No Ordinary Love: Twelve Months On, The Loss Of Chester Bennington Still Resonates
He’s always in her thoughts. The snapshot memories are there forever, capturing his kindness, the way he smiled, or the goofy times in which he’d made her laugh. There was romance, fun and passion – it dominated everything he did and she loved that about him. But his unswerving authenticity and unbounded loyalty felt important, too. So was an emotional rawness and the way in which his children idolised their dad.
To most of us, Chester Bennington was Linkin Park’s totemic frontman and the occasional singer with Stone Temple Pilots and Dead By Sunrise; the underdog champion and perennial fighter taking swings for the disenfranchised everywhere; the man most likely to speak his mind when everyone else had lost their nerve. But to Talinda Bennington, his wife of 12 years, Chester was “the best father, friend and husband anyone could have.”
It’s been a year since Chester died by suicide, an incident that darkened the rock world in a summer already shadowed by the death of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell – one of Chester’s closest friends, and a loss that affected him keenly. But 12 months later, the headlines seem just as unimaginable now as they had back then, his memory and image feedbacking through arena-sized anthems on replayed albums. Old Linkin Park footage and interviews circle on YouTube, breathing new energy and poignancy into his memory. And amid the fallout to July 20, 2017, no-one would have quite grasped at the empty spaces once occupied by his larger-than-life presence like Talinda, as well as his mother Susan Eubanks and sister Tobi Knehr – the women closest to Chester, the three people that understood him best.
All of them have been emotionally shattered by the loss of their life-partner, son and sibling, though they’ve summoned the strength to talk about Chester’s legacy in order to mark a year since his passing for this Kerrang! celebration. Their words call out to those Linkin Park fans affected deeply by his tragic departure, while shining light on to the deeper intricacies of a character many people connected with so strongly. More urgently, it’s their valiant effort to prove that death isn’t the escape route for anyone suffering from depression, anxiety, or other potentially consuming conditions. Spreading the word about mental health issues has become a focus for Chester’s friends and family. The hope is that his farewell won’t have been in vain.
For Talinda, finding the right words to describe Chester has been an emotional process, but she’s gathered the courage to recall the tenderness of their relationship, Chester’s role as a father to six children – Jaime, Isaiah, Draven Sebastian, Tyler Lee, Lily and Lila – and his unswerving desire to improve as a person on a daily basis.
“As his wife, he always told me how much he loved and appreciated me,” she says. “He was very physically affectionate and told me that I was beautiful every day – even when I was fat and pregnant! As a father, he was very present. He would take time to listen to the little ones to find out why they were upset, when their only way of communication was crying. He would take time to watch Barbie movies with the girls, and play video games with the boys. And as the head of our family, he always worked hard to secure our future and make sure we were provided for. He was always fighting to be healthy for our sake as well – both physically and mentally. He wanted to be his best for us.
“I’m going to get really personal here,” she continues. “He would stare at me when I was asleep and tell me how much he loved me. I would wake up to him recording this on camera – he would watch the videos while he was away and missing me – and I would start laughing so hard; out of slight embarrassment, but mostly because it was so romantically corny.
“He was so special to me because he was my soul mate. We knew each other inside and out and could oftentimes communicate without words. He was so special to me because he was a present and loving father to our babies and the most romantic and loving husband a woman could ever dream of. Where did that come from? God. He was my heart and soul.
“I loved him from the moment I laid eyes on him.”
In the space of the past 12 months, the legacy of Chester Bennington has grown in stature. His presence remains vivid; his personality gaining more respect and heft by the day as new tributes from those attached to him – written to commemorate the moment of his death last year – gather momentum. Only last month, close friend and bandmate Mike Shinoda explained that Chester had carried with him a “child-like openness and directness”. It wasn’t unusual for him to pour out all sorts of things to a passenger sitting next to him during a flight, explained Mike, “stuff you shouldn’t tell another person on a plane.” With each interview, another layer of Chester’s character has opened up, revealing new depths and endearing traits, like turning the pages of an intimate biography written by the people closest to its heartbeat.
For those working within his orbit, he could be a combative character, however. A man who by his own admission wanted to “stir things up” in the studio while lyrically scrapping for the priorities he considered most important. These creative muses and political standpoints soon became an endearing bond between Chester and Linkin Park’s whirlpool mosh-pits. People understood the struggles as being all-encompassing; they recognised Chester’s need to rail against his perceived enemies over seven studio albums, because he fought the good fight.
