The ripple effect of the untimely death of a son, a brother and a friend

Tyler Gilbert died in the early hours of January 7, 2017. His death is a suspected suicide that set off a ripple effect devastating his family, his friends and his workmates. Helen Harvey reports.

They ring his cell phone over and over leaving message after message.

“We love you, please don’t do this.”

“Whatever the problem is we can sort it out.”  “There’s nothing too big we can’t sort out.”

But all they hear is his voice on the answer phone: “It’s Tyler. Don’t leave a message, cos I won’t call you back.”  

Tyler’s family were woken about 3.30am by loud banging.  Tyler’s stepfather S’ean Warren, still half asleep, opened the door to find Dylan Green, Tyler’s best mate, freaking out on his doorstep.  

Dylan, 19, had just received a Snapchat from Tyler saying he was sorry, but he had to go. He didn’t want to be miserable anymore. 

As they started to look for Tyler all over the small Taranaki town of Inglewood, S’ean wasn’t too worried. He thought perhaps Tyler’s text had been a cry for help.

He was sure they would find his stepson walking along the road or slumped over “half pissed” or passed out somewhere.

Running out of places to look S’ean went to Dylan’s house where he was met by a police officer.  They’d found Tyler.

“He basically said to me, what are you like with bad news, mate? I just screamed, man. Screamed like I’ve never screamed in my life,” S’ean says.

When S’ean walked back through his front door he didn’t say anything. He just shook his head. At that moment, Tyler’s Mum, Karen Gilbert, felt as if her heart was being ripped from her chest. 

“I knew they must have found him, but I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want him to be gone. I felt lost, like I was inside out. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how I should be feeling. How I should be handling the people in my house… police. I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted him to come back.” 

gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The ripple effect of the untimely death of a son, a brother and a friend

Dylan was woken by his phone. He had a Snapchat from Tyler. The message propelled him out of bed. Dylan frantically checked his house and the yard, before sprinting – faster than he had ever run in his life – over to Tyler’s parents.

“I was freaking out. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to feel.”

He still doesn’t know how to feel. And he can’t stop thinking about that night, going over and over it in his head. 

“It’s always in the back of my head. It’s always kind of there, it’s not an hour of the day thing, it’s kind of always there. It’s sitting there and certain things will trigger it to, like, the top of your mind and you can’t stop thinking about it. It kind of sucks really. It sucks massive.”

His thoughts keep him awake at night and torment him during the day. 

So, every week he books an appointment with his GP.  And every week he cancels it.

“I’m trying to get help. It’s way too hard. I’m a bit out the gate really. Empty as. I’ve known Tyler for years, even when he was down he wouldn’t be down around other people, because he didn’t want to ruin their vibe sort of thing. He’d be down and (say) ‘It’s all good bro. I’ll be sweet. Just get a beer in me and she’ll be mint’. Looking back the drinking might have been a cover up.”

It’s a cover up for Dylan. He’s starting to drink a lot to give himself a break from the noise in his head, he says.

“The temporary numbness is keeping me going. It’s like I’m in China and I can’t understand what people are saying. I’m here, but on another planet. I can’t sleep. I have nightmares.”  

And he has so many questions for his mate to help him to understand the reasons behind Tyler’s decision.

“He was acting so normal that night. Why and how could it have been changed, so he would have stayed and been with us?”  

Dylan has lots of what ifs. Like what if, when he and Tyler went on a road trip to Thames, he had taken a bit more notice of what his mate had been saying.

It is doing Dylan’s head in thinking Tyler may have been dropping hints.

“Like, ‘bro what would you do if I passed away? Would you look after my family?’  I said, ‘it goes without saying’. It didn’t seem out of it when he was saying it, it was typical sitting there pissed and talking. Now I think, why didn’t I pick up on that?”

gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The ripple effect of the untimely death of a son, a brother and a friend

Karen sits down, sweeping her hair back from her face. She is alternating between laughing and crying. Articulate, strong, exhausted, she jokes that while it’s hard talking about Tyler, it’s kind of therapeutic.

By February, Tyler’s ashes are in a box on a small table and her life is slowly stumbling forward.  Karen and S’ean were continuing to plan their March wedding. Tyler was supposed to be best man.

But for Karen the question remains – why? She looks into the distance.

“Are you happy? Are you getting help where you are that you couldn’t get here,” she asks.

Like Dylan she describes how empty she feels. Like there is a piece of her soul missing. And it’s never coming back.  

“One minute you’re OK and the next minute you just burst into tears for no reason. But there is a reason.”

And she second guesses herself as a parent and wonders if people are looking at her and asking what did she do in her life that she lost a child this way?

“What did I do different with him? What did I do with the girls I didn’t do with him? Is there anything that I left out? Was it because I didn’t read him a bedtime story? Was it because I didn’t help him with his homework as I should have? Did I not spend enough time with him?  All those things go through your head and they always will. “

Sometimes she is angry with Tyler and hates what he has done. Sometimes she judges herself and worries about how to protect her three girls. And sometimes it feels like her whole family is falling apart.

“When you lose someone, if it’s cancer or a car accident or heart attack, in a way I can kind of understand it because there’s something behind it. But with (this), to us, to those left behind, there is no reasoning that we can understand.  It bloody sucks.”

Tyler knew what it’s like to lose a friend that way, she says. He was devastated when a friend died a couple of years ago.

