'Kieran didn't kill himself, the depression killed him'
Helen Carson talks to a Londonderry woman whose family is coming to terms with the suicide of a loved one
Crippled by a bout of debilitating depression, 52-year-old Kieran Harkin took his own life last August. Now his sister Monica is aiming to raise awareness of the condition through a charity cycle.
Kieran Harkin was 52 years old when he took his own life last August. The Londonderry man had grown up in a family of 16 but not even the love and support of his large circle of close relatives could save him from despair. Crippled by a debilitating bout of depression triggered by a series of personal events, Kieran reached a point where he simply couldn’t cope with his life any longer.
His sister Monica Fee, who had the “devastating” experience of finding his body, says his loss has left the close-knit Harkin family struggling to understand why he decided to end his life, and tortured by guilt as to what else they could have done to prevent the tragedy.
Now Monica, who runs a hair salon in Drumahoe and has barely ever ridden a bike, is preparing to take part in a 1,400km All-Ireland Cycle Against Suicide to help raise thousands of pounds for local charities while heightening awareness of the dreadful impact of suicide on families left behind to cope with such a terrible loss. She explains that although Kieran had expressed the depths of his despair to herself and other members of his family, his mood did appear to lift after he opened up about his fears.
“We knew Kieran was suffering from depression so I talked to him to try and help,” says Monica. “We feared he may take his own life, so we all rallied round and tried to support him ... I never thought for one moment it would happen.”
Shortly before the tragedy, Monica had gotten involved with charity Cycle Against Suicide, offering to provide accommodation for cyclists taking part in the Ireland-wide fundraising drive.
“I saw Kieran just before the event and he was nesting down for the winter at home and my other brother saw him on the Wednesday (but then he went missing for three days) - he was the last person to see him alive," she adds. "Kieran was saying things at that stage about how he felt - it was very hard. We all loved him and are an extremely close family. He told me everything when we were growing up together. He was well-loved but for some reason he didn't feel that love."
When he was missing for three days, the family visited his home to investigate.
Monica says: "He knew it would be me that would find him, and I wonder what he was thinking when he knew how that would affect me and all of our family?"
She says her brother's loss has been compounded by misplaced feelings of guilt: "I often think what more could we have done? Why didn't we do something more?"
Monica initially sought solace in a blog as a vehicle for helping her deal with the grief of losing her brother.
Now, though, she has found something she can do to help raise much-needed funds and awareness about suicide and the impact it has on the families left behind - getting on her bike to take part in the marathon cycle around Ireland for the charity, Cycle Against Suicide.
"I got involved with the Homestay element of the cycle event last year as I have a five-bedroom house and it's just my husband and I now," she says.
But she is gearing up for a much tougher physical and emotional challenge this year when she attempts to complete the arduous all-Ireland course - all 1,400 kms of it. The event starts in Belfast this Monday, April 27, with pit stops in Coleraine, Londonderry and Enniskillen before heading to the southern tip of Ireland and finishing in Dublin on May 10.
Monica admits getting up to steam for the ambitious stretch has been harder than she thought: "I've never really been on a bike, although I'm sure there was one around the farm I grew up on. I decided to take up cycling with my husband Adrian, as he no longer had a gym buddy. The first time I went cycling with him I was crying after half a mile on the bike. I couldn't work out the first three gears on the bicycle - and there are 13.
"I am going into this as a 55-year-old menopausal overweight woman - and don't even talk to me about wearing Lycra. My husband wore white on one occasion which went completely see-through when it rained."
But Monica isn't put off - in fact she is resolute that she will finish this challenge.
"I am determined to do this even if I have to follow the others around the country in the back of a van," she says. "If I can help anyone who is going through what we have gone through, then it will be worth it."
She also believes the cycle will help her comes to terms with what has happened.
"As a family we have struggled to cope with Kieran's death. We have talked about it but always end up crying so then we don't mention his name. It is a tsunami of sadness," she says.
"Kieran was a quiet boy growing up, and was a beautiful man inside and out. He was the 13th child born on Friday the 13th - he loved saying that, he would joke that he had special gifts."
The Harkin brood spent their childhood growing up in a rural Drumahoe home beside the River Faughan which they were warned never to go in.
Despite this the youngsters often swam in the river and when Kieran was five, his father's friend jokingly told him his mother was after him for being in the river.
Monica says Kieran hid in the outside loo prompting a large scale search for the missing youngster, who was eventually discovered in his hideout much to his family's relief.
Another childhood memory of Monica's is her brother's love of a blue tractor, which he would sit on all day. She recalls the day it was sold, adding: "Kieran was not pleased. Referring to the farmer who bought his favourite toy, he would say 'The bad man took my tractor'.