“The stuff that can get you pissed,” he explained of his band’s songwriting focus shortly after the release of the band’s sixth studio album, 2014’s The Hunting Party. “Independence, identity, creativity, freedom of expressing all those things. There’s just so much about the world that pisses me off right now. It just gets crazier and crazier… At the same time, there’s no one single answer for all of our problems.
“We’re in an interesting place as a world society. There are a lot of really amazing innovations and amazing things that can make the world better, but at the same time there are still people surviving and people still living in the dark, in burning dung, in heaps of garbage. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“His legacy encompasses everything he did and everything he was,” says Talinda. “His legacy to me will always first be as my soulmate, best friend, husband, and father. I’m aware that his music is his legacy to the world. Maybe someday when I can hear his music without spiralling into the deepest sorrow, I will appreciate that as well. He had an ability to make every person he spoke to feel special, and that they mattered. He thought deeply about life and had great compassion for others.”
“His compassion, giving and sense of humour were his greatest assets,” agrees Tobi.
These sentiments are echoed by his mother who was always impressed with Chester’s “philanthropy, his ability to connect with strangers, how deeply he cared about people”. But his attributes were never in question, even as a little boy. Apparently as a toddler, Chester brimmed with “incredible talent and determination. He started telling everyone he was going to be a rock star at the age of two.”
An against-all-odds determination extended away from Linkin Park’s metal-primed grooves and into Chester’s everyday life. He loved playing basketball on tour, “against guys who are taller than me, heavier than me, they’re hitting against me as hard as they can.” After one game of five-a-side football, which put two magazine writers into A&E afterwards, he claimed to be a “destroyer”. But there was symmetry in Chester, one that levelled out this aggressive streak. He fought for charitable causes equally hard, supporting PETA and founding Music For Relief, a group that responded to natural disasters. “People loved seeing him help build houses, cleaning up debris, saving lives in his work,” says Susan. “He enjoyed helping people.”
This sense of balance is what first drew Linkin Park into unit-shifting sympathy on Chester’s arrival in 1999. His soaring vocals brought alignment to the juggernaut rhythms and abrasive raps – some harmony to match the rage. And standing up to bullies soon became his thing. “His desire to right the injustices of the world, on a personal and global level, was the quality I admired the most in him,” says Tobi. “During one Linkin Park concert, Chester noticed a young man with Down’s syndrome that was being pushed out of the pit by other fans,” says Susan. “Chester got down off the stage and went over and got him. He took him and his mom onstage – and kept them there with the band for the entire show. He kept in touch with the young man until he died.”
“I can honestly say that I admired every quality he had, even the ones that would typically be viewed as unfavourable,” says Talinda. “Why? Because he addressed his faults and always did his best to improve himself. That takes an enormous amount of bravery and strength.”
What did other people see in Chester?
Talinda: “His authenticity. When someone is as authentic as Chester was, it didn’t matter that he was a superstar. You saw his genuine self – a kind and loving soul.”
Tobi: “His personality. He was approachable and never met [someone like they were] a stranger.”
Susan: “He disarmed people with his smile and his spontaneity.”
There were plenty of other qualities to love. As Tobi tells it, he would often make toilet jokes and “buy or share poop books”, the kind you might buy from a joke shop for a younger family member. “As my brother, he always had my back, a partner-in-crime I could rely on.”
Susan adored the undying loyalty he showed towards his stepdad, but that emotion extended to everyone around him. “[He was loved because of] his ability to make people fall in love with him with just a smile,” she says. “When you met Chester, you were the most important person in the world at least for a few minutes. His lyrics and voice touched so many people, and helped them to get through difficult times. People could connect with his message.”
Tobi reckons one of her brother’s greatest qualities was his ability to connect and “genuinely care” for just about everyone. “He developed a reputation early in his career for going the extra mile for his fanbase,” she says. “He would stay and sign autographs for hours.
“What was there not to love?”
Sadness burns at the edges of every memory and endearing revelation. Chester’s death to this day feels raw, his reasons for closing the book are streaked with tragedy, and those around him still grieve. Though for Talinda, there’s determination to draw some positivity from her darkest chapter. Since that awful day in July last year, she has become a mental health activist, regularly speaking on panels, “to let others know they are not alone”.
“I believe that the positive effects of this campaign are multifaceted, from opening up dialogue, to sharing resource information with those in need,” she says. “Most importantly to me is that my kids now know that the passing of their dad has prompted people to receive care for their own mental health and has saved countless lives already. It has helped make sense out of a senseless tragedy.”
