‘This wasn’t a choice’: Retired journalist Gord Gillies speaks out on mental health after son’s death

Gord Gillies is a familiar face to many in Calgary, having dedicated his 38-year journalism career with a daily goal of trying to present the stories of the day in a caring, compassionate way.

But now the former Global Calgary TV anchor and radio host is opening up about his own family’s heartbreaking loss. Eight months ago, Gord and his wife Kandi lost their son Liam, just two weeks shy of his 26th birthday.

“Liam struggled for 10 years with anxiety and some depression and he medicated that by drinking,” he told Global News, while sitting on a park bench across from his home. He and his wife have made it a daily ritual to come to the quiet space and reflect and meditate.

Gillies is taking part in Global News’ series Strong But Not Silent, raising awareness for men’s mental health.

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Read more: Calgary broadcaster Gord Gillies retires

Liam Gillies had piercing blue eyes, a warm smile and a kind heart. He was a hard-working university student at Mount Royal University. In the summer months he worked for Parks Canada, tending to the flower gardens in Banff.

His struggle wasn’t something he shared openly, but his parents and sister Laura fought hard along side him.

“He was the strongest kid I knew. He got up every day with something screaming in his head that rattled around and made him feel crappy and he was still a sweet — you knew him — sweet kid, loving kid. He didn’t want this, this wasn’t a choice. ” Gillies said.

Gillies said his son went to rehab twice, and made great progress the second time around. He went to counselling, tried countless other therapies and medications and testing, but things started to spiral again. And one day last March, he had one drink too many and slipped away in his apartment just blocks from his parents home.

The Gillies admit despite Liam and the family going down absolutely every avenue to conquer his battle they feared one day this could happen.

“It was a shock but we talked about it, I talked to Liam about it… and he was trying. But he was tired. He was exhausted with feeling how he was feeling — he felt so much shame, which is just awful. H felt shame for something he didn’t have to be ashamed of,” Gord said through tears.

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“This wasn’t this loud calamity going on in our home, this was a quiet problem happening every once in a while. But you could just see the shame he had when he felt he failed again… and we tried everything we can and he just had a crash that took his life.”

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The family said the death of Liam has brought them closer together; Gord and Kandi use exercise as an outlet and they look for any little signs, especially from nature, to stay connected to their son. The couple has been going to grief counselling and Gord said it has helped lift some of the heaviness they are carrying.

“It can help give you perspective because you think you are losing your mind and you don’t think you are getting better, and then a good counsellor can show you you’re making some progress,” he said.

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“We are kind of getting to a point where we can laugh when we think of Liam and there’s millions of funny stories… it’s now we can laugh and remember the life and not be crushed by the death, and I guess that’s progress.”

“I know sometimes guys ‘turtle’ and don’t get help. I sobbed with friends and walked and walked (in) southwest Calgary and every other district and that helped come out of the fog and I’ve been lucky with great family and really great friends,” Gillies said, adding he’s constantly talking out loud to his son.

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According to Alberta Health Services grief support program, just 30 per cent of clients are men.

“I think men still unfortunately live under sort of the prescription boys don’t cry, be strong and stoic or be strong for other people, and I think sometimes that results in reaching out for help less,” said Tracy Sutton, a registered psychologist with AHS.

“I think reaching out and asking for help when we are navigating something as truly life changing a bereavement loss or death can be, I think , a sign of strength and resiliency. And we know that it can be a really helpful journey to walk with someone who is going through grief,” she said.

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A bench commemmorating Liam Gillies sits in the Cascades Of Time Gardens in Banff.
A bench commemmorating Liam Gillies sits in the Cascades Of Time Gardens in Banff. Supplied

Gillies said he has compassion for people who struggle with addictions and depression because he watched his own son go through it, adding there is often a misconception that people have a choice. A bench with Liam’s name on it now sits in the gardens he loved, the Cascades Of Time Gardens in Banff. And Gord has a tattoo on his forearm of forget-me-not flowers (Liam often planted in Banff) along with his son’s printing a heart he drew

Gillies hopes his story and that of his courageous son will let others navigating through similar seasons of life know they are not alone and to not be afraid to ask for help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please call the Distress Centre or the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service (CSPS), available 24/7, at 1-833-456-4566. For more information on addictions and to find help nearest you, visit Alberta’s Addiction Helpline or call at 1-866-332-2322.

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