‘I suppose in some ways, everything changed. So much changed on that day.’ These are the words of a father who has unexpectedly lost his young son; these are Graeme Skinner’s memories of the day that he heard the news of Jim’s death. His wife, Philippa, adds: ‘Everything has changed, really; us and our three other children; we’re all different, and every time we meet…every birthday party ? or whatever event it is ? we know that Jim isn’t there.’
In the summer of 2003, 17-year-old Jim Skinner travelled to Hong Kong to spend four weeks working with missionary and author of the best-selling Chasing the Dragon, Jackie Pullinger. Jim had a special relationship with Jackie, who he had met three years previously while at Soul Survivor. Enthralled by her seminars on overcoming addiction, Jim had spent most of the week with her team, given his life to Jesus, and then shared his testimony of how he had done so in a meeting of 4,000 people.
Jim’s newfound teenage faith was at times strong, and at times shaky. Only months before he went to Hong Kong, Philippa found a stash of cannabis hidden in one of his socks. ‘It came as an enormous shock to us, naïve parents that we were,’ she says.
When Jim received the invitation from Jackie to go out to Hong Kong to work alongside the drug addicted and marginalised with Jackie’s charity, St Stephen’s Society, he initially said: ‘What’s the point of me going? I’m not even a Christian.’ Jackie’s response by email was, ‘Never mind that, just come and do some good.’
A root meaning of 'bereavement' is 'robbed'... and that is what it feels like
Graeme and Philippa were delighted when Jim decided to take up Jackie’s offer, sensing that the challenge might help his confidence in himself and God. Philippa describes Jim on his return to the UK as ‘transformed’. ‘It did massive things for his confidence and it showed him a different way of being.’
But as the pressures of A levels and the influence of his friends in the UK crept back into Jim’s life, he returned to smoking cannabis. He realised he had a problem, however, and one night came to his parents’ bedroom sobbing and saying that he didn’t want to be like this. He decided that after his A levels, he would return to work with Jackie. ‘He was really quite lost, and it did seem like a good choice,’ Philippa says.
Life in community
Returning to work at St Stephen’s long-term meant Jim becoming fully involved in community life. This didn’t fully live up to his expectations, Philippa explains. ‘He foresaw a life of miracles and healings and being a strong man among the gangs, [but] they all have to do chores, follow the rules, sweep the floors and chop vegetables.’
Jim and his parents regularly wrote to one another. Philippa says: ‘We’ve got amazing letters from him because he wrote them over days. One moment he would write, “I love this place, I love these people,” and then he would pick his letter up again later, and he would be swearing and saying all kinds of negative things. We would think, “Oh, crumbs.” And then on the next page it would be, “Sorry about that, I feel better again.”’
The mood swings expressed through Jim’s letters were perhaps representative of his psychological and emotional state. ‘There was an up and down-ness in him,’ Graeme says. Jim wrestled with whether to remain at St Stephen’s long-term, or return to England. Two years after his arrival in Hong Kong, he went back to his family home in Manchester.
‘We knew, as soon as he walked into the house, that something was wrong. He was clearly unhappy,’ Philippa says. ‘He was very confused. The whole family came out to see him and he couldn’t even look at us. It was devastating.’
A hard few months were to ensue, with Jim regretting his decision to return to the UK. Philippa describes those few months as disastrous for him. Jim left Manchester for London, where his parents believe he first got hold of heroin.
Jim soon returned to Hong Kong ? but this time with a heroin problem, and in a poor state of health. After a few weeks he wrote his parents a positive letter, however, and from 2006-7 began to blossom, visiting a St Stephen’s project in the Philippines, working in a Hong Kong pre-school and telling many on the streets about Jesus. His parents made plans to visit him in Hong Kong.
On an ordinary day two months before the visit that Graeme and Philippa had planned, they received an email from Jackie stating that Jim was in trouble. He had been found with drugs and had disappeared. Later that day, Jackie called them with the news they had dreaded: their son’s body had been discovered in a flat in downtown Hong Kong. The cause of death was unknown, but drug use was suspected. ‘A root meaning of “bereavement” is “robbed”… And that is what it feels like,’ Philippa says.
