My son was bullied to death - people need to know what happened because it's happening to so many other kids
Lucy Alexander was laughing when we caught up at our school reunion in Bristol last March. We’d left Clifton High School 30 years ago, but her trademark big-hearted hugs, brown eyes sparkled just as the same as they always had.
Like most mid-lifers, we Old Girls had all headed off in different directions. We’d get our updates via Friends Reunited, Facebook and the inevitable Clifton grapevine. Lucy had trained in London as a nurse, married Ratan, a handsome doctor and after living in the US as well as Portsmouth and Southampton, was settled in Worcester. She was juggling her career as a school nurse with bringing up her family. The Facebook pictures were a little envy-inducing: a gorgeous Georgian house, a rescue labrador called Sam, her three beautiful children smiling on sunny holidays in Menorca.
But about six weeks after our reunion, while most were still jabbering over memories and pictures, Lucy went quiet.
Her online absence was only broken when she posted a picture of a candle, and asked us all to think of her youngest son Felix whose funeral was due to take place that day. It was a staggering moment. And the shock deepened as the reason for his death emerged.
Handsome, funny 17-year old Felix had taken his own life on April 27, she revealed, driven to despair by bullies both online and in the flesh. Our loving Lucy, the wisest and kindest of souls, had been thrust into a hell none of us understood – but which plenty feared.
Bullying seems to be at epidemic proportions, with children left anxious and fearful as a result. More than 25,000 children contacted the NSPCCabout bullying last year, and CHILDLINE has seen a 13 per cent rise in cases.
Most parents would admit to feeling panicked and clueless at how to protect their children - especially with the added worry of cyber-bullying. So when Lucy then wrote an open letter - urging young people to be “that one person prepared to stand up to unkindness. You will never regret being a good friend" - it went viral. She seemed to touch a sharp nerve with parents around the country who read her words while probably thinking ‘there but for the grace of God go all of us’.
He is still in our conversation, still in the present tense. Admitting it would mean that I must accept I have another 30 years left to live without him. Until now, it’s never been longer than a week. At seven months, I still can’t believe I will never see him againLucy Alexander
In the days, weeks and months that followed many of us reached out to Lucy as best we could. Most spoke of disbelief and horror and empathetic grief. A cataclysmic wretchedness had floored one of our own.
Today, seven months later, when Lucy greets me with another hug, a tighter one, tears pushed away with a now too practised hand, I’m not surprised to see grief has blanketed her sparkle – although not her warmth.
“This is the hardest thing,’’ she says. “Felix is still very, very present to me. How long is it before you let it become a reality?
“I still think about him all the time. He is still in our conversation, still in the present tense. Admitting it would mean that I must accept I have another 30 years left to live without him.
“Until now, it’s never been longer than a week. At seven months, I still can’t believe I will never see him again.”
She shows me pictures of the family celebrating her 50th birthday at the Shard last year. “We are all so happy. I cannot imagine feeling that again. I know things will happen that will make me happy. But there is a chunk gone. I don’t know whether you do accept it. Maybe you just learn how to carry it better?”
We look back at photos of Felix as a young boy – all glorious dark curls and big grin. Who could wish this child anything but joy?
“It began in primary school – year five and six,” she explains. “A bit of exclusion. He would want everyone at his party, but not get invited back. We thought it would improve at senior school where he’d meet some like minds.”
Felix was sent to a local independent school King’s, where his sister and brother had thrived. But within a few terms, he was struggling. Lucy rightly refused to allow him the 18-rated video games his peers claimed to own which seemed to make him stand out more.
No one has a clue how to sort this out. If you close off all access to social media, you isolate them further. Instead, I’d leave little notes on his bed saying ‘It seems really hard at the moment but things will get better. I love youLucy Alexander
“We realised he was always trying to impress. He tried being the class clown, or the whipping boy. Anything to fit in. He’d say ‘No one likes me as I am’.
“At 14, social media - sites like ask.fm - kicked in and the bullying became unstoppable. His peers would be having vile, anonymous conversations about him. We would remove all access to computers to prevent him seeing it, but he would get up in the night to look at the iPad.
“You might think he wouldn’t want to know but actually it was the reverse. He felt he had to know everything that was being said to feel armed.”
She adds: “No one has a clue how to sort this out. If you close off all access to social media, you isolate them further. Instead, I’d leave little notes on his bed saying ‘It seems really hard at the moment but things will get better. I love you.’
Lucy describes the conversations which burgeoned online as “hate-fests” – and lists the insults thrown at her son. They range from overtly racist (on account of Felix being half Indian) to foul swear words strung together in meaningless rants. Yet, she says, with astonishing compassion: “I’m sure the kids didn’t give it a moment’s thought. They just have no filter. What they think comes out of their mouths or onto their screen.” Her dignity is humbling.
Some of Felix’s anxiety had manifested itself as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and Lucy’s best friend, a psychotherapist, suggested they organise counselling sessions. These helped Felix, but the actions of the school bullies were unstoppable, seeping everywhere. Lucy recalls dropping him off at school one morning, and seeing a group of kids get off a bus. “They looked at us, and said: “Oh it’s Felix, run” – and they did.
