Belfast Telegraph

Suicide who's to blame?

One bleak and foggy Monday morning in November Catherine McBennett's ordinary, happy family life in Co Tyrone crashed in a heart-stopping moment, with the suicide of her 15-year-old firstborn daughter, Niamh. She tells Jane Bell how, with family and community support, she is turning the agony of loss into a message of hope and help for others

There was something different about that Monday morning - November 21, 2005 - right from the moment Catherine McBennett first opened her eyes.

There was something different about that Monday morning - November 21, 2005 - right from the moment Catherine McBennett first opened her eyes.

"I jumped straight out of bed at 7am and I never do that," she recalls. "I don't know what made me do it. I called Niamh for school which I would normally never have to do because she's always first up."

At first more bemused than concerned, she called out to her daughter but got no reply and there was no sound from the teenager's shower room. "About 10 past seven I suddenly bolted upstairs - again, I never do that - and into Niamh's room. It was unusually tidy and the bed was made up. I knew straight away that something was wrong.

"I went from room to room looking for her. Her school uniform was lying on the ironing board in the utility room. And as soon as I saw it I thought 'she's not here'."

Even a cursory look outside was hampered by the bleak weather and winter early-morning darkness. "It was the foggiest morning that I can ever remember," she says. "The fog was so deep you couldn't see."

Catherine and her husband, James, mentally flipped though the possibilites, both likely and unlikely. "Maybe she was outside in that fog with the kittens - it was her job to feed them and let them out in the mornings," says Catherine. "Maybe she'd gone out the night before to see her boyfriend and stayed over at a close friend's house, thinking I'd be annoyed. With the fog, we couldn't see the car and, for a moment, I thought she'd taken it - she was too young, of course, but couldn't wait to learn to drive."

At that point, James glanced out of the window and something made him run outside. What he saw changed all their lives for ever. Niamh had hanged herself from the branches of an oak tree at the back of the family home in the Tyrone countryside.

The profound shock and pain was overwhelming. "I ran out and hugged her," Catherine says, "but she was gone."

Those first minutes and hours went in a tidal wave of grief and the urgent practical things that simply had to be done.

Niamh's little sisters Seanna (six) and Caoimhe (two) were taken to the McBennett grandparents next door. "I sent them away," says Catherine. "I couldn't bear them to see my emotion or to frighten them with that. I was hysterical.

"I phoned Niamh's father and my husband phoned the police. They said not to cut her down. The ambulance came. The priest came. They laid her down on the ground. It was all dealt with outside."

Niamh's body was taken to the mortuary and brought back home the following day for the wake before the funeral on the Thursday. There were so many mourners the traffic through the country roads had to be diverted.

Sudden death, especially of someone so young, is always tragic. But the double shock that suicide brings in its wake can leave people not knowing what to say to comfort the bereaved.

"Nobody knows what to say," says Catherine. "Some people still don't know what to say. Our close friends have been fantastic and members of our community have been unbelievable. They may not say anything but we know they are there for us.

"But with some other members of the wider public, it's almost as if I've done something wrong."

There is no blame in suicide, Catherine says.

"It's nobody's fault," she insists.

She firmly believes that Niamh took her own life as the result of an undiagnosed mental illness or depression.

Nor does she feel any anger towards her eldest daughter: "How can you be angry at someone that's ill?"

The ache of sorrow, however, won't go away. "As a mother, I feel so sad that I couldn't help her," she admits. "She was suffering in the quiet of her room. From your children are little you are told to look out for chickenpox, meningitis, even cancer. Any wee mark at all and you have them down to the doctor. But you can't see hidden mental distress, you can't point to it."

More open discussion and more information about depression and suicide would help break taboos and even help save lives, Catherine believes.

That's one of the reasons the family set up the Niamh Louise Foundation, in the teenager's memory, around the time of what would have been her 16th birthday, February 2.

In 2005, 146 people in Northern Ireland lost their lives through suicide.

Two weeks ago, a Ceremony of Light, to commemorate and celebrate the lives of local people who died in suicide, was held in Armagh, organised by Armagh Lions Club and the Niamh Louise Foundation, with the support of Armagh City and District Council and Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council.

A spiritual event, it welcomed everyone - of any faith or none - who has been touched by suicide. Church leaders from the main Christian churches were present and Colm Donaghy, chairman of the Suicide Prevention Task Force for Northern Ireland, was among the speakers.

Copies of the Northern Ireland Suicide Prevention Strategy Document were distributed, along with useful information and support group contacts for the bereaved.

Family support

Catherine is grateful for the support she and her family have received from so many different sources - from the Tandragee police, who answered the distress call that terrible morning and provided ongoing support, to the Benedictine monks at Rostrevor, who helped the family get through what would have been Niamh's 16th birthday on Candlemass Day.

A fifth former at St Joseph's Grammar School, Donaghmore, Niamh was a confident and popular girl with a steady group of friends and many interests. She loved art and drama, was a member of the local Clonmore Choir for five years and played for the local girls' Gaelic football club.

She was also a 'Goth' and into the fashion and music that goes with it. Catherine - a former fashion student - took her daughter's passion for black clothes, big boots and Goth make-up in her stride. "We'd joke her about it," she says. "After all, it's even a storyline in Coronation Street."

In was only later - too late - and on further investigation that the distraught mother discovered a darker, more sinister side to what, for many teenagers, is a harmless fashion cult.

It transpired that, before she died, Niamh had accessed a number of Goth websites, some of them romanticising death and suicide as an 'answer'. There are also chatrooms where suicide is openly discussed, though Catherine found no evidence that Niamh had participated in these.

Despite her parents being strict about Internet usage at home, the teenager had accessed some of these websites and her mother believes they proved very damaging to a girl in an already vulnerable state of mind. "As one of her friends put it to me the websites 'made suicide seem normal'," she says.

The weekend before she took her own life, Niamh was at home with the family and, at the time, there was nothing obvious to suggest the horror to come.

She had been lethargic, complained of general aches and pains and they had discussed the possiblity of her not going to school the next day. With hindsight, Catherine wonders whether it was a physical manifestation of how her daughter was feeling emotionally. The sad truth is she can never really know.

Spiritual Healing

It hurts that while mother and daughter were close and had so much in common - from a talent for art to a spiritual nature - Niamh was unable to articulate her distress. Catherine had always encouraged her creative daughter to write down her feelings as a form of expression. Tragically, what turned out to be her last message to her family - a poem entitled 'Remember' - was found on her bed after her suicide. With her mother's permission, we reproduce it here.

"To me it signifies how unreal death is to a teenager," says Catherine. "They don't realise it is final. It's a romantic notion. It was almost as if she was sleepwalking into death.

"You'd do anything for your child. If I could have saved her, I would have done anything. I want her memory to be respected and to live on. She was a wonderful girl."

The Niamh Louise Foundation is still in its infancy and, whatever it achieves, Catherine recognises, will be by the effort of many. The distribution of practical and factual information on how to recognise those at risk of suicide is one target. And, close to her heart, she holds a vision that, one day, the Foundation will create a light, bright and welcoming resource centre open 24/7 where people can seek both support and expert help. Niamh's siblings - she would be annoyed, her mother says, to hear them called half-brother or sisters - are all aged six and under.

Catherine adds: "By the time they are 15 - Niamh's age when she died - I would like us to have something tangible in place to help save others from the loss and grief of suicide."

For further information on the work of the Niamh Louise Foundation tel 07717 876037

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