Three days after his death the couple arrived in Hong Kong, where they remained for ten days. ‘We really became detectives…getting bits of the story from different people and then putting it all together. At the beginning, we understood nothing. But in the end, we understood better than anyone else, in a sense; movements, feelings, what he said to people, and how the wheels really came off for him.’
It would be easier to just say 'my son died', and take people's sympathy - but to say 'my son died of a heroin overdose...' that gets a bit of a reaction
The couple discovered that Jim was never addicted to heroin, but was an occasional user. They were also told that his final months were extraordinary. ‘Towards the end, people described him as completely, kind of, anointed. He was shining as he led worship. There was something really special going on. And in one sense the closer he got to God, the closer the shame…I think that was what tripped him up more than anything else,’ Graeme says.
Philippa tells of how, as a family, the Skinners have become different people as they have grieved for Jim. Of initially interacting with their other three children, she says, ‘We tried to cover it up to some extent, as we didn’t want them to worry… as parents, we wanted not to tell them how terrible we felt, but let them tell us how terrible they felt. But having said that, they did know. I’ve got deep respect for my children; we’ve all learned a lot about each other through this.’
Philippa describes bereavement as universal. ‘When it happens to you, and in a particularly shocking sort of way, you think that you are the only person to feel as you do, but actually it’s all out there.’ And Graeme reflects, ‘I suppose many of the emotions of bereavement are universal, and yet each story is unique.’
Shame and stigma
The couple are frank about the stigma attached to the way in which Jim died. ‘The moment you say “heroin”, it sort of unzips in someone’s mind a whole mixture of feelings,’ Graeme says.
Philippa continues, ‘It would be easier to just say my son died, and take people’s sympathy ? but to say my son died of a heroin overdose...that gets a bit of a reaction ? sympathy and shock. Many times you sit with a group of people, and they may quite innocently say, “Oh, that boy was into drugs and all sorts.” You take it, because you know it’s not meant personally ? but it is personal and painful.’
Philippa explains that a common reaction among those who have been similarly bereaved is to feel an awful sense of shame. ‘Some choose to not tell people and just keep it private, which you can understand, because you feel like you are betraying your loved one by saying a bad thing about them and you don’t want them judged. We choose to speak out, although it’s hard, because to keep silent reinforces shame and stigma.’
While Graeme and Philippa were in Hong Kong after Jim’s death, they heard Jackie preach on shame. ‘She talked about Jesus dying a shameful death. She said there couldn’t have been a more shameful way to die than Jesus experienced. She reminded us that God knows about shame. Jesus died a shameful death, and he is the one we follow.’
Graeme also speaks of the shame they felt as they faced up to their loss. ‘Sometimes we felt so ashamed that we could hardly cope. We felt we had failed Jim; those feelings of shame and failure put a distance between you, God and other people. Then you realise that God bridges the gap.’
A new understanding of God
Graeme now describes his faith as ‘more rounded’. ‘I have a deeper understanding of the suffering of God. I’ve done some shouting at him and I still ask difficult questions, though I know I won’t get an answer. I’m learning to live with the unanswerable. Holding faith feels a whole lot messier.’ Philippa says, ‘I think I feel much more peaceful in my relationship with God. You have the highs and lows my faith feels more inclusive. I feel much more held by God.’
I don't want to use this as an excuse to become less than the person I could have been
So how do you recover from losing your child? Can you recover? ‘It never leaves you. Your way of seeing the world has changed,’ Philippa says. But she is also able to be positive. ‘We do enjoy ourselves. I’m not even sure that we don’t enjoy ourselves more in a funny way. In some ways you find deeper pleasure in your relationships and in the ordinary things when you realise what a treasure life is. But it’s a process, and we are still learning.’
Ultimately, you have to make a choice in your response to a tragic bereavement, Philippa says. ‘You can just get sucked into a vortex of feeling sad and sorry, and bitter about what has happened. I do have a choice, and I don’t want my life to shrink because of this. I want my life to expand and grow. I want my life to hold Jim too. I want my life to be able to reach out to people who I might not have had any understanding of before. I don’t want to use this as an excuse to become less than the person I could have been.’
Philippa Skinner is the author of See You Soon: A Mother’s Story of Drugs, Grief and Hope (Presence Books, 2012). She and Graeme regularly speak on bereavement and substance abuse issues in families. Additional articles on loss through drugs can be found at seeyousoon.me.uk.