Belfast Telegraph

Family torn apart by one suicide after another

By Lisa Smyth

A woman whose family has been devastated by suicide has spoken of the total heartbreak caused by the four deaths.

In the space of just seven years, Belfast mother, Mary McComb, has lost two of her children, her nephew and the girlfriend of one of her sons as a result of suicide.

“You can never come to terms with suicide and there are no words to describe what it does to the people left behind,” she said.

Mrs McComb was speaking as Belfast City Council hosted a suicide prevention event at City Hall which saw families affected by suicide come together with health and counselling organisations to raise awareness of the issue.

The McComb family has endured more tragedy than most — in 2002 Mrs McComb’s 15-year-old daughter, Debbie, was knocked down and killed by a stolen car as she walked along the Springfield Road in west Belfast.

Just two years later her older brother, Michael, died by suicide and only a few months later his girlfriend, Fiona Barnes, also took her own life.

The family was rocked by a further tragedy the following year when Mrs McComb’s nephew, Stephen, died by suicide.

Then in January of this year, her grandson, who was premature, died just a few hours after his birth.

This was followed by the sudden death of her father-in-law, David McComb, less than a month later.

Yesterday’s Celebrating Life Conference heard from leading psychologist Dr David Becker who said that Belfast must collectively acknowledge the suffering caused by the Troubles in a bid to tackle the city's high suicide rates.

The most recent figures show that 88 people took their own lives in Belfast during 2010.

Dr Becker, a German specialist in trauma and grief, said the link between suicide and conflict was not straightforward.

“There is a link between the legacy of the Troubles and your suicide rates but it's not a direct thing,” he said. “So it's too simple to say people are traumatised so they commit suicide; it's much more complicated.

“Resilience is often misunderstood as an individual capacity, like ‘You're a strong person, so you're resilient'.

“But resilience actually is a social process, it's something we all construct together and the legacy of trauma and destruction that you've had here, one of the key questions is how you deal with mourning processes, how do people deal with different griefs they've had.

“The grieving of people is partially the Troubles, is partially the economic situation but a big question we have to ask ourselves is how do we talk about the suffering of people, past and present?

“And is the language we use one that empowers people or forces them to deny even more what happened to them?”

MP McCrea launches bill to combat websites

B y Tom Moseley

Tougher powers are needed to combat sick suicide websites, an MP said yesterday.

William McCrea launched a bill at Westminster aimed at introducing new controls on the internet and more accessible support for people contemplating taking their own life.

The DUP MP for South Antrim said a new dedicated body was needed to tackle the problem, along with a new system of web alerts offering support. And he urged the Government to work with internet companies to reduce access to suspect sites.

Presenting his Suicide (Prevention) motion, Dr McCrea told MPs: “It’s true that when you lose a loved one to suicide, there’s little that can truly comfort you. Many families bereaved by suicide regret the fact that they have not recognised the signs of what’s wrong.”

Under his proposals, when certain terms, used as online code for suicide, are entered into search boxes, a window would pop up, offering support.

His bill, which yesterday cleared the first Parliamentary hurdle unopposed, would require a “gatekeeper” to monitor websites and forward information to authorities so sites can be closed down.

There was a need to provide “urgent help and hope”, Rev McCrea said, pointing to a 60% increase in suicides in north and west Belfast.

‘We’ve had so much death in the last 10 years. It just seems to get worse and worse’

Mary McComb recounts her family’s terrible losses, and tells Ivan Little how even a planned tribute night for one of her sons was touched by tragedy

Michael McComb and girlfriend Fiona Barnes, who both took their own lives within weeks|of each other|in 2004

In the neat little living room of her spotless terraced house in Ballymurphy, heartbroken Mary McComb sits within touching distance of the shrine to her late boxing champion son and recounts with unerring accuracy the dates of the deaths over the past decade of despair which have made her one of the most tragic women in Belfast.

As she takes the occasional sip from a seemingly bottomless mug of strong tea, the lines of anguish are etched deep into her sorrowful face and there’s no doubting that the images of every one of the eight members of Mary's shattered family are flashing into her mind as she remembers them and the way they died.

In the first three months of 2012, Mary’s Glenalina Park home was the starting point of funerals for four generations of her family... the beloved teenage son who took his own life, a baby grandson, a father-in-law and a husband who had been her rock over the past 10 tragic years.

