4 September 2003 Edition
Paddy and Collette's story
BY ÁINE Ní BHRIAIN
In the last 20 years, the number of young men in the Six Counties that have committed suicide has more than doubled. In her second report, AINE Ní BHRIAIN talks to a Belfast couple who are still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their son.
"The two cops were in plain clothes and they were up at the bedside. They brought me up to identify him. I thought they were doctors or something. My head was spinning. I remember saying something like, 'what happened here? Is this accidental or what?'. And he said, 'No. Self inflicted.' That's what they said. And I just walked out of the room. I couldn't look."
Paddy has lost his son to suicide, but he and his wife Collette have generously agreed to talk to me about their loss. To protect their privacy, I am not using their real names.
Paddy and Collette's son took his life several years ago, but it may as well have been yesterday. The entire family has been irrevocably changed by his loss. Everything came to a halt. Time stopped. Life stopped. The depth of their grief is still so great they fear it being spoken aloud. In fact, this is the first time they have talked about their son's death in the same room together since it happened.
Experts mention warning signs - indications that someone could be at risk for suicide - but Paddy and Collette are adamant there were no warning signs before their son was moved to take his own life. For them, his suicide came out of the blue, and the shock and heartbreak it has left behind still endures.
"People say there are signs," says Paddy. "That's a load of rubbish. If there had been signs we would have noticed and that's the truth. We would have noticed. He was a happy-go-lucky kid. You'd have noticed right away."
"His eyes gave him away," says Collette. "If he was trying to hide something his eyes would have told you everything. Even his siblings say, 'Mummy, there was nothing'."
Her husband agrees.
"Oh, you'd have seen if the danger signals were there," he says quietly. "There were no signs. If he had been out there smoking blow or sniffing glue or something, you would have known to watch him. People put 'the signs' in the papers - depression, not wanting to get washed - well, how do they know those are the signs?
"I think it's different for everybody, because all the ones who died around here, including my son - their families say there were no signs."
All ones who died around here... The words echo in my ears. For Paddy and his wife know they are not as isolated in their grief as they may feel. Many other families have suffered, and some of them live in the same estate. Since Christmas, 30 families in West Belfast and another 19 in North Belfast have been bereaved by suicide. It is a staggering statistic and one that cannot and must not be ignored.
"The police wouldn't let me up the stairs at first. When I went up he was lying in a body bag on the bed. They said "look, we've just took him down." They didn't want to explain. That was it. Later on, it was all 'Why? Why?' Since the day he died, it's still, why? Why didn't he phone us? Why didn't he come down? Why?"
Paddy and Collette had been married for more than 30 years when their son died, but within two years of his death their marriage broke up and they have now separated. Sadly, this is an all too common occurrence. Like many families bereaved by suicide, they are tortured by questions to which they will probably never find answers.
They have never been offered any form of counselling. There is no one qualified to help them through the long, painful process of putting their lives back together, no one to talk to who can ease their sadness.
Her family doctor was of little help. "He never rang me, never came by," she says. In the aftermath of her child's death, she lapsed into a deep depression.
"It wrecked me," she says. "I couldn't get out of it, you understand? I can't get out of it. The only one that helped me was the wee priest. There were friends, neighbours, people in the Movement, but that wee priest was brilliant. He never left me."
For Paddy and Collette, the unexpressed sadness, hurt and anger of their son's loss kept them apart at a time when they desperately needed one another's support.
"I was scared to bring it all up in case it upset her," says Paddy quietly, as he motions to his wife. "I didn't want to start her crying. And she won't say anything to me in case it upsets me. So we just don't talk about it. It's not going to bring him back anyway, no matter what. His siblings are really wrecked. They were very close to him. One talks a lot about him and the other - she talks about him as if he's still here.
"Night time is the worst, because you think back, you've got time to think. When everybody leaves - after the funeral or at the end of the day - you feel isolated, lonely. Who do I talk to? I can't talk to my partner, can't talk to my other children, my mates sort of backed off. They didn't want to hurt my feelings.
"I finally went to a counsellor on the Lisburn Road, and he said, 'what's happened is you don't want to talk, but you do'. I thought, I've never met this guy before. Why should I talk to him? Why am I not talking to my mates? They can sort of tell you - 'come on, you'll be all right' - you know?
"Maybe if it had been somebody local it would have been better. I just couldn't relate to the guy. He was doing his best, but I couldn't talk to him. He kept saying, 'you're holding back, you're holding back'. I thought, 'Well, who are you, who do you work for?"
Paddy was so overwhelmed with shock at the scene of his son's death that he could barely think straight. No one gave him time to recover, to take in the horror before him. None of the RUC personnel present came to talk him through what was happening or offer him information on where to turn for support.
"They whisked me into the back of that jeep when I came out after identifying him," says Paddy about the RUC officers on the scene, "and they started asking me all these stupid questions - when was the last time I had seen him, who was he with... My head was spinning.
"I went over to the morgue and this... well, I can't describe her - only as a bitch - she said, - 'it' won't be ready for another couple of hours'. It. That's what she said! I said: 'That's my son you're talking about!'
It won't be ready! Like you were talking about a fish supper or something. These were professional people. You'd expect them to know better."
Paddy and Collette want to see more help made available to families.
"I think the younger generation - they're on drink and whatever - well, I take a drink too, but the thing is, these kids are running about with something going on in their heads, something not right.
"The other day, at twenty to five in the morning, I looked out my window and there were four kids out there, with their off-sale bags, drinking. The oldest wouldn't have been ten. Where are their parents?
"One fellow says to me, 'remember the parents now - they're only kids themselves'. Well, so they are - 16 years old with a child.
"I think they should talk about suicide in schools. They talk about alcohol and dope, why not this? It's just as dangerous."