Sunday 25 September 2016

We are right to feel angry in the face of these deaths

The horror of Ballyjamesduff lessened us all, but sympathy for the perpetrator is misplaced

Shane Dunphy

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

The five hearses carrying the remains of the Hawe Family, Alan and Clodagh and their three children as they made their way to St Mary's Church Castlerahan near Ballyjamesduff Photo: Frank McGrath
The five hearses carrying the remains of the Hawe Family, Alan and Clodagh and their three children as they made their way to St Mary's Church Castlerahan near Ballyjamesduff Photo: Frank McGrath

As I write this, a second note has been found by police in the home of the Hawe family in Ballyjamesduff. This message offers us, according to reports from investigators, insight into the state of mind of Alan Hawe (40), the father of Ryan (6), Niall (11) and Liam (15), and husband to Clodagh (39), whom we now know beyond doubt he killed before taking his own life.

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Is it wrong of me to say that, if I'm honest, I don't really care what the note says?

I don't think it matters, you see. What matters is that three children and their mother, who all deserved so much better, are dead. The contents of a suicide note aren't going to change that.

That makes me very angry.

Two sets of families and a rural community are united in grief, planning funerals for their loved ones, and that is an abomination.

Many reading this will feel I have no right to express outrage - voicing that kind of anger is a privilege that should be reserved for the bereaved.

Yet have we not, as a society, been bereaved, been lessened, by this latest loss?

I have no doubt that Alan Hawe was depressed. People, even habitually violent, dangerous criminals (which Alan Hawe most certainly was not) do not murder their families unless they are going through some kind of psychiatric crisis.

But does that absolve him of all responsibility?

Mental illness is not a new phenomenon, yet it seems to have become so widespread and commonplace in modern Irish life as to be deemed a modern plague. According to statistics recently published by University College Dublin, one in 10 Irish people are using anti-depressants.

So it is probably no surprise that the overwhelming social response to this tragedy is one of muted solidarity and understanding.

Long gone are the days when such a horror would be deemed a scandal, where the wider community would shun the surviving members of the extended family and one of the burials would be performed swiftly and quietly on unconsecrated ground. We have, thankfully, moved beyond such archaic hypocrisies.

But have we moved too far in the other direction, our outpourings of sympathy making the obliteration of a family seem a viable, valid response to stress and unhappiness?

Is our gentle, supportive attitude sending a message that what has happened is okay? Because if it is, that makes us culpable.

Don't get me wrong - I would never suggest mental illness is not a serious, real and potentially dangerous condition. My mother suffered from depression her whole life, and one of my earliest memories is of visiting her in St Senan's Psychiatric hospital, in Wexford, when I was three years old.

I remember wondering what her mood would be like on family occasions - first communions, confirmations and birthday parties could be wonderful, fun-filled events or happenings you just wanted to get over as quickly as possible: would we get the charming, funny, bubbly mother or the distant, hollow-eyed, volatile woman I always felt I did not really know?

Let me state here that I loved my mother unequivocally. I celebrate her every day, and I am proud of the way she fought the dark clouds she could never really shed, right up to her death from cancer aged 55. But I am also conscious that the darkness sometimes won - she tried to end her life on several occasions.

So the 'black dog' has been a spectre that has haunted me for as long as I remember, and I know it very well. I know it distorts thought processes and can make good people do horrifying things. I know how it makes simple acts like getting out of bed or taking a shower an insurmountable challenge. But when you love the person affected you make excuses, you try to help, you cluster around as a family and do your best to muddle through.

In the end, it all comes down to love, doesn't it? That ephemeral word is at the very centre of the societal problem murder-suicide presents. Murder-suicide is often, in fact, described as a crime of love.

The accepted wisdom is that the perpetrator is so wracked with pain and anguish they cannot bear to leave their loved ones in this vale of tears without them: so, if suicide is on the cards, it will not be an isolated death.

It is hard to be angry when the crime is so wrapped up in tenderness. Yet we should not confuse the issue. No matter what spin is put on the events in Ballyjamesduff, Alan Hawe murdered his wife and children. He took their lives violently and he was wrong to do so.

That he did it out of some misplaced sense that he was doing right by them makes no difference.

Let me be clear that I am not blaming anyone. The families of both Alan and Clodagh will be wracking their brains to see if there is anything they might have done to prevent this from occurring, and the answer is: probably not.

For all the reasons I have already stated, it can be impossible to know when a friend or colleague or even a family member is in severe crisis, and reports indicate Alan's final tragic actions were not planned over the long term, as he had intended to attend meetings in his local community centre later in the week.

Of course we need to keep trying to help and extend love and support to those struggling with mental illness.

A kind word, a hug when needed, an offer of assistance - all these things can make all the difference when someone is in a bad place. But they can also fall on ears that are simply incapable of hearing the offer of friendship, and can at times cause the individual to become even more entrenched.

Depression causes paranoid delusions, and at times the sufferer can read threat into the gentlest of overtures.

Perhaps more importantly, we, as a society, need to place the responsibility for mental health firmly back onto the individual.

Are you feeling a bit low? Talk to someone about it, even your GP if you feel you haven't got any friends or family who will listen. Don't bottle it up, and get help before things get really grim.

You may feel what I have just written is trite and overly simplistic, but we have to develop a sense of personal responsibility when it comes to our psychiatric wellbeing. The blues is, demonstrably, a matter of life and death.

The best way to honour the memories of those boys and their mother is by deciding, here and now, that each and every one of us will be more attentive to our own mental wellbeing. Take five minutes out of every day to ask yourself: how am I doing? Am I okay?

We must be more loving and focussed on ourselves - it's not narcissism or selfishness. It's not being over-indulgent or navel-gazing.

In fact, it's the complete opposite.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author. His most recent book 'The Boy They Tried to Hide', deals with the issue of murder-suicide in rural Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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