‘The phone rang. ‘Hello, Police Service. We’re on the side of the Broadway Bridge. I’m sorry. We answered because it said ‘Mom.’: Mom loses 15-year-old to suicide; ‘I choose to honor Ethan’

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of suicide that may be triggering to some. 

“My Ethan Daniel Smytaniuk, was born in December of 2004. He was an absolute delight of a human being from the moment he entered into this life. At the time of his birth, Ethan’s father wanted nothing to do with him. However, shortly after his birth, he decided he would like to have a role in his life. For the first year and half of Ethan’s life, I worked hard to nurture a space for him to have a relationship with his father. The situation was never easy. He loved Ethan, but always viewed myself and Ethan’s brother, Cole, as something to be ashamed of. The brunt of that was taken out on Cole. Once the severity of the abuse was brought to my attention and the authorities were involved, any hopes for healthy and positive co-parenting were lost. I tried very hard to ensure the damage to my children would be minimal.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk
Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

For the next six years, his father’s role was in and out. He’d disappear for months at a time and re-emerge when the situation suited him. When Ethan was 8-years-old, his father was in a more stable position in his life and wanted to spend more time with him. The justice system being what it is, and favoring shared parenting arrangements, forced my hand in allowing that to happen.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

Ethan’s father had always told him he could choose where he wanted to live once he turned 14. I never had these conversations with him myself because I did not want to put Ethan in a position of feeling like he had to choose. I wanted Ethan to feel free to be wherever he wanted to be, without any guilt. I wanted him to feel safe and at home wherever he was. Of course, I only had control over one part of the equation. I learned being a mother to three children (my youngest daughter was born in 2010), from three different fathers, made it so I was constantly having to navigate between which child needed me most. Despite Cole’s dad not being involved and Elizah being so young, it was always a given that Ethan needed me most. Especially in the years post-2013. The more time Ethan spent with his father, the more my role became to be there to pick up the pieces.

Ethan turned 14 on December 14th, 2017. He never lived with his father again after that point. In fact, he rarely saw him. As we moved through the following January, I would frequently check in with Ethan and ask him if he had talked to his dad or if he thought about seeing him the upcoming weekend. I wanted to leave that door open for him. But Ethan’s response was always no — if he didn’t have to, he didn’t want to.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

It was very important to me that Ethan never saw me as trying to influence his relationship with his father or put pressure on him in any way. I worried between my attempt to move him away from his father in 2013, and the things he was being told by his father, his trust in me might be damaged. I knew this was a big decision for him, and he would need someone to talk to about it. I also knew this change in his life may start to translate into other areas, so I engaged the school. I let them know Ethan had made the decision to live with me, this was a really big decision for him, and he might need someone to talk to about it. The office put me in touch with the school counselors.

I had a brief conversation with the counselor, informing them of what had happened. I let them know Ethan was a very non-confrontational person, so the very fact he was adamant in his decision was a huge step. The counselor let me know that while they do not seek students out, Ethan was more than welcome to approach them and utilize their services if he so wished. Later that day, Ethan and I were out for wings–our normal Wednesday tradition. I let him know I had spoken to one of the school counselors, and they were there to talk if he needed.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk
Courtesy of Stephanie Klyne Photography

‘Yeah, I know. I went and saw them,’ he replied

‘You did?’ I replied. ‘Today?’

‘No, I started seeing them in the fall, when dad was being really mean to me about football.’

I was surprised, but not surprised. Proud and sad all at the same time. Of course Ethan, as a 13-year-old boy, sought out help all on his own, without telling anyone save his close friends at school.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

January went on. So too did the harassing emails and messages from Ethan’s father, blaming me for keeping Ethan away from him. Still, I maintained my composure (mostly — I have a really hard time with that man) and continued to focus on Ethan. I finally had him home. On January 18th, I was attending a comedy night at the Capitol Music Club, and I received a message from Ethan, asking if I could come home so we could talk. I immediately went home. When I arrived, Ethan was in his room sitting on his bed. I asked him what was up.

‘Well, my friends thought I should tell you there were a couple of times, when I was living with dad, when I wanted to kill myself.’

‘What do you mean wanted to kill yourself?’ I asked, trying not to have a strong reaction so he would tell me everything possible.

‘Like… I had a plan,’ he replied.

‘What was your plan?’

‘Well, the first time, I was going to jump off of the Broadway Bridge. The second time, I found a building downtown that I could get to the roof of.’

‘What stopped you?’

