Helen Cousin opens the wardrobe in her teenage daughter’s bedroom and leans forward to inhale the scent. It pains her that it is fading fast, and she now has to press Maisie’s clothes to her nose to get that emotional sting.
She takes out the school shirt that 16-year-old Maisie, her third child, had painstakingly decorated to celebrate the end of her school career. MAISIE is emblazoned on the back, in vibrant purples and pinks, the dates 2012-2017 carefully documented below.
Did Maisie know when she wrote them that 2017 would signal the end of everything, not just school?
For on the very day she should have been attending her leavers’ ceremony, and with her GCSEs just completed, Maisie took her own life. Her mother had no idea that she was even upset, never mind suicidal. Her last text to Maisie was about whether sausages would be OK for tea.
Maisie Cousin, 16, took her own life on the day of her school leavers’ ceremony in June
Her mother Helen wonders whether a doodle found after her death was a cry for help. The doodle reads ‘I’m fine’ one way up
When turned the other way round, the message reads ‘Help me’. The doodle was found by Maisie’s older sister
Somehow it is the extreme order of Maisie’s wardrobe that is most upsetting. ‘She tidied it before she did it,’ says Helen, as she places the shirt back where it belongs.
‘She was always neat but now I don’t know if she was just tidying it, or . . . preparing it.’
Helen has been through every pocket in every piece of clothing in this wardrobe, through every drawer, every book, every place that a teenage daughter might conceivably leave a suicide note.
‘One day I put my hand in a jacket and there was a piece of paper. I thought “she has left us something”, but it was a note to her maths teacher, thanking her for all her help. It wasn’t a goodbye note.’
Maisie’s mother Helen (pictured) says she had no idea that her daughter was feeling suicidal. Her last text to Maisie was about whether sausages would be OK for tea
It is impossible to convey the sense of anguish in this house. Maisie was, as her mother points out ‘bright, beautiful, kind, the sort of daughter you can only be proud of’.
Her GSCE results — handed over by her distraught headteacher to her parents last month — were something to celebrate, a solid string of A and B grades. She even passed her dreaded French exam. Her mum knew she would, even if Maisie was never so sure.
‘After every exam she sent me a text telling me how it had gone. Invariably it was one word — a word I can’t repeat,’ says Helen, who is a teaching assistant. She manages a smile. ‘She added a string of iiiiis in the middle.
‘She was always so hard on herself. She saw things in very black-and-white terms. It became a bit of a joke. When she said the exams had gone terribly, I’d say: “Is that Maisie awful, or everyone else awful?”’
You can see the woodland where Maisie ended her life from her bedroom. On the walls are pinned drawings from her beloved nephew and niece, and there are family photographs everywhere. The lightbox on the shelf says BE HAPPY.
Helen (pictured with Maisie, right, aged 11, and her son Oliver) says Maisie was bright, beautiful, kind, the sort of daughter you can only be proud of’
The death of a child by their own hand is every parent’s worst nightmare, and it hit this family, who live in the village of Misterton, Notts, ‘like a thunderbolt’.
Helen says that when they moved here a few years back, after she separated from Maisie’s father Mick, it was the dream environment. The homely bungalow is in the grounds of the primary school where Helen works as a classroom assistant. ‘As a mum, that was a dream. I could wave to the kids at breaktime.’
She did so, for the last time, to Maisie on the day she died. ‘We were all having end-of-term photographs done and I caught sight of her walking along with the dog. That was the last time I saw her alive.’
That day, June 19, was always going to be a pivotal one, because Maisie’s leaving ceremony was due to take place that morning.
‘She didn’t go,’ reveals Helen. ‘It was optional, and she’d been planning to, but on the morning said she wasn’t going to. I was a bit surprised but not worried in the slightest.
