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On the road to affirm life after death

26 April 2024

After his daughter’s death, Mike Palmer became one of ‘3 dads walking’ to raise awareness of young suicide. He talks to Catherine Larner

Three Dads Walking 

The three dads (from left): Tim Owen, Mike Palmer, and Andy Airey

The three dads (from left): Tim Owen, Mike Palmer, and Andy Airey

THE trio of men “3 Dads Walking” laugh and joke together on BBC Breakfast’s red sofa, are regular visitors to Parliament and Downing Street, receive messages from royalty, and have strangers and celebrities wanting to shake their hands.

But they say: “We’re three normal blokes from three different parts of the country, with different backgrounds. We had no idea we would attract so much attention.” And they would give it all up in an instant if it meant that they could see their daughters again.

Mike Palmer, Tim Owen, and Andy Airey met through their shared grief four years ago. Their daughters had all taken their own life. Beth (17), Emily (19), and Sophie (29) were young women, full of promise. Desperate not only to process their sorrow but also to help prevent other families’ experiencing what they had gone through, the men decided to take on a walk across the country, raising funds and awareness for suicide prevention.

“On that first walk, we were three very bereaved fathers,” Mr Palmer says. “But what an experience!” Walking 300 miles alongside two people you barely knew would be a challenge in itself, but for them there were also camera crews, reporters, and well-wishers to negotiate.

“We realised we weren’t alone,” he says. “We were talking to other people. All of a sudden, it gives you some sort of power. As time goes on, you do refocus. I have to look after my family now. They carry the pain, too. The ripple effect is hellish.”

The men not only completed the walk (and, a year later, another one of twice the distance): they raised more than £1 million, met government officials to talk about about suicide prevention, and are now awaiting the conclusions of a public committee about putting the subject on the National Curriculum. Their book recounting their experience has just been published.

Based on journals they kept independently, Three Dads Walking: 300 miles of hope is a powerful and uplifting book, tracing their journey through their home counties, from the Lakeland fells, through the Peak District dales, to the exposed fens of East Anglia.

It tells each man’s story of family and friendship, purpose and hope. They write about their personal tragedies, but also what they have learnt together, their coping strategies, and their motivation for the future. They have experienced the kindness of strangers, and also shared in the grief of many other suicide-bereaved. Inevitably, it is deeply moving.

“THE whole world changed colour when I lost Beth,” Mr Palmer says. “People call it devastation: it’s too small a word. I was completely shattered. It was like being smashed to the ground.

“I was a firefighter [at Manchester Airport]. I’d spent years and years dealing with life-and-death situations. I taught trauma to first responders, and was very often on the other end of a defib. But losing my little girl just destroyed me.”

Feeling suicidal himself, he couldn’t talk to his family and couldn’t work, he says. The only thing that got him out of bed in the early days was his dog, Monty, whom he walked in the middle of the night so that he didn’t have to meet people. “I was in an awful place. But little things started happening.”

Three Dads Walking Mike Palmer and Beth

He felt compelled to write a journal — something that he had never done before — and discovered this to be an outlet for his anger and despair. He asked for help, and found good people in a counsellor, a local suicide-bereavement service, and the airport chaplain, George Lane.

“It used to be that, whenever I was at work in the fire station and I saw George in the distance, I’d go the other way,” Mr Palmer says. “I didn’t want to get into a conversation. But, after Beth’s death, I wanted to lash out. If there is a God, how could he let this happen? It was huge to be able to talk to George. He is an absolutely wonderful guy. He’s everything that’s good about the Church: he’s caring, compassionate, and will always go the extra mile.”

Mr Palmer had no faith at this point, he says. His daughters had attended a church school, and the family had enjoyed Christingle services, and that was it. “But going through a trauma, like losing your child to suicide, it makes you more aware of things. Is there a heaven? What does happen when you die? Is there a life after this? I started to ask these questions. I had to know what had happened to Beth.”

He scoured the internet, read books, visited mediums, and talked to friends. “The near-death experiences are all very similar,” he says. “Even if you’re the most sceptical, there are thousands of examples. And George always came back with some pretty good answers. It certainly stirred a bit of faith in me.

“Now, if people tell me they’re angry with God, or feel let down, I will share what I’ve learned. I haven’t got 100-per-cent belief, but I can’t deny the weight of evidence out there, and the hope that one day we will see our loved one again, and everything will be perfect, everything will be beautiful. I’ve totally changed as a person. And it’s made me realise that I have a job to do now, with my family, with 3 Dads.”

IT WAS three weeks after Beth died that Mike met Tim, whose daughter Emily had died just a few days before Beth. Their surviving children had connected through social media and put them in touch.

Shortly afterwards, they heard about Andy, whose daughter, Sophie, had died a couple of years earlier. When all three men met, they quickly bonded, recognising that they wanted to do something to prevent others going through the same experience.

“We can smile now, but it’s still so painful. I can’t look back at old videos and pictures of a little girl who was so happy, so full of ambition, so loved, who wanted to live life.

“But we’ve taken the decision, all of us and our families, to be very open with what happened to our beloved daughters,” he says. “We want to get the message out there so that other families don’t have to go through the grief that we still go through now.”

Being outside, walking and talking together, has given them purpose, but the experience has also made them more informed about the issue as a whole. Suicide is the biggest killer of under-35s in the UK: some 6000, including, on average, 200 teenagers, take their own life each year.

Three Dads Walking The three dads (from left): Mike Palmer, Tim Owen, and Andy Airey

“I think Beth’s decision was a teenager’s impulse,” he says. “She had the world at her feet. I think, if a few things had been different, and lockdown hadn’t been coming, there’s a chance she’d be here now. If she’d been taught about suicide prevention at school, she’d know where she could reach out to process the thoughts she was having.

“And if I had been taught about suicide prevention, I would have recognised a few of the signs that, I believe, we missed.”

Young people have access to the internet; but if family, friends, and teachers don’t speak to them about it, they will find answers elsewhere: “Our young people are influenced 24/7 by a screen. They go to their bedroom, and it’s a portal to wherever they want to go, without control.”

NOW, the 3 Dads Walking are walking again, hoping to raise more money for the charity PAPYRUS: Prevention of Young Suicide. The three started their latest walk of 500 miles in Stirling on 17 April and are walking the length of the east coast, visiting the new PAPYRUS hubs in towns along the route, finishing on 11 May in Norwich.

“We’re walking again to keep the conversation going,” he says. “Every week, I hear such sad stories and it’s heartbreaking. People say that we’ve made a difference, but it’s a drop in the ocean to what really needs to be done.”

He has moved away from the family home in Manchester. Though he and his wife are still a couple, he now lives in Anglesey, where he is restoring a property that overlooks the sea, and where an ancient church is a short walk away.

“Legend has it that St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland was shipwrecked, swam ashore and made his church on the hill here in AD 440. It’s called Eglwys Llanbadrig. I go there quite a lot.

“I can look out over the headland and spot dolphins in the sea. The door’s always open. I’m alone and it’s peaceful. If there is a God, I hope he’s looking after Beth, surrounding her with love.”

Three Dads Walking: 300 Miles of Hope by Tim Owen, Mike Palmer, and Andy Airey is published by Robinson at £22 (Church Times Bookshop £19.80); 978-1-4721-4844-5.

PAPYRUS runs HOPELINE247, in which trained advisers offer help to young people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide. Phone 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967, or email pat@papyrus-uk.org


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