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Suicide in the family: What happens to those left behind?

Tuesday September 10 2019

suicide

A suicide attempt. To prevent someone you know from getting to that stage, you need to be able to identify the symptoms so you can step in and help. ILLUSTRATION | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

CAROLINE NJUNG'E
By CAROLINE NJUNG'E
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Suicide. Such a loaded word, one that our forefathers dared not voice because the act was considered an abomination of the highest order, a curse.

It’s only recently that society began talking about this still misunderstood act, but even then, the stigma that surrounds it is still so thick and suffocating that those left behind are unwilling to talk about it, forced to mourn in private.

Terry Nzau mourned in private for years after her mother took her life. She could not comprehend the act that plunged her and her three siblings into misery.

Now in her early 30s, Terry was just about to sit her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam.

It was on a weekday and she was returning from school. As she approached home, she saw a large gathering in their compound.

“Those days you only saw such large gatherings during weddings or funerals. It was a weekday so it wasn’t a wedding. I remember asking the friend I was with who had died. It turned out that it was my mother, but at the time no one told me what she had died from,” Terry says.

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CLOSURE

It is only much later that she learnt her mother had committed suicide.

No one, not even her father or close relatives, saw the need to tell her. The news hit her like a thunderbolt.

She recalls having so many questions, but there was no one to answer them. “I was hurt by her death. I wondered whether she had really loved us; whether she thought about us before she decided to kill herself…”

“Up to today, no one has ever really discussed my mother’s death with me. All I know about how she died, and why, is through snippets gathered over the years from different people. I know, for instance, that my mother took a pesticide and that by the time she reached Machakos Hospital — we lived in Tala — she was dead.”

The funeral was a blur, but Terry does remember that she and her siblings were not allowed to see her coffin, nor allowed near her graveside, which would have, perhaps, helped give her closure.

Were there signs that all was not well with her mother? Every person left behind asks this question — were there signs? Terry asked herself this question.

INFIDELITY

Many times. There was that time when her mother went away for several years, leaving them with their father. Then, she had no idea why.

It’s only two years ago while still searching for answers that one of her aunts disclosed that her father had affairs, a factor that was really distressing to her mum.

The aunt suspected that this could have been the reason for taking her life. After her mother’s death, she remembers that there was always tension whenever their extended relatives from both sides of the family came together.

“I could tell they did not want to talk to one another, but what pained even more was that less than a year after my mum’s death, my father remarried. Unfortunately, the woman he married would mistreat us, yet my father seemed not to care,” she says.

Her father’s disregard for them was high, and Terry’s older sister dropped out of school due to lack of fees.

“Fortunately, a cousin of my father took me to a children’s home, where my younger brother and sister joined me later.”

SUICIDE RATES

That is more than 17 years ago. Terry is an adult now with a family of her own, but is yet to come to terms with her mother’s death.

“The pain is still there, and I’m yet to get answers to the questions that I had. Suicide, I feel, is so unfair to those left behind.”

Today as we mark World Suicide Prevention Day, the International Association for Suicide Prevention — the organisers of this day — say a person dies every 40 seconds by suicide, and that up to 25 times as many make a suicide attempt.

The World Population Review ranks Kenya at position 114 among 175 countries with the highest suicide rates.

However, a 2017 report by the WHO indicated that only 60 of its member states had reliable data to help estimate suicide rates.

Kenya was not among them, a factor that would make it difficult for policymakers to come up with efficient and concrete ways of dealing with it.

There is also the fact that suicide is criminalised in the country’s Penal Code, not to mention the cultural stigma attached to it. These factors greatly undermine collection of data.

SYMPTOMS

So, if suicide is preventable, why are so many people dying from it?

To understand suicide, Nation had a chat with Richard Wafula and Faith Gichangi-Osiro, counselling psychologists with Amani Counselling Centre.

“By the time you get to the point of committing suicide, a number of things have happened: one is that you have lost hope; you are in such a state of hopelessness; you feel that the only solution to whatever you’re going through is to kill yourself,” Mr Wafula says.

To prevent someone you know from getting to that stage, you need to be able to identify the symptoms so you can step in and help.

Symptoms include being preoccupied with death, threatening to kill yourself, as well as depression, which can be triggered by a number of things: such as economic, social, and religious factors.

“Social withdrawal is another major sign. If you have a teen and he suddenly wants to keep to himself, don’t blame it on a phase; find out the reason. And if there’s a family [history] of suicide, be vigilant because it runs in some families,” he says.

FAMILY BOND

Also take note when someone close — a relative or friend — starts giving away things they once treasured.

On why suicide seems to be on the rise, Wafula notes that families are not as cohesive as they once were.

Hence, there are many dysfunctional families out there, which would not be in a position to offer someone with suicidal thoughts the needed support.

“You can therefore imagine a child who may be going through a tough time but has no one, no platform to vent or share,” Wafula notes.

Suicide, he adds, is only preventable if one has a platform to share what he or she is going through.

Worth noting is that the sharing has to be in an environment that is non-judgemental, friendly and accepting.

STIGMA

Why is there so much stigma surrounding suicide? Osiro blames it on lack of awareness.

“When someone you know has a physical illness, and is, say, bleeding, you can tell what is wrong, so you know what to do; for instance take them to hospital. But mental illness is related to behaviour, and this can only be good or bad behaviour.

“When confronted with something we don’t know, we tend to put it in boxes that we know, which end up being the wrong boxes,” she says.

She adds that the stigma surrounding suicide now is similar to that which surrounded HIV when it was discovered.

We knew little or nothing about it, so there were all these myths; for instance that you could get it through shaking hands.

“We have since educated ourselves about HIV, and know how to handle it. This is not the case with suicide, [and] many are yet to understand it. This lack of awareness is what is fuelling the stigma,” she says.

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