Like all good stories—fact or fiction — about terrible days, this one happens in the rain.
I was sixteen or seventeen years old. And the details of why exactly I was so desperately sad that day are a little fuzzy. To tell you the truth, there weren’t many days when I wasn’t desperately sad back then. Whole weeks went by in unrelenting sadness. So it wasn’t exactly unusual.
What was unusual was the fact I’d walked, on my own, in the dark and in sheets of cold rain, to a motorway bridge. It’s not a pedestrian bridge. It’s a road; not a main one but busy enough for the occasional car even at that hour. It has a pavement either side for people to walk along. It has metal and concrete barriers on the sides, reaching almost chest height, and it arcs high over the motorway below. Which is always occupied with speeding cars, no matter the time of day or night.
I had suicidal thoughts almost every day back then. I’d squirrelled away and stockpiled pills; spent nights in Google rabbit warrens researching how much this would hurt and how effective that was. It wasn’t like I had a specific plan. But I knew something had to give. And soon.
And this was what I thought about as I leaned over the metal and concrete barrier of the motorway bridge. Still on the right side—the safe side — staring into the tarmac below. The rain beat down. The cars zoomed underneath and, occasionally, behind. I stared and I cried and my hands gripped the railing until my knuckles went white. Everything hurt. No one stopped. No one looked. I figured I would mount the barrier completely unseen, and drop to the motorway below like a shadow. I felt ready.
And then —
“Are you alright?”
It was a man on a bicycle, dressed in a grey tracksuit that had darkened in the rain. He had no jacket or helmet. The rain trickled from his hair down into his eyes.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” he said, and I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t expected anyone to notice. I certainly hadn’t noticed him.
“I know what it feels like.” And he pulled out his phone. It had a small screen and buttons. He clicked the buttons with some difficulty, probably because his ungloved hands must’ve been frozen, and wiped the raindrops from the screen. And he turned the phone to face me.
He was showing me a photo of a grave. A very small grave. With flowers and teddies and balloons.
“That’s my son, Billy. His grave. When we lost him I didn’t know how to cope. I felt like packing it all in and ending it. But I didn’t. Because it would’ve been such a waste, and I know he wouldn’t have wanted it. Life is important. You shouldn’t waste it.”
He was still showing me the photo of the grave, Billy’s grave, but his eyes and his voice were insistent. Not desperate, just certain.
I was a bit taken aback. Someone who had experienced such significant pain, such incredible loss and trauma, was actually empathising with me. He was relating my own pain, without knowing what I was or wasn’t going through, to his own terrible suffering. Because he saw this as a way to try and help someone he saw was in trouble. He was doing it at great inconvenience to himself, soaked through to the bone and no doubt just wanting to get home. And he was the only one, out of all the people who had seen me as they drove by, who stopped to see if I was hurting.
They say misery loves company and I suppose it’s true, but that wasn’t what was happening here. This was misery easing misery. It was empathy extended across a situational gap. It was the cold, harsh reality of life and the gaping maw of grief—used not to exacerbate sadness, but to offer hope. And because of the gravity of his situation, though it was unrelated to my own, I took his sentiment seriously.
So I moved away from the barriers and I turned to him.
“Thank you for stopping. I’m so sorry for your loss. But I’ll be alright.”
“Is there something I can do? Are you out here alone? Can I walk you somewhere; can I walk you to your friends?”
“I’ll be okay. I’ll go straight home.”
He looked at me sceptically.
“Okay, if you’re sure. But I’ll be watching.”
I thanked him again and I walked the way he had come. And when I turned around, he was still sat on his bicycle seat, watching me as he had promised.
I did go straight home. I thought about him a lot then, Billy’s dad, and a lot over the years since. Someone experiencing real, terrible, adult pain had seen a teenage girl and not tried to infantilise or downplay her feelings. And that fleeting moment in time taught me that it doesn’t cost a lot for me to do the same.
I don’t know if Billy’s dad remembers me, but I remember him. There and then, he made a difference. Empathy is an incredibly powerful tool. You don’t have to be a therapist to help someone who’s struggling. You don’t even really have to know what you’re doing at all. Sometimes you can just take time to stop pedalling and check in with them. And you can hope that, when you need it, someone stops pedalling for you one day too.