“But it’s a whole different thing to put your family through it. If the people who took their life could see what it does…”

Emma Warren runs in and out of the room, chatting, laughing, keeping an eye on what’s going on. Then suddenly, she’s in tears, rushing to her dad, and Tyler’s stepdad, S’ean for a cuddle.

They don’t want to hide things from Emma, but on the other hand she is still very young.

She’s struggling so much, Karen says.

“It’s not like she can talk to her 7-year-old friends at school. That was her big brother who was meant to look after her and he said he would look after her. She says, it’s not fair.”

Emma’s big sister Kennedy Gilbert doesn’t think it’s fair either. She thinks it’s sh…y.

At first, she thought it was a joke.  “I was like nah, he didn’t. It was a surprise. I still think it’s fake, even now.”

Tyler was a big part of her life, Kennedy, 16, says. He was pretty cool. He was the one she talked to when she had problems at home. He helped her through.

“It’s hard. Everyone feels like they have lost a piece of themselves, like a piece of my childhood.”

Kennedy and Tyler shared a talent for drawing and when she’d show him what she’d done he would hype it up, she says.

“He’d say how much he liked it. That was pretty cool.”

She had some art she was especially proud of and wanted to show him, but she didn’t get the chance.

Tyler probably felt he’d fulfilled his life and he’d done enough, Kennedy says.

“He wasn’t happy and he felt there was nothing that could happen that would change how he could feel.”

gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The ripple effect of the untimely death of a son, a brother and a friend

When staff come into work at aluminium joinery company Nu Look New Plymouth they have to walk past Tyler’s workspace. A couple of Tyler’s tools are still where he left them.  

Things like that can be mentally quite tough, owner Wayne O’Neill says.  

“When you lose a member like that it has an effect. Our world had been turned upside down. We really liked the fella. It was just awful.”

On the Monday after Tyler died the whole company met together for a couple of hours, phones turned off. And they talked.

The guys were stunned, Wayne says.

“There was emotion. I said to the guys if you’ve got any problems going on in your lives we’re here, come and see us. I might not have the answers, probably won’t, but I can find someone that has. Because it wasn’t apparent with Tyler, he clearly bottled things.” 

He shut the business for the day of the funeral, which he was honoured to be asked to speak at, he says.

If Tyler had been able to stand up in his coffin and see how popular he was…he had so many friends, Wayne says.

“Unbelievable. All these young kids and they were so upset. I thought man you’re such a popular kid… wouldn’t have taken much to sort out a couple of his demons.”

Wayne only knew Tyler for year.

“I found him a very quiet chap, a really good worker, never once complained, he turned up day in day out and did his job.  He was probably a deep fellow, bit different, bit intense personality in terms of not saying much.”  

Like everyone else close to Tyler, Wayne has what ifs too. Could they have done something?

“You beat yourself up like that for a few days, then you come to the come to realisation there was nothing we could have done. We never once thought he would go to those levels. We’re reasonably at peace, that unfortunately, there was nothing we could have done in hindsight.”

The company planted a tree in Tyler’s memory, which gave them closure, he says.

“It’s important –  life goes on.”

gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The ripple effect of the untimely death of a son, a brother and a friend

Karen and S’ean are worn out. They’re emotionally drained, physically drained and, as awesome as people have been, visitor drained.

Some days they just want to hide from the world.

There’s a stigma. People don’t know what to say to them anymore, even hello seems too hard. Their friends don’t know what to do or say.

Friends they’ve had for ages see them and just clam up, Karen says.

But she understands, she says. She’s Tyler’s mum and she doesn’t know what to say.

Sometimes just hello will do.

“People don’t like saying the word. It happens. It’s not meant to happen, but it does. 

“When Tyler died I said to S’ean we have to do something. There are too many of these kids.”

The couple want to focus on helping young guys like Tyler.

So, they came up with an idea around the use of a yellow ribbon. At Tyler’s funeral, during the eulogy, they said: ‘if you’re hurting send a friend a private message with a yellow ribbon.’

There is a long association of a yellow ribbon and suicide and the couple have been talking to the team at health and social services provider Tui Ora working through different options trying to decide which one will work the best with what they are hoping to achieve.

gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The ripple effect of the untimely death of a son, a brother and a friend

But at the moment they are concentrating on making it through the day, S’ean says.

“We say we are going to do something, but we can wake one morning and want to stay in bed, because you don’t want to face the world. Keeping appointments is so hard.” 

And they don’t want to do anything before they are ready. They are determined that whatever they set up will be effective. They want it to be set up correctly.

Tyler’s death has opened their eyes to the suicide rate in teens and young people, he says.

And they are keeping their eye on Tyler’s mate, Dylan, and have offered to support him, make sure he gets the help.

“I get angry with Tyler for putting this onto people in a way.”

One night S’ean got worried when he couldn’t get hold of Dylan, so put a message out on Facebook.

“I just needed to know he was all right.”

And Dylan has been listening. One night when he was feeling really bad he put a yellow ribbon on Facebook and a couple of his mates messaged him, checking he was all right.  

It’s now April. Karen and S’ean were married on March 11. Tyler was supposed to be best man. He was included in the ceremony, S’ean said.  

The couple have now become home bodies. They are taking one at a time as they move forward in their life without Tyler.

Where to get help

Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz

0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).