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Why it’s still difficult to make sense of the loss of our son
4:30pm Thursday 19th September 2013 in Wiltshire
One of the hardest jobs a journalist has to do is to interview people who have lost a child – particularly if that death is sudden and unexpected.
Meeting Rachel Filer-Higginson, Ashley Higginson and their children Joshua and Hallie-Jane was no exception.
Many people may feel as they read this article that I, as a journalist, am invading the privacy of a family in grief. However, that’s not true. This interview was a mutual decision discussed over several months to share the journey these parents have taken.
Today they still struggle to come to terms with the death of their son William, known as Will. For them, many questions are still unanswered. His death was reported in a national newspaper as a suicide after Will had been taking a drug known as meow meow. Indeed, his parents believed for weeks that drugs may have been involved. However, no drugs were found in his system.
That was the spring of 2010. Will, 18, had been found by a local dogwalker in a field in Chippenham. Attempts to revive him failed.
“It was Monday, March 1,” Mrs Filer-Higginson tells me as she sits in the kitchen of her home in Oaklands in Chippenham.
“The kids had gone to school and Ashley said he’d just bumped into Will who’d said he would be up later. We were upstairs stripping the beds as we usually did on a Monday, when the front door bell rang. We thought it was Will and he’d lost his keys again.
“I saw this high-vis coat through the door and it was a young woman police officer and she looked at me and said they’d found Will and he had hung himself and he was dead. She just wouldn’t shut up. He’d been airlifted to Swindon but I couldn’t see him for ages. You just keep hoping that it isn’t true because your kid wouldn’t have done that to you, he wouldn’t have hurt you so much.”
Quietly Mr Higginson, stepdad to Will since he was four, also relives those moments.
“I was walking back from taking the children to school. I didn’t get home until 8.50am that morning and I saw Will who said ‘tell Mum I’ll be up later.’ “When Rachel went downstairs to answer the door, I just heard terrible screaming. There was a WPC, she didn’t know what to do with Rachel and we had to call our GP. Life as we knew it ended that day. I don’t think we slept for weeks after that.”
There’s another side to Will’s story which is still tormenting his mum and dad.
Will had learning difficulties. From a very early age, it was clear he was different to other children. He couldn’t concentrate on anything for very long and he couldn’t keep still. He was statemented with a diagnosis of ADHD and went to various schools in Wiltshire where he was generally encouraged.
Although he couldn’t read or write by the age of eight, he went on to learn and exceed all expectations.
Mrs Filer-Higginson said: “My son never ceased to make me proud. I remember one sports day at school, there was a boy in the three-legged race who didn’t have a partner and no one seemed to want to be with him. Will tied their legs together and off they went. They came last – but they were the winners that day as the parents cheered them across the line.”
However, when he turned 16, things began to change.
“There’s very little support for teenagers like Will, who have hidden disabilities, once they leave the school system,” Mr Higginson said.
“And that’s got to change. Will was not mature enough to cope on his own. I don’t think he matured beyond age ten or 11.
“He wasn’t so severely affected that his need was very obvious but he just couldn’t integrate or understand other people in the same way as most of us. Anyone who knew him, and talked to him, would soon spot he was special.
“He so wanted to cope on his own but it didn’t work – and the problem was that we didn’t know how badly it wasn’t working until it was too late.”
Will wanted to leave home and he went to extraordinary lengths to make it happen.
“Once he went to the police station to say that we’d kicked him out,” Mrs Filer-Higginson said. “I told them to send him home as his tea was ready.
“We understood he wanted some independence and when he was offered accommodation he was thrilled but he was still here a lot of the time.”
Will was given a placement in accommodation which supports disadvantaged young people. His parents thought he was happy but now they are not so sure.
“One of the rules of the home was that no alcohol was allowed. Will saw another young man drinking alcohol and told on him.
“This was not well received. But Will had a thing about boundaries,” Mr Higginson said.
At the inquest into his death, statements from friends also suggested that he’d been taunted racially.
The most shocking revelation was that Will had apparently made three previous attempts to take his own life.
“We didn’t find this out until the inquest. When we questioned it we were told that he was 18 and he was entitled to his confidentiality. In my view, this was wrong,” Mr Higginson said.
“If we had had any idea that he felt so fed up we could have done something. He never showed that side of himself to us. He just walked with a smile,” Mrs Filer-Higginson said.
His parents believe that Will’s dream to join the Army had an effect on his mental health – a dream which could never come true.
“He did an Army preparation course. He really saw it as the opportunity to have a new life, a career,” said Mrs Filer-Higginson.
“But he would never have been accepted because of the medication he had to take for his ADHD. He was told this but it just didn’t seem to register. When he finished the course, we were told that physically he was perfect but it just wasn’t going to happen.”
The couple have now decided to engage in a campaign to raise £20,000 to set up a helpline for other young people in Wiltshire who are similarly vulnerable.
“We created Will’s Friends to raise awareness of people like Will who need some extra support. If I won the lottery, I’d set up a residential home for people like Will where they would feel safe with other adults around to ensure that they couldn’t be exploited but they could have some independence.”
- No one knows how many adults with learning disabilities suffer abuse. It’s sometimes now known as ‘hate crime’.
- A report by the NHS’s Information Centre in March said there had been a 24 per cent rise in ‘safeguarding alerts’ around vulnerable adults between 2011 & 2012.
- The next fundraising event for Will’s Friends is a family fun day on Saturday, between 1.30pm and 4pm at Whychurch Farm (the Worthys), Malmesbury. Yellow balloons will be released in Will’s memory at 3pm.