"Kieran was a quiet, gentle, shy man," says Monica. "He was easy going and chilled - he would prefer to sit in the background and listen rather than voice an opinion, but then he could throw in a one-liner which would have us all bursting our sides with laughter. He could make a difficult situation funny - we could do with him now.
"He was so witty and his dry sense of humour gave us lots of laughs, he was generous and giving of his time. No one is perfect and sometimes his easygoing attitude to getting things done drove people nuts, his favourite word was 'chill'. You just couldn't rush him, but he was worth waiting for."
She says her brother was a "perfectionist" in everything he did, doing a first class job for everyone he worked for. "So many of our friends and family have a little piece of Kieran's talent in their house or garden - he could do anything, he was multi-talented. He loved his two children and was so proud of them, he loved his many friends and was always the last to leave the party. The first thing he did when he came into the house was put the kettle on, make himself tea with lots of sugar, smoke a cigarette then slip away for a nap, then more tea."
Monica says the blog on her Facebook page, which documents her sadness and her struggles at coping with Kieran's death, has allowed her to reach out to others suffering in a similar way to her brother.
"I have learned so much about people's fears and what they are going through. Men in particular have sent me messages wanting to share the blog as they knew someone who is feeling the way Kieran felt," she says.
"There are also so many men talking to me about the fact they want to take their own life. I am a firm supporter of women and the terrible abuse some have to suffer in their lives, but men do, too. Men are told as boys not to cry as it is a weakness. They are told to man up, to bottle up their emotions. When a girl cries she is comforted and told 'There, there', but for a boy it is different - if he cries he is a cissy."
Monica admits that she has felt great sadness at being left behind to carry on after Kieran's death.
"People say 'God only sends you what you can deal with', but so often I cannot physically or mentally understand what Kieran was thinking on that day."
The horror of her brother's suicide has left Monica hurt and confused with so many unanswered questions.
"Kieran came out of that dark hole he was in, but left it open for others to come into. Kieran made that choice and sometimes I feel he must not have thought about anything else," she says.
As Monica searched for answers since last summer looking to everyone from healthcare professionals to members of her own family for an explanation or reason why the tragedy happened, greater knowledge about suicide has helped her find some peace.
"I know that there is no point trying to pin the blame on anyone, it won't bring Kieran back. He didn't kill himself, it was the illness that killed him. I don't want to damage anyone else with recriminations, what I do want to do is raise money for charities that may have helped Kieran and will help others locally."
Now she feels a better understanding of Kieran's life and death.
"My brother's life cannot be defined by his last day and that has been what I've been doing. The way I look at things now is that Kieran lived 19,258 other wonderful days - and that is how I want to remember him."
Some of the money raised by Monica will also go to Aware Defeat Depression.
"I wish I'd known about this organisation during Kieran's illness and that I could have gone to them to ask for some help. I knew he was ill but there were so many times that I just felt helpless and I knew he was sad about things.
"On the one hand we were all worried about him and he said he was going to harm himself, but on the other hand he seemed to be making plans for the future.
"On the night we found him, I just knew on the way to the house that the news wasn't going to be good - it was so traumatic."
Monica said it was important that she referred to Kieran's suicide at his funeral to remove a stigma or feelings of shame among the family.
At the packed church she told his friends and family how much he was loved, but for some reason he couldn't feel the love that was extended to him. In fact, many of his friends weren't aware he was suffering from depression at all.
Despite the agony of losing Kieran, Monica is focused on her cycle ride and doing everything she can to ensure the event is a big success.
"I was a host for the charity last year and they need more local people at each of the stopover points to put the cyclists up for the night. You will need to provide bed and board with some washing facilities. Anyone interested can find out more by visiting the Cycle Against Suicide website."
The charity's motto is that it's "Okay not to feel okay; and it's absolutely okay to ask for help" and this is a fitting message, according to Monica who says her brother donated to charity every month.
The charity was established by Irish entrepreneur Jim Breen, Cycle Against Suicide and partners with local mental health charity organisations including Niamh (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health), seeks to break the stigma associated with the open discussion of mental health.
The charity's founder said of the All-Ireland Cycle Against Suicide's third outing: "The tide has started to turn in the fight to break the stigma that surrounds mental health."
Meanwhile, Monica is proud to back the event in memory of her brother: "He cared so much about those less fortunate than himself and was generous to a fault. Making this event a success would be a wonderful testament to Kieran's life."
Pedal power to tackle suicide
- The incidence of suicide in Northern Ireland is on the rise with between 213 and 313 deths every year for the last 10 years, according to the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health
- These figures represent five times the average number of road deaths in the province
- All-Ireland Cycle Against Suicide is looking for Homestay volunteers to open their homes to the cyclists. For details, visit email@example.com or you can register to take part at www.cycleagainstsuicide.com
- The charity is predicting up to 300 participants at each leg of the cycle