‘The first time (at the bridge) there were too many people around. The second time, the spot to get to the roof had been locked.’

Hearing these words shook me to my core. The only reason my son was sitting there talking to me was because of a padlock?! I asked him if he still felt that way.

‘No. I only brought it up because you keep asking if I want to see dad.’

At this time, I let him know he did not need to see his dad, and the only reason I was asking was because I didn’t want him to think I was trying to negatively impact his relationship with his father. I went on to let him know while I had no experience with those feelings myself, or dealing with this type of situation, I would get us help. And, if he found himself ever feeling that way again, to call me, because I would be absolutely devastated if anything ever happened to him.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

The year carried on, and I enlisted the help of the school and a child psychologist to help Ethan navigate his feelings about his relationship with his dad. As the year went on, Ethan’s happiness seemed to increase, but so did the harassment from his father. Over the course of the year, I was very proud of Ethan in setting boundaries with his dad — he truly was wise beyond his years. I truly believed we had handled the issues in Ethan’s life that had caused him to feel like ending his life. I truly believed it was not an ongoing issue, but a past tense problem, and we were doing everything right to ensure he never felt that way again.

I was wrong.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

At 8:30 p.m. on January 10th, 2019, my life ended with a phone call. I was working my serving job at the time. I had just been cut from what had been a fairly uneventful shift — typical for a frigid January night in Saskatchewan. The restaurant was fairly empty, and my attention was on my good friend and quasi-roommate, Lindsay, as she was being trained on the bar. Her and I had spent the last nine or so months navigating life together post-breakup, having both ended long term relationships that had left us a little lost and empty. All in all, it was a very normal, very ordinary, very uneventful Thursday night. A night I was simply trying to make the best of.

The first ripple in the normalcy was an Instagram message from an old friend I hadn’t heard much from over the years. She was concerned about a post my 15-year-old son, Ethan, had made. It was captioned, ‘I’m sorry to let you down,’ below a blank, dark red square. At first, I didn’t think much of it. Ethan had just taken an interest in creating rap music, so I figured the post had something to do with an album he was promoting whose release had been delayed. I was also busy billing my one and only table of the evening, so I asked her to screenshot the photo and send it to me.

I looked at the picture, and honestly, it still didn’t strike me in any way. When I went to his Instagram account to check it out for myself, and realized I was blocked, my position on the matter quickly changed. I knew I wasn’t blocked in the morning. Why was I blocked now? Sudden panic hit me hard. I immediately called his phone to see what was going on. The phone rang twice and then I heard,

‘Saskatoon Police Service.’

‘What did you say?’

‘Ma’am, I’m sorry. We answered the phone because it said ‘Mom’.’

‘What? Where are you?’ I asked, the shock already setting in.

‘We are on the side of the Broadway Bridge. You need to come here.’

The floor fell out from under me and I dropped with it, screaming. Lindsay rushed over and took the phone from my hand. The next thing I know, Lindsay was screaming for someone to find us a car. ‘We need a car! We need a car!,’ was all I could hear as I tried to make my way to the back door of the restaurant. I stumbled into the kitchen, still screaming, and fell into the arms of the newest member of our kitchen team. Neither Lindsay nor I had brought our car to work that day, because we both live so close to the restaurant, and my oldest son had needed my car to get to work that night. I didn’t care if I was getting a ride or walking — I just needed to get to the bridge.

We took the cook’s car and made our way as quickly as we could, though in those moments, everything seemed foggy and in slow motion. I know while Lindsay drove, a series of phone calls to family and friends took place. The first to my dad. ‘Dad, Ethan jumped off of the Broadway bridge!,’ I said, barely able to breathe, still involuntary scream sobbing and violently convulsing.

‘What?!’ he screamed. ‘What do you mean!?’ he pleaded desperately.

‘I don’t know Dad. I just need you to get here.’

‘Okay, my girl. I’m on my way.’

My dad lives an hour a way.

The second call was to my roommate, ‘Connor, we need you. Ethan jumped off of the Broadway Bridge.’ I don’t even remember how that call ended or if I was even the one who made it.

The bridge was a five minute drive from work. As we made our way there, I had no idea where we were going or what we would be pulling up on. My thoughts ranged from Ethan being in the water, Ethan being recovered from the water, or maybe Ethan being busy talking to officials. We noticed police lights on the southwest side of the bridge and made our way across. When we pulled up, I got out of the car and ran over to the first officer I could find.

I have no idea what I said, if anything at all, but his words will remain etched in my brain until the day I die.

