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How we managed to cope with the pain of a loved one taking their own life

The Office of National Statistics says the number of women taking their own lives has risen to its highest level since 2015. Linda Stewart talks to Pedie MacAllister, from Cookstown, and Co Antrim mum Liz Downey, who have lost a family member to suicide.

'It's never far from my mind... I just take each minute as it comes'

Former lorry driver Pedie MacAllister (42) from Cookstown lost his wife Joanne (36) in 2015, when she took her own life. She was a full-time mum to Lucy (15) and  Joe (13). He says:

I was 10 or 11 when I first knew Joanne. She would have been very quiet as a child. I remember that much - she would hardly have spoken. She soon grew out of that.

We didn't see each other for a long time and then we started going out in 2000. I was about 26 and Joanne was 21 or 22. She had been living somewhere else but had come back to Cookstown.

She was seeing the same friends, so we would have bumped into each other.

I knew her, but then realised we were starting to have feelings for one another.

She was very funny, very outgoing, a very generous person. I wouldn't have exactly said she was easy going. Probably she was happiest when she was out with her friends and with her children. She was a great mother.

We got married in the local chapel in Cookstown in 2004. It was a good day - one of those things where you would have been nervous, even though you didn't think you were going to be. There was a lot of rushing about, organising and smiling a lot for the photographer.

Things were good at first. But some time after we got married Joanne suffered a traumatic experience and she never really got over it.

People tended to avoid discussing it, and that really hurt her. It didn't really help her mental state either. She never really got over it and I always believed that it was one of the contributory factors to her death.

From that point on she was taking antidepressants and seeing doctors, but she never really got her life back together.

After that, we were both coping in our own ways and there wasn't much communication between us - there was also a lot of anger because we couldn't talk to each other.

We separated in 2008, then divorced in 2009, but we got back together again in 2013, about a year before Joanne died. Things were going well and she seemed to be doing fine.

She would have had spells where she would be in good form for a long time and then something set her off and she would get into bad form.

On March 17, 2015, we had gone to Dublin for a night away but it was one of those periods when she was not in good form. We fell out that day and we didn't see much of each other. I came back to the hotel and went to bed. Then the police discovered her body in South Frederick Street in Dublin.

You don't really know how you go on, you just do. It's like you are in shock - you're are coping simply by going from minute by minute. It's almost two years down the line and at this stage I have managed to get into a bit of a routine with the children, but I still carry what happened with me every day. The truth is that it's never far from my mind. I try and take each minute as it comes and that is all anyone can do.

The Niamh Louise Foundation has been great - they offer counselling for children and for adults. The children have had their troubles, but they both have a good group of friends and their schools have been excellent and provided a lot of support which made things better and a whole lot easier. Their mother's death has probably changed them forever. They will always miss her, but children are also quite resilient, more than you might think.

I would encourage people to reach out for whatever help they can get - there is no shame in saying you are under pressure and you need help. If you have cancer or you break your leg, you can get the help you need and this is the same. People can get better - I've seen people at Niamh Louise and I've seen the change in them.

We've all got someone who is ill and you ask how they are doing. But if it's a mental health issue, people almost avoid you. But it's a health condition like any other. If a lot of people were dying in car accidents it would be the first thing on the news. But I think people are talking about it more and shining a light on it, not trying to hide it away."

‘I wanted to blame someone or find a reason, but you never do’

Bank cashier Liz Downey (55) lost her daughter Joanne (19), a languages student, in January 2013. Her daughter Megan (21) is studying medicine at Queen’s University Belfast. Joanne’s father Stephen (53) passed away in 2010. She says:

When the girls were born, we lived in Ballymena, but when Joanne was four and Megan was two we moved back to Ballyclare.

The marriage broke up in 2004 and my husband Stephen passed away in 2010, six years later.

Both the girls were A star pupils — they did so well. I never missed one year at prize night with the both of them.

Joanne was a very talented linguist, which was very obvious early on.

She did well in her GCSEs, got As and A stars and went back to continue with German, French and biology to A-level.

She decided she wanted to go to Nottingham University to study French and German and I was very, very proud of her.

Joanne came home for the Christmas holidays.

At that stage she wasn’t so sure that she wanted to continue with the course she was on — there was a bit of backward and forward with the university but she was happy enough to go back. It was a bit of a concern for her.

We were worried about what she was going to do because she was so talented, but we weren’t concerned about her mental health.

On January 25, which was Burns Night, I went to a funeral and when I got back in I sent a message through Facebook, saying I’ll speak to you over the weekend. I never got an answer, which is not unusual for my children.

Then I got a text from her friend in Portsmouth asking if there was any word from Joanne. It was a case of mother’s intuition — I knew there was something wrong.

I phoned one of Joanne’s friends at university and he said he couldn’t get into Joanne’s room and she wasn’t answering the phone.

After 10 minutes I rang again but he didn’t answer. Afterwards I found out that he was with the police and was not allowed to say anything.

It was nearly 12 at night and out of hours but we phoned the security man and explained the situation. He was very diplomatic and said he would have to ring us back.

Within five minutes, the police were at my home in Doagh. I didn’t expect to hear what I heard but I knew there was something. At that stage we didn’t know she had taken her own life, but we knew she was dead. Nottingham police started to get in contact and the ball rolled and rolled.

When I look back I don’t know how I made the funeral arrangements. We had to go out to Nottingham the next morning to identify the body and we came back on Sunday, but Joanne’s body wasn’t released until Monday week.

There were 600 or 700 people at her funeral. She had a great love for Liverpool FC and she loved Toy Story, so the minister made his sermon around the songs You’ve Got A Friend In Me and You’ll Never Walk Alone.

In October, we had to go back for the inquest, which found that she died by suicide but possibly not with intent.

My GP told me it’s like a heart attack going off in the brain — there’s no time. Joanne didn’t leave a note, she didn’t have any concerning behaviour, even when she went back. I held onto lots of things. I wanted to blame somebody or find a reason but you don’t find a reason. It’s just trying to understand that it just was a sudden thing. I went for four years with no support, but that was my choice. But I was on the verge of a breakdown after Christmas and I was put in touch with the Niamh Louise Foundation.

A lot of the time I read about young men taking their own lives, but young women do it too. It’s good to talk and it’s good to look for help and it’s good for young people to recognise the signs in themselves and in their friends. It’s about teaching young people that it’s okay to talk and to break down and not to be an A or A star student. I can’t say I wish Joanne had talked to somebody because I don’t believe at this stage that she even knew herself what lay ahead.

Joanne was a happy child and had a very wide range of friends and it was manifest at the funeral just how many people knew and loved her.”

Foundation providing invaluable support

The Niamh Louise Foundation works with a range of voluntary and statutory agencies to reduce the numbers of people taking their own lives in Northern Ireland, and in order to do this the charity provides suicide awareness, prevention, intervention and postvention services to the community.

The charity has developed a model of approach which connects the individual at risk to a programme of healing and recovery which is based on a one to one, step by step, individual process.

It also provides support for bereaved families who have lost a loved one to or who has been affected by suicide. Tel: 028 8775 3327 or visit niamhlouisefoundation.com/

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