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Sydney man who lost entire family to suicide shares story


SYDNEY, N.S. — Ken Tarr knows all too well the pain and suffering that come when a loved one commits suicide.

The Sydney man’s twin sons both hanged themselves — Philip, 25, in 2012 and James a year later — and then his wife Cheryl took her own life in 2016.

The successive blows were like something out of the Old Testament, the trials of Job, and at times the 57-year-old still can’t believe he lost his entire family in a matter of a few years.

“Mostly, I don’t know if it’s shock or disbelief that I can be living this life that so much tragedy has happened in. Sometimes I don’t believe it’s me or my life,” Tarr told the Cape Breton Post on Wednesday during a World Suicide Prevention Day event at Centre 200.

“I felt like everybody has turned on me: ‘What have I done to deserve this? What could I have done to prevent it?’ There’s so many questions with suicide you’re never able to settle that in your mind. A car accident, you can look at what caused it; something like this, I mean there’s many factors that went into it but you start questioning yourself about everything.”

While he says it can still be a daily struggle, Tarr said he attended the event organized by the local group Survivors of Suicide Cape Breton precisely because his story is so shockingly tragic. And although it’s painful, he wanted to speak to the roughly 100 people in attendance in the hopes it could help someone else.

“A lot of people have told me that when they have problems, they look at my situation and say ‘Well, I don’t really have anything to complain about.’ In that way, if that helps them, good,” he said.

“I just do it because it’s something that I have to do. There is no real comfort for me. I try to live my life. I’m trying to get out of the phase of just surviving and trying to live and have a good life. When I do things that I enjoy, I think about my kids and I’m living for them and doing things that they’re not doing now. Hopefully wherever they’re at they can see that.”

Tarr is one of 100 suicide survivors featured in Suzanne Sagmeister’s forthcoming book “Life After Dark.” After travelling across Canada and photographing and interviewing people affected by suicide in every province and territory, she said she’s learned that simply standing up and letting people know that there is life after suicide can make a big difference.

Suzanne Sagmeister speaks during a World Suicide Prevention Day event at Centre 200 in Sydney on Wednesday.

“The power of ‘me too’ is what I speak about. There is so much power in the two words ‘me too,’ because in that moment you realize that you are not alone and it changes everything,” said Sagmeister, 45, whose life was first affected by suicide when she was an infant and her father, an ambulance driver, was almost killed by a suicidal man who drove his car directly into his path while he was taking a patient to hospital. Her father escaped with a cracked sternum, but his partner and their patient were killed, as well as the driver of the car.

After talking to a musician friend four years ago, the Vancouver Island-based photographer started working on the project. She was preparing to launch it with a gallery exhibit in her hometown of Grand Prairie, Alta., when the father of her 16-year-old son Lawson, whose story is also featured in the book, killed himself.

However, despite the darkness of the subject matter, she said the book is ultimately about hope.

“It’s not just about tragedy. There is hope because there’s a resiliency that each of these people has and they’re here to help turn the light back on in other people’s lives by sharing their story. That’s the point of the book,” she said. “Every single one of the stories in the book hold hope and they explain their walk through the darkness as the survivor, or they talk about how it was to be left behind, but they also speak about what it is now that they’re left with and how they move forward.”

As for Tarr, who’s all-too-familiar with how difficult moving on can be, he had this advice:

“Nothing last forever, good or bad. Wait a day and it changes,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to suffer … I want them to know that you can survive afterwards.”

The event also featured guest speaker Todd Leader, a psychologist, social worker and part-time professor at Saint Mary’s University. The author of “It’s Not About Us” said the current mental health and addiction system in Nova Scotia, which is plagued by long wait times, doesn’t work because it relies on psychiatrists instead of counsellors who can help people before their in a full-blown crisis.

“We need a system that is actually more of a mental health system, not a mental health illness care system,” said the Glace Bay native. “We need a system that supports our young kids in school to give them the skills to stay healthier, and then to have someone to talk to — not a psychologist, not somebody for therapy — just a counsellor, somebody to talk to when they start to feel very early struggles with anything in life, just to help teach them how to manage that. And then the fewer who then progress to worse problems would have access to more intensive stuff like therapy. And then the very, very few that we don’t manage to keep healthy, those few might need a psychiatrist.”

For more information on Survivors of Suicide Cape Breton, visit


If you or someone you know needs immediate help call the Nova Scotia Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

If you have questions regarding mental health support, please visit

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