Coping with the unthinkable – the death of your child

By Pieter van Zyl
20 October 2016

Suicide, murder, sudden illness. Four parents whose children who were taken from them share their stories – and how they found peace.

In one moment your world is turned on its axis. Nothing will ever be the same again.

"People expect you to be able, after a certain period of time, to go back to your old way of life. To bounce back into who you were.

"You cannot. You do not see yourself or the world in the same way," says Debbie James, leader of the Johannesburg branch of parents' support group The Compassionate Friends (TCF).

JAMES

“My beautiful son James was born with Down Syndrome.”

For Debbie he was perfect, a special gift. But he suddenly got very sick and had to undergo emergency open heart surgery at just five months old. His little body just couldn’t handle it and he died on the operating table.”

Debbie and her son James. PHOTO: Supplied Debbie and her son James. PHOTO: Supplied

“I was a single mother with a limited support system,” recalls Debbie. Another mother, whose child died on the same day as James in the same hospital called TCF and introduced Debbie to them.

"TCF provided me with a safe place with other people who just 'got it' when I fall apart and everyone else thought I should be over it. You don’t get over grief. You learn to encompass it into your life and you create a new normal,” says Debbie.

“When my baby died in 1993 TCF was a very well-known source of comfort. I would like that to be the case again,” she adds.

JP

“My son’s full name was John Peter Shand Butler – but I will refer to him as JP – the name he preferred as he got older. He was born on 19.6.1996 and he chose to end his life at the age of 14 on 31.3.2011,” says Kate.

JP Shand. PHOTO: Supplied JP Shand. PHOTO: Supplied

“He was born at home painlessly and he slipped into the world without a fuss. As a baby and toddler he was so easy. He just used to fit in and go along with whatever was happening . . . He spoke when he needed to.”

“He was always a bit different but ever so slightly. Nothing I could pinpoint. Just a bit at odds with the world.”

“He seemed to prefer his own company. He was without guile – and mostly got caught when he got up to mischief. He was undemanding, shy and reserved and this manifested in a painfully self-conscious relationship with the world. He didn’t want to be noticed.”

That day she could hardly recognise her husband’s voice over the phone: Come home. He’s killed himself.”

I’m coming, Kate said, as she processed it in her head: “Noo-noo-noo-nooo-noo…”

That afternoon, nearly five years ago, her son hanged himself with a belt behind their house in Johannesburg. She start going to TCF six weeks after JP’s death.

“In those early days when I could hardly comprehend what had happened, it helped to go to TCF's monthly suicide group. I was not alone. This had happened to other people . . . It would never be the same but I would have life.

"TCF provided and continues to provide a space where I can remember my son and where the people around me are not embarrassed when I mention his name,” says Kate.

SERGIO

On his 21st birthday, he was murdered by his cousin on his father’s side.

“It was so unexpected. We were overwhelmed, for a long time we didn’t speak about it,” says Isabel Ferreira (61), a counsellor from Johannesburg.

Her son, Sergio, was killed on the morning of 4 September 2005.

Sergio with his mom and dad. PHOTO: Supplied Sergio with his mom and dad. PHOTO: Supplied

“What had been a celebration of his life turned, in a split second, into a horror defying all description and that only someone who has lost a loved one in such tragic circumstances can begin to comprehend,” says Isabel.

“The life we knew as a family ended then.”

Isabel's husband King Ferreira (65) and their surviving son Nuno (37) are still battling to come to terms with their loss.

“My husband, urged by the judge at sentencing to seek help, has not done so and still falls into holes of despair.

“Besides losing his son, it was his own blood that deprived him of the joy Sergio was in his life,” she says.

“My surviving son, Nuno [who was 26 at the time] has felt the loss of his younger brother and best friend permeated most areas of his life.”

Isabel heard about TCF from a friend four weeks after the incident.

“Being part of a community of people who had lost children and understood my levels of despair with compassion and without judgment gave me a platform to grieve in my own way and my journey towards healing slowly started.”

“It gave me hope that maybe, one day I would be able to find joy again. I have: The colours of my world are somewhat dulled, but beautiful nonetheless.”

Today, Isabel counsels victims of crime and other bereaved parents in a Victim Empowerment Programme and at TCF.

“In each little difference I make in someone’s life, I honour my son.”

NANAYAA

Their 33-year-old daughter Nanayaa Angela Osei-Tutu was at the AfrikaBurn festival in Tankwa Karoo in April 2012.

They were on their way back to Johannesburg via Cape Town when she died of a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs).

“She had a great time. She is my only daughter. I have a 31-year-old son. She would have come back and finish her honours in Economic Science at Unisa. She planned to do her masters here or somewhere overseas. There were so many dreams,” says Anthony Osei-Tutu (62).

Nanayaa Angela Osei-Tutu. PHOTO: Supplied Nanayaa Angela Osei-Tutu. PHOTO: Supplied

“We are still dealing with it. Parents are ill equipped to deal with the death or their children. My wife struggles more than me at the moment. We can’t stop thinking where she would have been now, if she was still alive.”

“Men sometimes grief in a different way because of the macho perception that you are not allowed to show weakness. The only way to heal is to share. She is still with us and we are very mindful about it.” His wife is Mahlape (62) is a trainer at a company and his son Mpho (31) is an actor.

  • To celebrate the 47th anniversary of the organisation on 22 October, the group is hosting a walk at the Rietvlei Lifestyle Centre, south of Johannesburg, where every step taken will be in remembrance of a loved one no longer with us. For more information email tcfsa@mweb.co.za or visit compassionatefriends.org.za

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