Fiona Starr’s bright and welcoming Muswell Hill kitchen is the hub of an obviously busy family life. Camping chairs and a yoga mat are stacked up on the floor next to the dog’s bed, the clothes horse is pegged full, and fixed to a cupboard door a calendar bursts with detailed plans.
There is little among this domestic normality to indicate that 10 months ago, the household was shattered by tragedy.
Shortly before his 50th birthday, Jonny Zucker, Fiona’s husband and father to their three sons, took his own life. They had been together for 25 years. His death caused shockwaves and immense sorrow to those people whose lives he had touched but the biggest trauma and devastation of all was, of course, within his own family.
“The way I describe him to people who didn’t know him,” explains Starr, “is that he was a bit like Robin Williams but from north London, in that he was so funny, so charismatic. He made people feel special, like they were his best friends. Jonny had this capacity to make people feel as if they were shining, like they were golden. Everyone says that.” I nod in agreement. Jonny had been one of my closest friends since we had met in Habonim-Dror in our late teens. And Fiona and I are old friends since childhood.
Sitting at the kitchen counter, sipping coffee, she describes the man who was her best friend and reflects upon the impact of his death with characteristic openness, insight and humour.
“He was a great, inspirational educator,” she says. “As a madrich and then as a [primary school] teacher. He inspired children more than anyone I’ve ever met — and I’m not the only one who says that.
“He was a brilliant dad so I think that’s partly why the boys are doing so well,” she continues. “Not to idealise him but he was loving, emotionally sensitive to them, made them laugh and did all their reading and literacy. He was just very, very present, normally, which is why the contrast [with when he was ill] is so shocking.”
Jonny was diagnosed with depression and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) in his twenties but, as Starr explains, most of their life together was happy and upbeat, filled with music, love and laughter. “I know people might want to hear there was a big struggle of depression but it wasn’t like that. On the pie chart of our lives, 90 per cent was really lovely, which, in a way, makes it even more distressing.”
His main depressive episodes were triggered by periods of change — largely career orientated. “The last two years were absolutely terrible. I don’t think when you’re in it — all these carers say the same thing — you quite realise how bad it is; it’s only with hindsight. He was in so much pain and as he deteriorated, he became more and more unavailable — somehow, I just got on with it. I worked, [she is an Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at Middlesex University] ran the house, looked after the kids. I think what helped me cope was the boys. You have to keep everything normal, as much as it can be.”
Jonny had been a children’s writer and was a passionate advocate of encouraging young people to read. One of his most popular books was Striker Boy, a fast paced story about the adventures of Nat, a talented teenage footballer. Shortly after Zucker died, Fiona’s first cousin, radio and TV sports presenter, Jonny Gould, had the idea of re-launching his back catalogue. One idea led to another, “through synchronicity and people helping,” resulting in the Striker Boy Project — a special edition of the book, together with a nationwide campaign in partnership with Mind, to raise awareness about mental health issues in adults and children. The book launches on October 5 and £1.40 of every sale will be donated to Mind.
The project has a healing aspect for Starr and her sons, allowing something good to emerge out of such sadness. “It’s a legacy for Jonny. Getting kids to read his words, to share that joy,” she says. “It’s about a positive use of energy, everyone getting together.”
Support has been wide ranging, involving friends, family and colleagues. For many years, Jonny had developed an online children’s library for educational software firm 2Simple which chose to publish Striker Boy, their first print book publication, for no profit. They have also created free teacher resource packs to help promote positive mental health. Gould narrated the book’s audio version.
Starr is candid about how her family has managed in the months following Jonny’s death. “Well…” she says, slowly. “It’s like concentric circles. I think we have coped by being held and contained by our family, friends and our wider community (Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and New North London Synagogue). There are layers of containment and in the inner, inner circle there’s just us four now and we’re very tight. I try and be open and honest with the boys and follow their lead with anything in their lives, but especially regarding Jonny.”
Therapy has helped her cope but so too has restorative yoga, cranial osteopathy, dog walking, aromas, crystals, “God knows, anything,” she says, laughing. “But as well as all that, talking openly has been very healing. I know we all grieve differently but talking works for me.”
Another significant form of help for her has come from a fortnightly suicide support group. “It’s amazingly supportive because everyone is in the same boat. The large amount of attendees — there were 50 the first time I went and that’s only a fraction — demonstrates just how many people are affected by a suicide. It is the biggest killer of men between the age of 29-50 and there’s this huge fallout from it on families and communities.”
Starr believes that the understanding of men and mental health is more complicated than the way it is often portrayed in the media. “It’s much more complex than just talking about the issue. There are so many strands: social media, male identity and societal expectations of men. There are wider issues too, such as our education system, our pressure to succeed, the everything-is-wonderful-on-Facebook culture. It’s toxic. I know that from my clinical work with teenagers. Obviously there does need to be more money put into mental health services but talking alone is not enough.”
As the first anniversary looms, she has recognised that, despite the absolute despair of Jonny’s death and missing everything about him, lately, there has been some post traumatic growth, a term coined by the positive psychology movement. “Sheryl Sandberg talks about it [in Option B, her book with Adam Grant]. It depends on the trauma but there’s a paradox. Along with the pain and the suffering comes something else. I’m better at protecting my time, I’m more available to the kids and have been more honest and closer with different people. I’ve also accepted help, which I’m not very good at usually.”
She admits to feeling worried and frightened about the coming year but is also sanguine. “I think how lucky I am, genuinely, not in a Pollyanna way. I’ve got all this,” she says, indicating her house, “and friends and family, including grandparents for the kids. I do feel really blessed. I didn’t expect death now so quickly and in this way but with life comes death and however much we want to avoid it, we all have to face it at some point. There’s certainly hope and fear about the future but actually, that’s another reason for Striker Boy. It gives another positive.”
www.strikerboy.com - for details of the project and to order the book.
How to get help:
Samaritans: www.samaritans.org Or call their 24 hour free helpline 116 123
JAMI, the Jewish mental health charity www.jamiuk.org
The Calm Zone www.thecalmzone.net