He said to me: ‘That’s my normal.’”
Lucy talked to his teachers but says: “There seemed to be no machinery to make it better.”
The family were left feeling that it was something lacking in them which was making this happen.
“It was just crap for him all the time. We lost sight of the boy we knew.”
If Felix tried to find friends outside school, those children would get text messages saying, “Do you want to be friends with the most hated boy in school?”
Says Lucy: “We never knew why he had this label ‘the most hated boy’ but I saw it in black and white too many times for it to be his imagination. If he was invited to go to a party, he would get a text warning him off.”
After GCSEs, the Alexanders moved Felix to Pershore School in 2015, where they hoped a fresh start would begin to rebuild his self-esteem. Felix insisted that no one at the new school was to know about the bullying.
Now Lucy regrets not letting all the parents know what had happened. She admits she found it hard to talk about the situation even to her closest friends - as she felt she was “going on again”.
I am a nurse and a mother and I couldn’t make it better. I feel I have failed so spectacularly. The guilt is incredible. How could I not have known that the son I was really close to was preparing to do this thingLucy Alexander
“Even now I think people are saying why didn’t you sort it out? But he was in such a bad place I worried I would push him over the edge.
“And I couldn’t make it better. I am a nurse and a mother and I couldn’t make it better. I feel I have failed so spectacularly. The guilt is incredible. How could I not have known that the son I was really close to was preparing to do this thing?”
Experts have since told Lucy that when someone is suicidal there may be a period of relative calm before the event. A time when they have found a sense of peace in themselves and their belief – however absurdly mistaken it seems to others – that there is only one course of action left.
Felix seemed to reach that place in late April. He tidied his bedroom, and gathered his most important aide-memoires in a box: a ticket to the school’s winter ball, photographs.
The night before he died, he spent with Lucy cosily watching television and YouTube videos together. In the morning, they texted each other as he headed off to school, and she recalls him sending one which said “I love you mum”.
At 9am, Lucy was called by the school wondering where Felix was. By 9.30am, she and her husband were desperately searching for him. By 11am, police confirmed he had been struck by a train and was dead.
“At some point,” says Lucy carefully, “I will go back and plant some bulbs nearby.” There are already crocus and snowdrops in the rural Wiltshire churchyard where Felix’s ashes are safely interred next to the grave of Lucy’s father, who adored his grandson. “It is a comfort that Dad is watching over him.”
Lucy has found surprising support too in sharing Felix’s story as widely as she can, a process that began in those first tentative Facebook posts her friends recall from last May.
Where Felix’s abusers had spouted hate, Lucy seemed to pour out love. She was clear that no one was to be blamed – not the children, not the school. That the best way to deal with mindless cruelty is by mindful kindness.
She regrets not being more vocal when Felix was alive, but is determined not to be silent now. She needs, she says, to “give Felix a voice”.
“People are contacting me all the time to say, this is happening to me, this happened to my child.” She was taken aback when Prince William wrote to say how sorry he was for their loss.
Lucy has also become an ambassador for Place2Be, the anti-bullying charity which is supported by this year’s The Telegraph’s Christmas Charity Appeal. Place2Be will launch The Felix Project next year at Pershore School, raising awareness of young mental health issues and training Year 12 students to be Peer mentors.
She hopes politicians will be motivated to help. “We need to get the Department of Education on top of this issue. There has to be early intervention and support for kids.” This became even more pressing this week as statistics revealed yesterday showed that self harm among children had now reached ‘epidemic levels’ with 19,000 under-18’s ending up in hospital for their injuries. While it was unclear what had pushed so many children to self-harm what was clear is that support was not offered early enough and that better education about emotional problems at school would help.
There must be more support for parents like the Alexanders too, especially now, who now face the grimmest of Christmases.
“Last year, there was a lot of laughter, stupid games and presents.” She stops: “I didn’t see…”
Then: “The bleakness of knowing you have to do this year after year. I can’t contemplate doing anything trivial or joyful ever again.
“Every day I wake up and know straightaway what’s happened. And when I go to bed I think I’ve got through another day. I did it.
“But I don’t want that for my other children. I don’t want them to think their successes are tainted. That I won’t be participating in them fully. I don’t want everything to be marred for them by Felix dying.”
She also needs, she says, to “give Felix a voice”.
“I need to let people know what happened to us because it is happening to so many others. There are hundreds of us in this horrible leaky boat not talking to each other, shamed by it. So much hopelessness around bullying but we can’t be defeatist about it. We have to bring back kindness; that’s what gives me hope.”
Heads Together - a campaign to highlight the work of eight mental health charities, of which one is Place2Be is one of the Telegraph’s three chosen charities for our 2016 Christmas appeal. For details of how to donate please see the voucher below or call the charity phone line on 0151 284 1927 or telegraph.charitiestrust.org