NEELAM SHARMA ON HOW THE HEARTBREAK OF HER SON’S SUICIDE LED THE FAMILY TO RAISE AWARENESS ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
by MITA MISTRY
Devoted parents Dinesh Kumar and Neelam Sharma had the most terrible nightmare when their son Akash aged just 21 committed suicide in 2015.
The heartbroken couple from Ilford in East London coped with their immense grief by setting up the Sky Sharma Foundation in loving memory of Akash to raise awareness of mental health and help those in need.
Although her heart will never fully heal, Neelam along with her family is carrying forward the spirit of her son who was affectionately known as Sky.
Neelam shared the story of what led to the tragic suicide, how she coped and the ray of light that emerged during her darkest hour.
Apart from the usual struggles every family faces, Neelam’s was a happy home with a husband, two daughters and her son Akash, who was the youngest. “Akash, right from a very young age, was a multi-talented child. What ever he put his mind to, he could easily do it, whether it was building computers, singing, composing music, cooking or DIY. He did it all effortlessly,” explained Neelam with a fond smile.
Akash came out about his sexuality to his mother when he was around 17-years-old and then to his father a year later. Both parents were fully supportive of his choice. A very outgoing, confident and caring person, Akash would help others irrespective of who they were.
“He was a sympathetic listener and gave good advice. Sometimes I thought he was too wise for me. It was like he knew the answers to everything. He was soft-hearted and loved by all, including strangers. Perhaps, being highly respected by his friends made him feel weak if he spoke about how he was feeling to anyone,” she said.
Whatever inner turmoil Akash was going through remained hidden inside him. On Friday, September 25, 2015, Neelam came home from work to her husband, daughter and son-in-law and Akash, who was in his room working on starting up a computer business. He was laughing, joking and asking his mother to make him dinner. The next day there was a baby shower event the family was invited to, but Akash was unusually quiet. “I didn’t question him thinking he probably had a tiff with his friends and would be back to his usual self. He borrowed the family car and I asked him to make sure he arrives to the family function as everyone would be waiting for him.
“Akash didn’t come to the event. I came home early from the function and saw him leaving the house. I asked him to let me in as I did not have the keys, which he quietly did before walking away. I reminded him that his sisters and everyone would be waiting for him, but he didn’t respond.”
Neelam noticed her son was unusually quiet and on Sunday messaged to see if he was okay. She texted and phoned, but he didn’t respond. Thinking that he may have been up all night working on his project and sleeping in his room, Neelam didn’t disturb her son any further. Having had an exhausting weekend, she went to bed early on Sunday. The next day, Akash was supposed to take the car to his university but was nowhere to be seen. “I phoned him, but he didn’t respond and as I was getting late for work, and again I didn’t disturb him. But while at work, I had a gut feeling that something was not right. I kept calling and messaging him, but there was no response. I left work early at lunchtime, came home and knocked on his bedroom door. I kept knocking, but there was no answer. I asked his dad if had seen him and he hadn’t. I had spare keys to his room and opened his door,” explained Neelam with sadness in her voice.
She found him in the room, and her perfect world suddenly fell apart. Sometime over the weekend, Akash had taken his own life and it was something no one had seen coming. “I didn’t see it coming considering he was surrounded by love. I’d told him he could speak to me whenever he wanted. He was close to his sisters and got whatever he wanted. No one refused him anything. Just one day he was quiet and the next day, he was gone,” she said.
The tragic incident devastated the entire family. Neelam went into shock, was in a state of disbelief and says her emotions were everywhere. Nobody could understand why this could have happened to someone who was so talented, loved and had their whole life in front of them. “I was confused, lost and my heart had unbearable pain. There are no words to describe that pain. I didn’t understand what happened and why. I felt maybe I said or done something wrong. This tragedy destroyed me and my entire family, including his sisters and father. Nobody could understand what had happened with him to take this drastic step.”
Although the close-knit family had a supportive network of friends and loved ones, the sudden demise of Akash made them all feel like they were dying on the inside. They supported one another during the difficult time and carried on the best they could. “For a mother, there really is no healing process. You can never heal from losing your child to suicide. But, along with my pain, which I keep buried inside me, I had to be a mother to his older sisters and wife to my husband, so responsibilities kicked in.”
The healing process started by setting up non-profit organisation Sky Sharma Foundation, named after their son. Neelam and her husband didn’t want another family to go through the pain of losing a child. They wanted to encourage conversations and raise awareness about mental health, especially in the Asian community where it isn’t discussed. Their son had never been diagnosed with any mental health issue, but was going through something silently and they wanted to encourage those in similar situations to talk about it. The charity raising awareness of mental health and wellbeing has got a great response. “We decided to focus on mental health as few of his friends have had mental health issues and they have said, if it weren’t for Akash they would not be here today. We also found that mental illness is an invisible disease in the Asian community due to the stigma and taboo associated with it.”
The charity has come a long way from when it started and today works with various other organisations, including partnering with the Heads Together charity run by the royal family, Jo Dealey from The Improved You, NELFT NHS Foundation Trust and suicide prevention sanctuary MayTree.
“We have held mental health awareness classes in the library, university and other organisations. We run workshops in schools with children from the age of 10 years on how to change negative thoughts into positive ones. We also speak to people in our community about the importance of supporting others and seeking help if you are suffering.
“The charity has listened to people who have contacted us. We personally don’t give any professional advice as we are not trained, but we provide guidance on where to seek help.”
Although Neelam continues her own healing journey, she has learned a lot of lessons along the way, including the importance of communication and not assuming anything. The Sky Sharma Foundation has had positive feedback and she remains hopeful for the future.
“After starting the charity, we realised how many people are suffering and not getting the help they need. I’ve also met parents who are going through the same situation after losing their loved ones. We feel privileged that we can help others. We couldn’t save our Akash, but there are so many like him out there who may be suffering. A person who is in pain will do anything to end their pain, but the loved ones are left in pain for the rest of their lives. We hope our message gets across and hope others will join us on this journey.”
Visit www.skysharmafoundation.com for more