Indeed, Mary has become so engulfed in grief in 2012 that she still hasn’t been able to mark the 10th anniversary of the death at the start of the cycle of sadness — the loss of her 15-year-old daughter, Debbie, in March 2002 when she was killed by car thieves who ploughed into a group of teenagers on the Springfield Road.

Debbie’s death, which was headline news all over the British Isles, was to trigger a harrowing succession of suicides by her teenage relations.

For within just a couple of years Debbie’s brother, his girlfriend and a cousin had all taken their own lives.

“It was more than any family should have been expected to bear,” said a friend of the McCombs. “But just when it appeared a semblance of calm had been restored to her life, 2012 arrived to bring more torment for Mary.”

That this mother-of-10 can even bring herself to talk about her pain for the first time is remarkable in itself. That she can do so without even a hint of self-pity is even more astonishing.

Mary, who will be 49 in September, has no idea where she gets the strength to keep going. But she admits that without the children and grandchildren who are never far from her side her resolve to hold herself together might be severely weakened.

“I have to stay strong for the sake of the kids,” says Mary. “If it wasn’t for them and the grandkids I know I wouldn’t be able to cope. I haven’t really got over Debbie’s death yet, never mind everything else that has come our way. We have had so much death in the last 10 years. It just seems to get worse and worse.

“I have been offered counselling. But I haven’t had any. Sometimes I think I can manage better on my own.”

Throughout my time with Mary, her children and her grandchildren flit in and out of the living room. It’s obvious that this is a two-way street of love, concern and support. They constantly ask her if she's alright as the agonising wounds of the past are re-opened. She constantly reassures them that she’s fine.

Debbie’s death thrust Mary into a world she’d never known and into the spotlight of publicity which she’d never courted — as a campaigner against car crime.

A photograph of her carrying her daughter’s coffin became a symbol of a new community determination to force car thieves off the road and Mary became a member of a high profile — and highly proficient — pressure group called Families Bereaved through Car Crime.

They took to the streets and put themselves in danger to demand tougher sentences for perpetrators of what was known as joyriding, though that was a word banned from the vocabularies of victims’ relatives.

The public success of the campaign was marred, however, by more personal heartbreak for Mary. Two years after Debbie’s death her 18-year-old brother, Michael, took his own life and an inquest heard he had simply never gotten over the loss of his sister. But there was to be yet another shocking sequel just 11 weeks later.

For Michael’s girlfriend, Fiona Barnes, went to his grave in the City Cemetery and ended her life nearby.

Debbie and Michael’s cousin Stephen McComb, who had battled against cystic fibrosis, took his life less than a year later and his inquest was told he’d been on anti-depressants in the wake of his cousins’ deaths. “It was an awful time,” says Mary. “Every year seemed to bring another death, another heartache for this family.”

In 2006, the McCombs became victims of a bloody feud in the Ballymurphy area after the murder of Gerard Devlin, who was a family friend. One of Mary McComb’s sons was shot and wounded. Her husband Jim and another son were beaten up.

It’s a time Mary prefers not to talk about now. But after the tensions in Ballymurphy subsided, even more anguish was waiting around the corner for her and her children.

On January 16 of this year, a baby who would have been her ninth grandchild died shortly after his birth. “He was four months premature for my daughter, Colleen, but she delivered him and his wee heart was beating but he didn’t survive. We called him Kyle.”

Less than a month later, Mary’s 61-year-old father-in-law Davy McComb died. He was buried on St Valentine’s Day and within 24 hours Mary’s 18-year-old son, Gavin, had taken his own life in the City Cemetery.

“I don’t think his death had anything to do with his grandfather’s passing,” says Mary. “But I still don’t know why he did it. He never gave anyone any indication that he was contemplating suicide. He had everything to live for.

“Gavin was fanatical about boxing. He was an Antrim, Ulster and an all-Ireland champion. He’d been boxing since he was about eight or nine. He trained five nights a week and on a Saturday morning in the Immaculata club.”

The death of Gavin, who club insiders say was thinking about turning professional, was a bolt from the blue. His brother, Jim, has helped to organise a special night of boxing in honour of Gavin at Whiterock Leisure Centre on Friday, May 4, which would have been his 19th bir- thday.

Tragically, his father, Jim McComb snr, died on March 29 — the day after discussing arrangements for the charity night.

Jim jnr says: “Dad wanted it to be a special occasion and for everything to be perfect for Gavin. I told him everything was in order and not to worry about it.”

Mary says: “Jim woke up and said he thought he had indigestion. But he had a massive heart attack and died. He’d turned 49 a few weeks earlier.”