Helen explains that Maisie had been planning to go to her school leavers’ ceremony but said on the morning she wasn’t going to. Later that day, a friend texted to say she was worried as she hadn’t hear from Maisie all day
‘I just thought she was being a teenager and wanting a lie-in on the first day of her holidays. I sailed off to work. I sent her a text later about sausages. It was that normal.
‘When I came in here later, once we started to get worried, there was a wrapper from a Fab ice-lolly on the floor by her bed. Who eats a Fab lolly, then goes and does what she did? It doesn’t make sense.’
Helen stands at the window describing how the events unfolded. When a friend texted to say she was worried because she hadn’t heard from Maisie all day, Helen says she ‘wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned’.
She did a ring-around — ‘she has lots of family close by, her sister is down the road, her dad is around the corner, her gran is nearby’ — but no one had seen Maisie since the afternoon.
Helen phoned police as night fell and said she wondered whether Maisie (pictured with her niece Scarlet and nephew Joel) had passed out in the heat
As night fell, Helen phoned the police, ‘but I felt a bit foolish doing so’. By the early hours of the morning, though, she was frantic. She talks of watching the police helicopter hover over the woodland opposite. ‘I still never thought of . . . this. I thought: “It had been a really hot day. What if she’d passed out in the heat.” Not once, not in a million years, did I think of this.’
It was the partner of Helen’s oldest daughter who eventually found Maisie, just before 5am on June 20. Devastatingly, he was on the phone to Helen as he discovered her. At first he thought she was alive. ‘He was saying “I’ve got her, Helen, I’ve got her”.’
She heard every word of the ensuing panic, when it became clear Maisie was not alive. ‘I screamed and screamed,’ she says.
We sit on Maisie’s bed as Helen laments the life lost. She paints a vivid picture of the young Maisie, a ‘right little tomboy’ with a mischievous sense of humour who loved collecting tadpoles and was better at the boys than football — but too shy to agree to be on any football team.
Before her death, Maisie decorated a school leavers’ shirt (pictured) emblazoned on the back with her name and the dates 2012-2017 below
That sporty child turned into a more complex teenager, and yes, Helen did worry. ‘She’d always been shy, and rather set in her ways,’ she says. ‘With my background in education, I wondered if she was a little autistic.
‘She certainly didn’t like change, even over silly things. If we were on a walk with the dog and wanted to deviate from our usual path, she’d be uneasy. She didn’t like being away from home. If she went for a sleepover, we knew we’d get a call at 2am asking us to come and get her.
‘Last year she insisted she wanted to go on the school ski-trip and we duly paid the deposit, knowing full well she would change her mind at the last minute. She did too — but no one gave her grief over it. It was just Maisie, a homebody.’
There is never a single reason why a young person will choose suicide, but research has shown that if there is a ‘flashpoint’, it is likely to be around the time of exams, or while waiting for exam results.
The ‘transition period’ between school and further education is another critical time.
Helen says Maisie (pictured in 2010, aged nine) was a sporty child, describing her as a ‘right little tomboy’ with a mischievous sense of humour
There is now evidence that Maisie was secretly in some turmoil. Even as Helen was making her way to identify her body, Amy, Maisie’s older sister, found a doodle on Maisie’s chest of drawers. The family now know it to be an ‘ambigram’, a stylised word or phrase which has a contrasting meaning when read upside down.
This doodle, clearly done by Maisie, read ‘I’m fine’ one way, but when turned around then read ‘help me’.
‘I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that,’ Helen admits. ‘Was this her cry for help? If so, why couldn’t she talk to any of us about it?’
Helen has since had the ambigram design made into pins and is selling them to raise awareness of teen suicide. ‘We didn’t know until Maisie died that suicide is one of the biggest causes of death among teenagers. We never had a conversation with her about it. We didn’t think we needed to, not with Maisie. We were wrong.’
In the weeks since Maisie’s death, her family have raked over every conversation anyone ever had with her, in the hope of answering the only question that matters: why?
