Friday 19 January 2018

Fintan took his own life and, by doing so, he damaged ours irreparably

Ten years ago Gabrielle Cummins lost her brother to suicide. She recounts the events surrounding his death and asks why suicide rates continue to rise

HUGE LOSS: Gabrielle with her brother Fintan in February 2003
HUGE LOSS: Gabrielle with her brother Fintan in February 2003

Gabrielle Cummins

The gorgeous face with the sad eyes hiding behind a thick beard and a faint smile stares back at me. I'm looking at my brother's first official driving licence with a start date of February 6, 2003. The date I found this treasure is February 6, 2013. I still have the congratulations card I wrote to Fintan when I heard he had passed the test. I never got to give it to him, though, because a month after he successfully completed it, he decided to take his own life and damaged ours irreparably.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't spent every waking moment of the last decade in mourning but the deep, emotional loss I feel when something random reminds me of him, like finding that driving licence, is still overpowering. As the 10th anniversary passes, it feels like many of the years in between have been wiped away and the sense of rawness I felt in those early years has returned.

This strong sense of sadness is undoubtedly heightened by the fact that this will be the first time that I will mark Fintan's anniversary without either of my parents around. My father died in December 2011 after a six-year battle with cancer while my mother, who suffered from vascular dementia, passed away in November 2012. Neither of them had a particularly close relationship with Fintan but I was close to all three, so the enormity of the hole in my life without them is suddenly gaping.

Kate, my beautiful two-year-old daughter, makes the memories of my lost loved ones bittersweet. We can be playing one minute and the next she might flippantly ask "what's Grandad doing there?" or "who is that with Fintan?" pointing to one of the many photographs of her grandparents and much missed uncle dotted around our home. I want her to know about them. She needs to know and understand the amazing roles these three precious people played in my life. At the same time, telling her stories about them can be difficult. Sometimes, I'm strong and am happy to relay stories to Kate about when granny did this or Fintan did that. The problem arises because Kate, in her innocence, can remember these stories at the most random of times and bring them up in conversation when I least expect it. When I'm caught off guard, hearing her refer to Fintan as if she knows him well, despite having never met him, can break my heart. Often I have had to turn away to wipe the tears. I don't want her to associate sadness with Fintan because as she grows older, she may then be afraid to bring him up in conversation for fear it upsets me. Fintan needs to be a part of our lives, in the best way that we can positively remember him. I have spent enough time wishing I could turn back the clock and help him understand that life is for living and people around him love him and need him. That was for the last decade. For me, this decade has to be about honouring him and my parents and building a memorable picture of them for Kate.

There were 552 deaths by suicide in Ireland in 2009, the last year for which figures are available; that's a rate of 12.4 deaths per 100,000 population. Men in their 20s are most at risk; Fintan had just turned 31 when he chose to end his life; at that time I was 26.

I remember the day – March 19, 2003 – vividly. Every detail has stayed with me over the past 10 years. I remember that a group of us were rehearsing a dance routine for an upcoming amateur musical which I was involved in when suddenly my then housemate Tara was standing unexpectedly and uncomfortably by the door in front of us.

I sensed something was wrong but my immediate thoughts were actually of my elderly parents who were both in their 70s at the time. Tara told me I needed to call my older sister. I dialled the number in a daze and one sentence from the other end of the line made me scream and instantly burst into tears. Fintan was dead; he had hanged himself at his own home.

It has taken me 10 years to publicly state how Fintan ended his life. Recalling this brutal method of suicide to this day evokes heart-wrenching emotions in me. While I know now that Fintan had been suffering greatly in the lead-up to the act, more than we ever realised, I pray that his physical suffering during the act was minimal. I dread to think he was in unbearable pain for any prolonged length of time. Unfortunately, the actual time of death is only approximate because several hours passed between the suicide and one of my other brothers actually discovering Fintan's limp body at the isolated cottage in Tipperary.

Suicide is one of the saddest epidemics sweeping across our towns, villages and cities. Ten years ago, government policies promised change but a decade on, the suicide rates continue to rise. With the advent of social media in the last decade, the ever-increasing number of teenage suicides as a result of online bullying is alarming. How many more people – predominantly young Irish people – will take their lives before Ireland grasps the fact that fundamental change is needed in the way we, as a society, deal with mental health?

Training general practitioners on how to recognise the key signs of depression and provide adequate support is crucial. I know there are plenty of education and awareness programmes available but why are we not seeing any reduction in Ireland's suicide rates? Many organisations across Ireland have done significant work over the past 10 years to lessen the stigma attached with mental health. More is clearly still needed, however, to bring about significant change so we can start to finally ee positive results and the national trend chart begin to reverse.

As a mother now, I frequently find myself thinking how must my own mother have felt upon hearing the news that her youngest son had died by his own hand. She had given birth to 12 physically healthy children and to learn that one of them had now chosen to violently end the life she had given him must have broken her heart. As their youngest daughter, I never managed to have conversations of any great depth with my parents about how they felt after Fintan had died. They knew I was devastated, too, and while I longed for more open conversations about his passing, they just did not have the wherewithal to vocally express to me how this traumatic, life-changing experience had truly affected them. In the end, I stopped talking to them about him.

One emotion that is often reported to be associated with suicide is anger. Those left behind are often described as being angry with the dead person for whatever reason. I was never angry with Fintan but rather with the situation. The strong, maternal emotional connection I now have towards my daughter makes me angry all over again that Fintan didn't have adequate mental health support or if he did, for some reason, at that horrible moment in March 2003, he could not see enough light through the darkness to allow him access the life-saving help he required. Our many questions will forever remain unanswered.

I hold my daughter tight and pray that in the future, fewer Irish mothers will have to endure the pain and suffering like that which was etched on my mother's face as she laid her youngest son to rest.

Gabrielle Cummins is CEO of regional radio station Beat 102-103.

Samaritans Ireland, Tel: 1850 60-90-90. The Samaritans Helpline operates 24/7; Aware, tel: 1890 303-302. The Aware Helpline operates every day from 10am to 10pm

Irish Independent

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