own mental health and then hopefully, you will empower others to do the same, and you could potentially save a life.
LORIE: To anyone who is contemplating taking their own life: it will get better. You will get stronger. Go and seek help, you may feel like your presence on this earth is worth nothing, but I know there will be family members, friends or even a pet that would miss you indefinitely. There’s only one person in the world who you can be, and that’s to be you.
KACIE: You are not alone. We stand together. It may well hurt forever, but it hurts less together.
If there's one thing the world doesn't need to be short of it's love. Just a little kindness is all this sad world needs.
MIRIE: I know quite a lot of people who have gone through a similar experience and many of those spoke about how they felt ashamed and even embarrassed that their parent would do so such a thing and when asked how they passed away, would already have made up reason that they’ve always answered that question with. But I found that talking to people who have gone through a similar experience, with complete honesty helps them to stop feeling angry, ashamed or disappointed in that person. Subsequently, that can result people into going into another stage of grief, because then they start to feel guilt, helplessness and wishing they could turn back time to help that person. Change in grief is completely normal though in my experience and unfortunately also seems to be a never-ending process. You might feel at one point for maybe three months that you’re happy the person is now free of any dark demons that might have controlled their life, however, you may then go through a two year period of feeling angry at that person again. But this is why we, as a family, find ourselves frequently talking about it because our feelings towards the event change and it can be good to hear different thoughts. So my personal advice to others is to talk about it. The more you talk about to people who have gone through the same thing helps a tremendous amount.
Everyone grieves in their own way. It is okay to cry. It is okay to need time off. Most importantly, it is okay to ask for help.
OSBORN: Losing a loved one to suicide can be very hard to deal with. It’s easy to become stuck in thinking about why and how it could have happened. When it comes to recovering it is important to remember some important truths. Firstly, it was not your fault. People often blame themselves, thinking that maybe if they had done something different, it never would have happened. Remind yourself regularly that no one is to blame, not even you. It’s also just as important to know that if you want to move on with your life, you must accept what has happened. This doesn’t mean forget or ignore what has happened, but to understand that this is how life is now. This is very hard, but learning to do this will allow you to see life’s beauty again. The future will be better than the past if you want it to be. Lastly, remember to support one another. Everyone will be struggling in the aftermath of suicide, so mutual love, support and respect for each other’s feelings will help all those affected to focus on recovering. Things are never as bad as they seem. Always find a reason to smile, even if that reason be small.
PIPPA: If I'm being totally honest, there's nothing you can say. The most frustrating thing for me to hear was “it will get easier”. Although that's a comforting thought, it's not true. It doesn't get easier. But, you do find ways of dealing with it better. 11 years later and I still cry as much as I did the day he died.
Everyone grieves in their own way. The only thing I can really say, and I've only learned this myself very recently, do NOT push it to the back of your mind. It may help in the short term, but it will always be there and, at some point, you have to let it out. It is okay to cry. It is okay to need time off. It is okay to take medication. Most importantly, it is okay to ask for help.
Stay open to life yourself and experience the grief knowing that one day you will be able to move on.
VIKIE: Bereavement by suicide is so hard as it leaves so many questions and emotions behind. Paul left a 13-page suicide note and it still doesn’t explain why he took his own life and why he felt that was the only path left open to him. Suicide is the ultimate statement a person can make; to remove yourself from the world and the people who love you permanently is something that no amount of reasoning can ever resolve. The questions always remain, but over time I’ve come to understand that this was Paul’s decision and there probably wasn’t anything I could have done differently to prevent it. Stay open to life yourself and experience the grief knowing that one day you will be able to move on. My favourite saying is by David Rossi from Criminal Minds: ‘Scars remind us where we’ve been, they don’t have to dictate where we’re going’.
Children are incredibly resilient and they can come through such a devastating tragedy. If I’ve learnt anything from watching my children’s grieving process, it’s that they all grieve in very different ways. There is no right or wrong and some of them only started grieving properly years after the event. All I could do was be there for them, let them know that I loved them and reassure them that I wouldn’t leave them in the same way (something that became a massive fear for them). If I could find appropriate outside help I would but help for children bereaved by suicide is very thin on the ground. Most of the time, all I could do was hug them and hope that that would be enough and a lot of the time it was enough to get them through another day.
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