Helen admits that she did begin to worry as her daughter became a more complex teenager
One subject that has been discussed is whether Maisie was being bullied. She didn’t have many close friends (‘she was popular and funny, but she was the sort who only wanted people she wanted to be close to her,’ says her dad Mick) but they know of at least one online altercation with a girl from her school.
‘I don’t know if it was bullying, but I know she was upset,’ says Helen. ‘But then again, she was a bright girl and good with computers. She knew how to block people.’
Her dearest friendship has come under scrutiny, too. ‘She was close to one girl, and it was quite an intense sort of relationship, in the way it can be with teenage girls. We have wondered since if there was more to it. Was she gay, and struggling with her sexuality?’ asks Helen.
‘But there is nothing to suggest this, and even if she was — so what? We are not the sort of family to have problems with that. Her godfather is gay, an uncle is.’
She had other worries, like any teenager does. Helen says they had become concerned about her eating. She had been quite plump as a younger teenager, but had lost a lot of weight over the past year or so (‘she had been quite chunky but became a bit of a beanpole’).
Helen is now working to raise awareness of teen suicide. She urges other parents to tell their children they love them and to listen to them. Pictured is Maisie, aged five
‘At one point we were worried because she’d been studying nutrition and became a bit obsessed about not eating certain things,’ says Helen. ‘But we kept an eye on it. It wasn’t something we were unduly worried about.’
What’s terrifying for any parent is that these are normal teenage issues. Her mum is wracked with the guilt now that she ‘missed something huge’, particularly with a background in teaching.
‘I’m trained in how to tell if a child is upset or if something is “wrong”, even if the signs are subtle,’ she says. ‘And I did not see it in my own daughter.’
What is deeply upsetting for the family is that they have tried their utmost to gain access to Maisie’s phone and social media accounts, in the hope of getting some answers, but have been thwarted.
‘We really wanted to know what was on her phone,’ admits Helen. ‘She was with Amy on the morning she died and, because Maisie had no pockets, Amy put her phone in her shorts. But Maisie kept taking it out because she was getting messages. Who were they from? We don’t know.
‘The police have her phone now (it is procedure for police to seize mobiles in the case of a sudden death) but they’ve told us Apple won’t allow them access. The only way they could see her texts was if there was a terrorism threat.’
You hope, for this family’s sake, that the inquest into Maisie’s death will bring some answers, but in truth there is nothing that will console them now.
On Maisie’s bed, Helen has been flicking through science notes, marvelling at how ordered everything was about her daughter’s life. Then she crumples. ‘I am so angry with her,’ she admits. ‘And I feel so bad about that because how can you be angry with a 16- year-old who felt that life was so bad that it wasn’t worth living?
‘But I can’t help it. If she’d been murdered I could be angry at her murderer. If she’d died in a car crash, I could blame the driver. But Maisie has done this herself. She’s turned everything upside down, the whole world.’
Her daughter’s death, so unexplained, so completely devastating, has left Helen endlessly questioning Maisie in her mind: ‘What have you done?’.
Helen and Mick carried their daughter’s coffin at her funeral, and Helen delivered the eulogy, which was heartbreaking. ‘I don’t know whether to say sleep tight, or fly high, but for now we must say goodbye,’ she said. The final section, though, was directed at the mourners who packed into the church, specifically the parents among them.
‘Tell people about Maisie, the shy, bright, kind, loving girl who had so much to give and so much to live for,’ urged Helen.
‘But most importantly, tell your children that you love them. Hold them close. Listen to them.’
On the day they went to her school to pick up Maisie’s exam results, the headteacher told them they should be very proud. ‘We are,’ says Helen. ‘We could not have been any prouder of her. And the thing is, I never doubted her, not once. I knew Maisie. I knew that whatever she decided she wanted to do with her life, she would have made a success of it, because she was brilliant.
‘Why did she not see that too?’
- Helen’s family are raising money for the suicide prevention charity Papyrus (papyrus-uk.org). For confidential support contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org.