'He was the guy you would go to if you were in trouble'

After his son took his own life, a father began helping others amid his trauma and grief.

As told to Sadaf Ahsan 9 minute read July 15, 2021
Jordan Project

Steve Phillip and his son Jordan in Italy, 2015. Supplied

Warning: This story contains content about suicide.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566

On December 4, 2019, Steve Phillip received a devastating phone call: his 34-year-old son Jordan’s girlfriend called to say he had taken his own life. In the year and a half since, Steve has spent much of his time working as an advocate for suicide prevention and workplace well-being in the United Kingdom, along with founding The Jordan Legacy in hopes of helping other families grieving for similar reasons find hope, comfort and understanding. He also hopes to help find creative solutions to prevent suicide, which begins with improving mental health and providing support for all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This month marks Jordan’s 36th birthday. He was a guy who had huge circles of friend, from his university days to where he’d lived in Leeds to his hometown in northwest U.K. In each one of those circles, at least one person considered Jordan to be his best friend.

In recent years, he worked in immigration and was very well thought of there for his caring attitude to those seeking asylum and immigration. During his life, he’d travel, and he had a lovely girlfriend, Charlotte, and a new home. So on the face of it, he had everything going for him.

Jordan was a very polite, generous, loving person, but he kept to himself quite a lot and that might have just been him protecting us from his depression, which was first clinically diagnosed in 2015. He had been experiencing that for many years, but to everyone else, he was the guy who did all the dance moves at the weddings and the parties. He was the guy you would go to if you’re in trouble. He was a guy that on a night out, you’d look back over your shoulders to see where he’d gone and he was there talking to an unhoused person. I learned a lot of these things after his death from his friends. I don’t think parents ever do fully know their kids when they grow up and go off and do things, but that was him.

When I found out what happened, it was hugely traumatic. I had been teaching a workshop just before it happened, and we had been texting and discussing chatting that night. I felt this regret, you know, that we didn’t end up speaking, that I could have done or said more. I think about that a lot. Recently, I had a little bit of a trigger moment, as I’ve taken to wearing Jordan’s Rolex watch that he was wearing at the time, but it’s been misbehaving a little bit. I took it to the local city centre jewellers to look after it and it’s registered to Jordan under the warranty still. Having to explain that it was my son’s watch and he died took me right back to those first few weeks where I had to speak to his bank, his mobile phone company, his investment companies, the utilities, and explain to them what had happened one after another. That’s the role I took on, dealing with all of the things that go with living a life. And that’s aside from the immediate aftermath of the coroner’s office, the funeral. It was a phenomenal amount of stuff to deal with.

But then there was the physical trauma as well. Although I was functioning on a daily basis, I was struggling to sleep. But I remember the doctor telling me, ‘You seem to be doing remarkably well.’ Weeks later, when I went for counselling at the request of my family, the therapist also said, ‘Well, you seem to be doing remarkably well.’ But my trauma manifested itself in physical twitching with my head, and convulsions where I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Those lasted for a few months, and now, I find every so often, if I’m dwelling or if a triggering moment that is close to what happened presents itself, I’ll feel those twitches again.

I just dealt differently. Shortly after my first therapy session, I booked a cottage and, as a family, including Charlotte, we all went away. It was a really good coming together and so, when I went to my next session the following week, 15 minutes in, I said I felt like I was doing okay and wasn’t sure why I was there. I remember the therapist saying, ‘Look, it could be that this just isn’t the right time for you. Come back when you need this.’ While I think therapy is an incredible and important resource, I’m someone who needs to see purpose and a reason behind doing things and I just couldn’t see that, so we agreed to pause there. I was talking to a good friend recently, and I said, ‘I’ve always been waiting for that moment where I suddenly have this complete meltdown, and it all just overwhelms and takes over me and I need help.’ And he said, ‘I don’t think that will happen to you, it’s not your nature, you’re equipped differently.’ That’s stayed with me.

Prior to Jordan’s death, I had been working in my own consultancy practice and specializing in social media training and coaching for businesses where LinkedIn was the key platform. After his death, I was making notes, documenting timelines and my own journal about how I was feeling each day and what was going on with the family. I felt like I needed to do something with all this information that I was learning about death and suicide. So I wrote an article about what happened and how I was dealing with it, and published it on LinkedIn. I wasn’t prepared for a global response. I started to get a lot of messages from people who were struggling. Even though I was clearly not a mental health expert, some saw me as someone who they could open up to and say, ‘I’m considering taking my own life, I kind of want to talk to you.’

I shared this with Jordan’s mother, who had been a psychiatric nurse for more than 20 years, and Charlotte, who was just about to submit her dissertation that month to become a clinical psychologist, and we formed a strategy and a guideline, telling people to contact their doctor, the ER or a crisis line, and it got me wondering how else I could help. That’s how The Jordan Legacy was formed in March 2020, and I soon realized that what I really wanted to focus on was how to prevent the practical act of suicide. If we understand it’s a practical act, surely we can put practical steps in place to prevent that act. We decided that if we treat the organization as a business and look at how we can work with communities and businesses, if we can go out to the communities and encourage people to work in a very practical way to prevent suicide, and have meaningful objectives and goals, then we’re likely to achieve much more than our government is doing.

The biggest thing I’ve learned through all this is just how prevalent suicide is. We hear the statistics — in the U.K., three times as many people die by suicideas they do by road traffic accidents — but when you’re receiving messages every day about the loss of life to suicide, the scale is staggering. I’ve also been heartened by the number of people trying to make a difference, their kindness and willingness to support this cause. I’ve learned just how broken the mental health care system is in our country, where we have the National Health Service (NHS), and where COVID has really exacerbated the existing issues, including the wait time to see a doctor whilst in crisis. The system needs a radical overhaul — and we need to start with our kids. We’re not equipping children from primary school through to high school with the tools they need to cope with the modern-day world. The education system keeps you on a linear journey, but there’s so little touching on the human attributes of life from from self-awareness to kindness to all the building blocks that you need as a human being to be able to function and cope with life. Instead, over time, they’re saddled with more goals, more standards to meet, more pressure to succeed, to find a job, and winning financially and emotionally crippling student loan debt by the end of it. The irony being that Jordan’s student loan debt was wiped away the day he took his own life.

I think a lot now about the impact of suicide on those left behind. If I were standing face-to-face with Jordan now, I would say, ‘You have no idea. You have absolutely no idea [what this did to me].’ Since then, I’ve had former colleagues who have been traumatized by the news after hearing about it a year later. His personal trainer, who I met at the funeral, was in floods of tears, his young school friends from years before were distraught. And then, as his family, we are still going through our grieving process. In sharing all of this, what I feel is a responsibility, and hope to be there for those who are left behind, too, because there’s nothing to hide. If it helps somebody by being as open as possible then it’s the right thing to do.

If you are struggling with mental health or thoughts about suicide, there is help. Here is a list of resources.

Other resources include:
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. Text CONNECT to 686868 or visit www.kidshelpphone.ca
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-330-6366
Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310. Online chat: www.hopeforwellness.ca
Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 
For Quebec residents: 1-866-APPELLE

This story is part of Healthing.ca’s series on grief. Read Why are people dying alone in our hospitals which explores hospital policies around death during the pandemic, A psychotherapist’s guide to surviving grief, and a daughter’s story about losing her father in ‘The last time I saw him, he was on a ventilator.”

Sadaf Ahsan is a Toronto-based culture writer, editor and stereotypical middle child. She can be reached here.