Lifestyle

Wednesday 24 September 2014

I am haunted by regrets, says teenage suicide girl's mother

A mother whose teenage daughter killed herself 10 weeks ago spoke of her heartbreak for the first time this week in the hope that other parents may learn from the tragedy.

Aggie Pugsley said 15-year-old Ciara seemed to be a happy girl. Her death was so unexpected that Aggie thought at first that her daughter had been a victim of foul play. Later it emerged that she had hanged herself following sustained abuse on social-media websites.

Aggie has not spoken publicly before about Ciara's death near their home in Co Leitrim. But she said she wanted to now following the suicide of another schoolgirl – 12-year-old Lara Burns Gibbs from Co Kildare. This latest tragedy comes just weeks after Erin Gallagher (13) from Ballybofey, Co Donegal, committed suicide.

"Parents need to talk to their children about suicide – that it's final and there's no way back," she said

"Parents need to tell them that no matter how upset they may feel, there's always another way. Talk to your child. Ask them questions about their day. Try to identify if something is up.

"I know it's not always easy to see problems, but please make the time."

Aggie is haunted by regrets. "I wish I'd limited the amount of time Ciara had spent on the internet," she said, fighting back the tears.

"I'd been strict enough about it during the school year, but gave her much more freedom during the summer holidays and, of course, that was a time where she was experiencing all that cyber bullying.

"Parents should make their children give them their phones before they go to bed and should curtail the amount of time that they're spending online.

"They need to have conversations with them about what they're doing online. And they need to educate themselves about social media."

Although she spoke for the best part of an hour – often very movingly – she wished for only a small part of the conversation to go on the record. "It's just too raw."

She was talking to the Weekend Review with her former husband, Ciara's father Jonathan Pugsley, at the home she shared with Ciara in Dromahair.

That their outwardly happy girl, who loved playing Gaelic football and attending pony club and who had been wearing the fancy Wellington boots Aggie had bought her in Sligo the day before, should kill herself stunned the couple.

"There are so many questions we're starting to get the answers to, to build up a picture of Ciara's last months," Jonathan said.

"There was the bullying, especially the horrendous abuse she endured on social media.

"But, in hindsight, we're learning that there may have been other factors too. At the time, we thought we were doing everything right, but maybe there's more we could have done.

"It's been a very rough time, you cope as well as you can – that's all you can do.

"You just hope other parents don't lose their children to suicide."

His words of sadness and disbelief were echoed by Fr PJ Byrne, in his homily at the funeral of Lara Burns Gibbs in Maynooth.

"What is going on?" he asked. "What is bothering our children that we don't know?"

Mr Pugsley said: "Maybe this latest suicide will make the people in the Dail finally sit up and take notice.

"They've been dragging their heels for far too long and, to be honest, I'm starting to get angry about it."

But his anger was mixed with compassion. "My heart goes out to the family of that young girl.

"What they're going through is impossible to understand unless you've been there too. You know, it's also tough for parents like us to have to open the papers and see Ciara's face there again, because she's part of this tragic spate of suicides over the past couple of months. It magnifies the awfulness of it all."

Since Ciara's death, Mr Pugsley has been acclaimed by anti-bullying campaigners for his courage in speaking so openly. He says he wants to highlight a topic that's long been taboo in this country. Yet, he says, his profound grief is but "a tenth" of that of his ex-wife. "It's especially hard for Aggie, because Ciara lived with her and the memory of Ciara is everywhere in that house."

The Pugsleys' advice to other parents is endorsed by Joan Freeman, founder of the suicide prevention charity, Pieta House. She has seen children as young as six attend for counselling.

"I'm not in any way judging the parents whose children have killed themselves," she said, "We have to respect the pain and loss they are suffering. But I would advise all parents who have young children to be highly vigilant as to what they're up to online and who they're conversing with. It's important to set boundaries because children need them and if that means taking their smartphone off them, so be it.

"What's happened now is the traditional cut-off point of bullying – when the child leaves the school each day – is gone, because the abuse continues online 24/7."

The current spate of suicides among young teenage girls has caused her considerable concern.

"Young children simply don't grasp the finality of suicide," she adds.

"Look at the language other children use when talking about a friend who has died this way: it's 'nice one!', 'save a seat for me' and 'see you in heaven'."

Michelle Fox, a psychotherapist with the Stop Suicide charity, said she was alarmed at the way many young people have come to glorify suicide.

"Children impulsively act out their emotions," she says. "Their brains aren't yet fully developed and they simply aren't thinking logically. Do they actually grasp the finality of suicide? I think it's important that parents and guardians have conversations with children about the cold, hard reality of suicide."

The phenomenon of copycat suicides is especially acute among young teens. "Children can be very impressionable and when they see a huge fuss being created for someone their own age, it can plant ideas in their heads. We have to be very careful of this."

Her words resonate with Jonathan Pugsley. He has come to believe that Ciara's state of mind was badly affected after another pupil at her school killed herself in January.

"I think there was a ripple effect from that suicide. That girl also hanged herself – did Ciara get the idea to use the same method?"

Former secondary school teacher Monica Monaghan is president of the National Anti-Bullying Coalition.

She believes the Department of Education needs to address the subject of bullying straight away.

"Boards of management of schools are, by and large, not skilled to deal with this issue," she said.

"I know of a number of schools nationwide where there are clusters of pupils who are self-harming due to bullying. In some cases, there's an unwillingness by school management to confront the problem head-on. They simply look the other way. There's probably a fear of litigation there too.

"I know, only too well, how devastating bullying can be," she says. "Yet, hard as it is for an adult, it's a whole lot worse for children, especially in an environment where there's pressure to have lots of friends on Facebook, to receive lots of 'likes'. And, for girls, there's an additional pressure to look beautiful and even then there's the worry of internet trolls."

Monica Monaghan believes it is important for parents not to lose sight of the fact that traditional forms of bullying (face-to-face name-calling, physical attacks, boycotting) are as prevalent as either. "The extent of cyber-bullying has been sensationalised to some degree," she said.

It is a view shared by Prof Mona O'Moore, of Trinity College's Anti-Bullying Centre. Speaking at a conference on social media organised by the National Youth Council last weekend, she contends that while cyber-bullying has become a significant phenomenon, traditional forms remain "twice, if not three times as common." Both forms, she said, provoke "a strong reluctance on the part of young people to report it."

Today, Ciara's parents are left with the heartbreak of knowing that she might have been saved if she had spoken to them about the abuse she received.

"It haunts us, the might have beens," Jonathan said. "But you know, there are a lot of victims in all of this. Those people who posted stuff about Ciara online have to live with what they've done for the rest of their lives. They're suffering too."

Aggie, meanwhile, is thinking about February 6 next year. It would have been Ciara's 16th birthday. "I want to plant a memorial garden for Ciara in front of our house. I want to celebrate her life and laugh and cry with her friends. Her real friends."

If bullying is causing you or a loved one to have suicidal thoughts, contact Pieta House 01-601 0000 or Stop Suicide (freefone) 1850 211 877

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