For some periods following July 20, Talinda and her family desperately needed emotional buoyancy, but had no idea it existed beyond their own circle of friends and family. “[But] after many calls and meetings with hundreds of mental health groups and organisations, I realised that there is a lot of care and support out there,” she says. The revelation inspired her to help with those in need of emotional assistance during dire times.
“I knew I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel with respect to mental health support, I just needed to find a way to streamline access to it,” she says. “I created 320 Changes Direction [the name refers to the date of Chester’s birthday], a mental health initiative with technological-based solutions to streamline anything under the mental health umbrella, and partnered with [mental health groups] Give An Hour and The Campaign To Change Direction.
“After Chester died, I wasn’t able to sleep. I found myself on Twitter and realised that Chester and Linkin Park’s fans were reaching out to me in sorrow and desperation,” she explains. “I knew that Chester would never have wanted to inflict pain on to anyone, much less his fans. I wanted to help each and every one of them, but knew I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to do so. And then it occurred to me: I could retweet those in crisis [people wanting to do self harm], and ask the ‘LP Family’ to tweet them and to lift them up with words of love and support.
“It created a beautiful and overwhelming response of people around the world, who were loving and supporting of each other. It made me realise how many people needed and wanted to talk about their mental health and emotional wellbeing. By creating this space to talk about mental health, and to see that we are truly not alone, no matter what we are feeling, was unbelievably healing to me. I began my search as to where I could plug in and help.”
On the pages of the 320 Changes Direction website, five indicators are outlined, each one signalling that someone might be in emotional pain: personality changes, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care and a sense of hopelessness. The site offers insight on how best to assist anyone that might be suffering from mental health issues. “You connect, you reach out, you inspire hope, and you offer help.” But the statistics behind her new calling have unsettled Talinda. “The most startling thing I have learned,” she says, “is how many people and kids have attempted suicide once.” She knows the world is in a mental health crisis. “The numbers are heart-breaking.”
Why do we as a society have such difficulties when discussing mental health?
Talinda: “Mental health has historically been seen as something ‘a crazy person has’, shame for not being okay and happy. Thankfully we are an evolving society, and learning that this is simply not true.”
Tobi: “It’s because of other people’s judgement… It has been brought to the forefront. The fact that we are having an open discussion about mental health is a start. Depression has many faces, and doesn’t always look the same. It can’t be defined by sadness.”
Susan: “It has been a taboo subject to discuss for centuries.”
There are steps that can be taken, however. “We need more mental health professionals in the world,” Talinda says. “Kids, teens, adults: please consider the mental health field for employment. We need to talk about [mental health] without judgement. We need to learn more about the difference between mental health, which we all have, and mental illness.” When asked how to change the conversation around these issues, she explains that it could happen in small increments. “Little by little. Changing some of the verbiage we use, words like ‘crazy’ to describe someone suffering from mental illness. Changing ‘committed suicide’ to ‘died by suicide’. These are subconscious ways in which we stigmatise mental health.
“The discussion needs to start at home. If we can raise emotionally intelligent children, then the future with respect to mental health is bright. [Chester’s death] has become a catalyst for a change in our mental health culture. We now as a society are beginning to address our mental health with the same respect as our physical health.”
“Twenty years ago nobody opened up about anything,” says Susan. “That is where the stigma comes from.”
“Seek help and know that you are not alone,” says Tobi.
“Imagine having to explain to your 11-year-old son why his best friend, his idol, had taken his life,” concludes Talinda. “Also knowing that one day you will have to explain why and how Daddy died to your two little girls. The only way I could think to ever explain this tragedy was to teach them about mental health. Their daddy wasn’t well, and they have to understand this on a macro scale. Their daddy touched and saved lives through his music, and through his death he will do the same.
“Their father cannot have died in vain – there has to be a change to our mental health culture and society.”
Fittingly, all of this has come full circle. The women in Chester Bennington’s life are now championing the underdog, throwing punches in the fight for mental health awareness with a style befitting the man they’ve long-loved and lost. There’s a resolve to succeed, inspired by his passing, one that they, and we, will never get to fully comprehend, or reconcile. Like the soulmate, brother and son that brought them so much happiness in his 41 years, their hope is to deliver positive change to those most in need of it. Every word, every gesture can help.
Who cares if one more light goes out? Well, they do. And so should we all.
Words: Matt Allen
Photos courtesy of Talinda Bennington and family
Learn more about the 320 Changes Direction campaign at changedirection.org. If you have been affected by anything in this article, please see youngminds.org.uk.