There are literally no words to describe the horror and shock I felt in that moment. I stared helplessly at the officer repeating over and over, ‘What do I do? What do I do? Where is he? Do I go to him?’ The officer was very patient, compassionate, and incredibly kind.

‘Amanda (I guess I must have told him my name), you cannot see him like this. You need to wait for the coroner to arrive, and we need to have you out of here before the firefighters bring him up. Amanda, it’s cold. Go back and sit in the car while we wait.’ I have never trusted a police officer so much as I did in that moment. I have been through a lot, but nothing in my life experience could guide me through this moment. I just did as he told me to, and both Lindsay and I sat in the car scream crying, so deeply lost.

At this time, people began showing up to the scene — my on again off again boyfriend, my boss, a truck full of Ethan’s friends, and my roommate. I then had to make the unimaginable call to my eldest son, Cole, and inform him his little brother had died. I told him Connor was on his way to pick him up from work, would take him home, and I would meet him there. As he always was in crisis, Cole was composed and agreeable. Crisis workers arrived. I called my ex-husband who was with my 8-year-old daughter. I tried to reach Ethan’s father multiple times with no success. I had no idea what was going on, but I desperately needed someone to tell me what I needed to do. I was already fully aware the magnitude of this situation was far too big and dangerous to navigate on my own. I just needed people to tell me what to do, and I would listen. In this moment, it was to wait for the coroner, while I answered the crisis workers’ questions about people who needed to be contacted.

The coroner eventually showed up. I was seated in the backseat of a car. She opened the door, introduced herself, and asked me if I had a funeral home. ‘Do people have those?’ I asked. I can’t remember exactly how she replied, but she asked if I wanted her to take him to the hospital for the night until we made arrangements. She assured me this was a normal process, so I agreed. At this time, the firefighters were bringing Ethan’s body up, so we were hurried away from the scene, my heart and my life in complete shambles. It was the darkest moment of my entire life. The world had changed. I had changed. I was a stranger to myself.

Was it a shock? Were there any signs?

To be clear, I always knew something was wrong. I knew, at best, Ethan was experiencing things detrimental to his well being and, at worst, he was being harmed emotionally, and possibly in other ways as well. Because my eldest son, Cole, didn’t have the opportunity to have his father in his life, when Ethan was born, believing in the importance of children having father figures, I worked very hard to make sure he had a connection to his dad. Unfortunately, my decision to encourage and facilitate that relationship will remain my greatest regret in life. I had to spend the rest of his life trying to protect all of us from the consequences of that decision.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

Over the past 15 years, I have sought help from the police, social services, hospital staff, the justice system, and the school system. There were even certain points where, in the face of so much apathy on the part of these authorities, I questioned whether I wasn’t being overly dramatic. And, since I was on the receiving end of a lot of Jason’s abuse myself, the residual trauma I was experiencing led me, at times, to avoid rather than confront the man. Still, I know I did the absolute best I could throughout Ethan’s life to protect him. My efforts were in vain, and it breaks my heart to know my intuition was right.

In the days leading up to Ethan’s death, there were no signs. In fact, there never were. Had he not told me he had those thoughts previously, I would have never known he was even capable of thinking that way. From a parent’s perspective, Ethan was not the type of child who had hard days. He was easy, agreeable, always in a stable mood, and rarely in trouble. In the year he had been seeing a child psychologist, he had never been diagnosed depressed. In the hour leading up to his death, he was joking around with his brother and his friends, making plans for a weekend of fun at an annual basketball tournament. He left the house in the same way he always did. There was no note.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

What caused him to make the decision to jump that night? I will never know. How a gentle being could carry out such a violent act to himself, will forever be beyond my comprehension. However, I was fortunate enough to have his phone returned to me in working condition. In searching through his phone, I discovered a reality I had no idea about. He was a young man deeply hurt by the actions of his father and the toxic pressures his father placed on him with respect to sports and performance. He was fighting a silent battle, and despite having many supports in his life, he was doing it on his own.

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk
Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

I will spend the rest of my life missing him and wishing there was some way to undo what’s been done. Of course now, knowing what I know, there are many things I would do differently. However, one can only act knowing what they know at the time, and I know it’s a dangerous road to start thinking about the what ifs and the could have, would have, should haves. Instead, I choose to honor Ethan by keeping myself in a place of gratitude for having parented him for 15 years, rather than victimize myself by focusing on the tragedy of only having him for 15 years.”

Courtesy of Amanda Smytaniuk

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amanda Smytaniuk. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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