A life lost, a life ruined

KIRSTY MCMURRAY
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2013
tdn mum full
JONATHAN CAMERON

Mother: "We couldn't stay living in the house when we had to walk past his bedroom door every day."

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To a statistician, the death of a Taranaki student last July marked the first youth suicide in the region in over a year.

To the boy's mother it was the day her world collapsed.

On a winter afternoon the boy's older brother came home from school to find the 16-year-old dead in the garage.

His death doesn't show up in the latest national suicide statistics released in September and covering the year to June. They show there were no youth suicides in that time in Taranaki.

The next set of figures will not be nearly as positive.

The Taranaki Young People's Trust has recorded five suicides and 13 attempted suicides among its clientele in the last nine months.

It means at least five more families will be facing the turmoil and grief experienced by the 16-year-old's loved ones since last July.

Coroner Tim Scott's report was released this week.

"His death does serve as yet another example of the tragedy that can occur for apparently relatively insignificant reasons and with probably inadequate warning," he wrote.

The boy's name and the names of those involved in the case were suppressed.

There are tight restrictions around the reporting of self-inflicted deaths.

But this week the teenager's mother has spoken to the Taranaki Daily News about her anguish, and subsequent frustration.

Sitting at the dining table in the family's immaculate new home this week, she flicked back and forth through the folder full of paperwork collected in the months following her son's death.

She talked about how she had to go to her bank manager and explain why she needed finance to buy a new home.

"We couldn't stay living in the house when we had to walk past his bedroom door every day."

So the family moved, but took memories of the boy who was "such a neat kid" with them.

Even in hindsight she could see no reason she should have been worried for the son she describes as kind, generous and funny, who would happily sit and chat with elderly relatives, go to motocross events and concerts and on holidays with his family, had interests and a social life, and would ask questions and talk freely with his mother, brother and stepfather.

"Some days I'd get home from work and he would have emptied the dishwasher, chopped the wood and done the little chores and I'd dump my stuff and start getting dinner ready. He would perch himself on the kitchen bench, ask me if he could pour me a glass of wine and sit there and chat about his day."

She still cannot understand why he took his own life.

"He had a good home life, a good school life, he wasn't getting bullied. He had nothing dramatic and serious enough going on in his life to cause this."

What she did find, going through his things, were signs she wished she had seen.

"He'd write poetry and little stories in his school diary, which, if I'd seen them, would have made me think something was wrong."

She wished she had been more of a prying parent and now encourages other parents to keep a close eye on their children.

"Never feel like you're invading your teenager's privacy. If they're out, take half an hour, look through their drawers, their school books, look for any signs of feeling lost and alone. Be a snoopy parent, discreetly of course.

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"Sometimes you have a normal teenager, which is what I thought, and there's all this turmoil going on."

She wondered if her son's despondency stemmed from trying to resolve who he was at home, with the person he was with his friends.

"My husband said to me, "it's almost like there were two of him".

"I think it might have been a situation of him trying to be something for them and something for us."

Two months before his death, the boy was caught staying at a rental house and had taken his father's car without permission and damaged it.

While grounded, he sneaked out of house to socialise late at night after his family had gone to bed.

Mr Scott said that, apart from some text messages to his friends, the boy did not give any indication of what he planned and those close to him believed he was thinking positively about life and his future.

"With the benefit of hindsight it now seems that the teenager became far more depressed than his mother realised over the incidents which led to his grounding."

The coroner's report also said another "emotionally charged" piece of the boy's writing could only be seen as a suicide note.

In it, he said "sometimes I think I would be better off dead".

Taranaki Young Person's Trust social worker Bridget West deals with troubled teenagers on a regular basis and says often by the time it's realised young people need help, it's too late.

"When they get to the point that they're in that dark hole and there's just no option for them, they're past seeing how it's going to hurt people or how other people are going to be affected because they're so wrapped up in it themselves, they're hurting so much themselves."

She said parents, family and friends could be left forever questioning the circumstances around suicide.

"The hurt, the guilt, the what-ifs, what did I miss, could I have done more, what did I do wrong? They're never going to have the answers.

"Only that person really knows what was going on with them."

The 16-year-old's suicide brought his mother far more to deal with than just grief.

There was the post-mortem, the police, the coroner, countless forms to be filled out, the funeral to be arranged, decisions to be made about his ashes, trying to get his belongings and blood samples back from the authorities and family and friends to be dealt with.

Miss West said it could be an enormously difficult time for families.

"They don't know what the process is or what needs to be done and they're in the middle of this horrendous grief and having to deal with that as well."

But the boy's mother is highly organised and her meticulous notes don't paint a pretty picture of how agencies, organisations and people tasked with dealing with death on a daily basis treat a grieving family.

She said she had problems almost every step of the way and would lay a complaint with Coronial Services about the process and factual issues in the report of the inquiry into his death.

A spokesperson from Coronial Services said such complaints were investigated and treated seriously.

"Coroners deal with very sensitive and emotional issues, and from time to time people will complain about aspects of the process."

The mother knows none of it will bring her son back or change the circumstances of his death, but she still feels the system did her and her son a disservice. "It's too late for me. It's too late for him. But somehow I need to get the message through that it's not good enough."

Suicide has a ripple effect.

Ms West said their records showed five suicides and 13 attempts directly affected 57 people, who visited the Young People's Trust as a result.

More than 500 people required some form of assistance from the trust following those tragedies.

"These figures are only what we know about and there would be a significant higher number than that," Ms West said.

For the 16-year-old's mother, other numbers had taken on a new meaning since his death.

"You don't measure your life in big spaces of time any more, they're smaller, and that's strange."

She said her son's death had made her fearless and prompted her to start making the most of every hour.

"I feel a little bit invincible. The worst has already happened. Nothing can touch me now."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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