Hero of the month…Staff Sergeant Chris Hargreaves 1974 - 2017
“Chris was an incredible dad; he loved our boys more than anything in the world”
The death of Staff Sergeant Chris Hargreaves came as a huge shock to his entire family. The Army photographer and father of four, tragically took his own life on 19th February 2017. He left behind his wife, Jilly and two young sons, Austen and Cooper, who were just seven and three-years-old at the time, and two children from a previous marriage.
The day Jilly was told of her husband’s death will stay with her forever. Although they were separated at the time, Chris was still a huge part of the boys lives, and Jilly knew that telling her children that they would never see their daddy again would break their hearts.
Austen and Cooper are now 11 and 7 years old. They are members of Scotty’s Little Soldiers, the charity for bereaved Armed Forces children and young people and, this month, Scotty’s is paying tribute to their dad, their hero – Staff Sergeant Chris Hargreaves.
Chris, a qualified Army photographer, received his Master’s in Photography just a month before he died. He joined the Army in 1993 at the age of 19, and, as Jilly recalls, took great pride in his work. “Chris absolutely loved photography,” she said. “When Chris joined the Army, he didn't have many GCSEs or A levels, but he found his passion at work and worked hard to excel in it. Getting his Master’s in Photography was one of his greatest achievements. He graduated in January 2017, just a month before taking his life. He took his work incredibly seriously and always gave 100%.”
Chris’s other passion in life was his children, a devoted father of four, he would do anything for them. Jilly said: “Chris was an incredible dad, he remained close to his children from his previous marriage and loved our boys more than anything in the world. Although we’d separated before he died, he still spent a lot of time with Austen and Cooper, he had a lovely relationship with them and they thought the world of him.”
Chris and Jilly had been together for 16 years before they separated, and one of her fondest memories was from their wedding day. She recalls: “Our wedding day was one of the best days of my life. We got married in Croatia as it had always held a special place in Chris’s heart after spending so much time in Bosnia in the Army. We took the boys back there years later to show them where we got married and we ate at his favourite fish restaurant by the harbour.”
Jilly also loved Chris’s fun and outgoing personality, she said: “He was always the life and soul of the party. He loved socialising, hosting parties and being around his friends. He absolutely loved Christmas, and he got just as excited as the boys did about it. He’d make sure there were lots of decorations and fun activities going on and always made sure everyone around him was having a good time. Before the children came along, we had a rule that Friday nights were fun nights – no TV, no cooking just a few drinks and a disco. That was the Chris I knew and loved.”
It was in the six months leading up to Chris’s death that Jilly noticed a change in Chris’s personality. She explains: “We’d just moved to a new place; the kids were about to start a new school and he turned round one day out of the blue and said he was leaving as he needed space. This was when things started to change. His behaviour changed drastically – the Chris I knew when we got married and the Chris I knew when he died were completely different people. He had no history of mental illness but had most definitely become a different person.”
The day Jilly was told that her husband had taken his own life she was with her parents, getting ready to take her sons on holiday. She said: “I didn’t know what to do for the best, whether we should still go on holiday or stay at home. The boys were really looking forward to the holiday and it was Austen’s birthday the week before, so I decided to go and explain to the children what had happened when we got back. I wanted them to enjoy themselves and I knew telling them would break their hearts.”
Jilly explains that telling her boys what had happened to their daddy was the most difficult thing she’s ever had to do. She said: “No mum should have to sit down with her seven- and three-year-old sons and explain to them that their daddy has taken his own life.”
Jilly initially decided to keep the details of Chris’s death from her boys and explained that he’d gone to be a star in the sky. However, later realised that she needed to tell them the truth.
She recalls: “I’ll admit now that I handled it badly. I wanted to shield them from the truth, but this didn’t work and the boys became unwell quite quickly, physically suffering with stomach issues, particularly Austen. My initial reaction to telling them the truth was utter fear and disbelief that this was the right thing to do, but looking back, it was absolutely the right decision to be open with them. The boys knew more than I realised, and it has built such a strong bond between us that remains to this day.”
As Austen and Cooper have grown up, Jilly said they remind her more and more of Chris. She says the thing she misses the most is them being a family. “The boys are growing up so fast, they are both doing really well, I just wish Chris was here to see it.”
There are also certain things Austen and Cooper miss about their dad. Cooper said: “I wish daddy could see me play football”.
Austen said: “I miss my dad on the days no one thinks about him but thanks to Scotty’s that doesn’t happen at home anymore.”
To keep Chris’s memory alive Jilly, Austen and Cooper always talk about him. Austen added: “We always talk about him, and sometimes me and Cooper stay together and tell each other stories about Daddy. Although, Cooper makes them up on his turn and it always includes him and Daddy at Tesco with a bear or tiger.”
They both also have a bear made from Chris’s uniform which sits in their room. Jilly said: “The bears were made by my best friend’s mum when Chris was still alive, so they mean a lot to them.”
The boys also have a special lookout point they visit when they want to talk to their dad. Jilly said: “We go there any time of the year, whenever the boys want to talk to Chris. We always go there on Father’s Day, which is now known as Boys’ Day as they choose the activity they want to do to have fun and remember their dad. We also go there on Chris’s birthday, we take a note and sometimes a balloon as a way for the boys to remember him. They talk to him and tell him about what’s happening in their lives. It’s a very special place to them.”
Since Chris’s death, Austen and Cooper have been supported by Scotty’s Little Soldiers. Jilly first came across the charity at the Party at the Palace event, an event for bereaved Armed Forces children hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry at Buckingham Palace. Jilly was advised to speak to Scotty’s founder, Nikki, who was also in attendance at the event.
She said: “At the time I was petrified and angry and didn’t want any link to the military. I remember walking over to the Scotty’s stand and fighting tears trying to introduce myself and she immediately got it. She knew how I was feeling because her husband was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, so she knows that sense of loss. This is one of my favourite memories of the year Chris died. I will always remember seeing Nikki and holding Cooper while watching Austen at the front of the stage singing to Jess Glynn.”
“I love Scotty’s and what it means to us. It makes us all feel good and brings back happy memories of Chris. They do so much. The gifts when it matters, the treats, the holidays but it is so much more than this. The boys wear their Scotty’s clothes with pride. The Scotty’s breaks are also vital for us to remember Chris. They are a safe place for us all to have fun and to talk openly about Chris. This is a subconscious thing that has happened with the boys but it is so valuable.”
Jilly said life would be very different for them without Scotty’s. She said: “Without Scotty’s in our lives we’d be less open, less honest, and less willing to talk about Chris. I would even go as far as to stay if Scotty’s wasn’t in our life, it would potentially have had a seriously negative effect for the boys and me.”
For Austen, Scotty’s mean everything, talking about what the charity means to him, he added: “Scotty’s Little Soldiers is more than just a group, it’s like a family. Because everyone’s just there and everyone’s so supportive. It’s weird, because if you went up to someone and asked them how it feels to lose a parent they wouldn’t know the answer, but if you went up to somebody at Scotty’s, they’d give you the exact answer. It’s nice to know that you’re not alone, when you’re going through something so hard. They’re just awesome.”