It was Jim snr who’d built a trophy cabinet as a memorial for Gavin in the corner of the family living room and it’s full of his boxing cups, medals and photographs. It’s clearly a comfort for Mary. But she’s still reeling from the shock of all her losses.

“Looking back I don’t know how I got through it all. I think it was as if I was numb. But I still have no heart in anything. I am going through the motions, operating on automatic pilot.”

She has hardly set foot over her doorstep in the last few months. “My children do the shopping for me and people come in to offer support but I can’t bring myself to go out and about.

“I’d been planning to commemorate Debbie’s 10th anniversary by going down to the grave and laying flowers on it. But I couldn’t face it.

“Before all the recent deaths, I had just about started coming to terms with the loss of Debbie and trying to picture her as a grown woman. She would have been 25 in November.

“I still miss her. I keep wondering what she would have been doing with her life if it hadn’t been so cruelly cut short.”

In recent months, Families Bereaved through Car Crime have re-emerged to condemn a spate of car-jackings across Belfast where thieves have largely targeted women drivers who were on their own.

For Mary McComb it’s been like re-visiting an old nightmare.

On top of all that, the man who drove the car which killed Debbie has been freed from jail, according to her brother Jim, who says: “After he served his original sentence he was sent back to prison after he re-offended. But he's out again. You could torment yourself and go out of your way to think about where he is now but that’s not the way we want to live. We just pray he doesn't mow down another child.”

Mary McComb keeps in touch with other families whose lives have been torn apart by car thieves. But she’s also been alarmed by the inexorable rise in teenage suicides in West Belfast.

“I have grieved for four young victims who were close to me. And I don’t think enough is being done by the authorities to tackle what is now an epidemic. The politicians don’t seem to be all that interested. But really it isn’t until suicide comes to your own door that you really appreciate how terrible it is.

“I wish we could get the message across to young people that they should talk to someone if they have worries or are contemplating suicide.”

All the money raised by the charity boxing night will go to a suicide awareness group on the Falls Road where Gavin’s uncle Al is one of the main officials.

Mary McComb is hoping to attend the tribute to her son. “I know he would want me to be there. And I hope I can make it. But it will be a very difficult night for me.

“It’s like everything else now. I just take each day as it comes and hope I can get a little bit better.”

If you have been affected by suicide, or would like to speak to someone about the issue, call the Samaritans confidential phoneline on 08457 909090

Suicide awareness training launched by Belfast City Council

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Staff and politicians in Belfast City Council are to be offered suicide awareness training as part of a major new initiative.

The move, which has been welcomed by suicide prevention charities, comes after the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Niall O’Donnghaile launched a new drive to tackle the growing problem.

The latest statistics show that 313 people took their own lives in Northern Ireland during 2010 -- tragically a number of those deaths were on council-owned property.

A comprehensive training programme on positive mental health and suicide awareness is to be rolled out to all 2,500 employees -- the first for any local government authority. It is likely to start with front line workers dealing with public in parks, leisure centres and community groups however, the Mayor said he hopes other large-scale employers would follow the council’s example.

“Few people, beyond those who directly experience the impact of suicide, realise the chaos and despair that suicide introduces into a family, into a community,” said Mr O’Donnghaile.

“Suicide is a very significant problem in our city; yet for so long it has been a neglected and often hidden phenomenon. It has been so stigmatised and surrounded by taboos that people have been reluctant to acknowledge or discuss it. However this is changing.

“The council is planning to widen its training programme out to include those people who volunteer for the council and other organisations and agencies commissioned to deliver services on its behalf. I am hopeful that this commitment to training will set a good example to other large employers in the city – after all, an emotionally resilient workforce is important in building a strong economy and a vibrant city.”

Mr O’Donnghaile was speaking yesterday during a day-long Celebrating Life conference - which saw families touched by suicide joined by representatives of counselling and preventative groups at Belfast City Hall.

Pat Catney, director of the Belfast branch of the Samaritans who attended the event, praised the Mayor’s initiative which he said could save lives.

“We would welcome the training being provided to council staff,” said Mr Catney. “It is something that there is a need for. We must be aware of people and when they can see changes -- signs of withdrawal, loss of interest or a change in personality. We are all responsible for our fellow human beings and bringing staff up to speed on these signs is very important. Quite often these exercises have the potential to save lives.”

Mr O’Donnghaile said he was also lobbying political and statutory agencies for increased resources for groups trying to tackle suicide.

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