Teenage girl opens up over impact of her father’s suicide
- Credit: Archant
How do you recover from the death of your mother or father? And what if you are just 12 years old? Health correspondent Geraldine Scott looks at the support provided by a Norfolk charity.
When Leah Matkin's father took his own life when she was just 12 years old, she felt alone and did not know where to turn.
Lawrance Payne was working offshore in Singapore at the time of his death three years ago.
Leah, now 15, said: "My dad worked away a lot, he worked away for like six weeks at a time. I think it was close to when he was coming home, we had a call to say he had been taken to hospital."
Leah, a Hellesdon High School student, said at first after the phone call, which came in the middle of the night, they did not know much.
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But as family gathered at her home, desperately waiting for news, it was clear something serious had gone on.
"I had lots of questions, everyone came round and my granddad was on the phone, and they just said he had died," she said.
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Lawrance had suffered with depression - unbeknownst to Leah at the time. She said: "He was quite a fun person, we went on holiday quite a lot, we were quite an active family. But he had really bad episodes of anxiety and depression before. I think it all got a bit too much."
Lawrance had hanged himself, and was found by a work friend.
Leah, who lives in Newton St Faith, said: "I think it was quite difficult because I told my friends [he had died] but I didn't tell them how. I only told one of my friends and she was really supportive."
But she said others had been awkward and added: "If it was any other way [he had died] they would talk about it."
Rather than try to mask what had truly happened, Leah's mother Leanne was very open with her daughter, and sons eight-year-old twins Sam and Charlie, and Ellias, 10, about their father's death.
Leah said: "I talked to my mum quite a lot about it, and my mum and my brothers."
Leanne said: "With something like that you need to build on truth from the start. I didn't want to build on something that wasn't true.
"They [the children] have nothing to be ashamed of and Lawrance had nothing to be ashamed of. It's a harsh subject but there are softer words and it teaches them that it is as normal as anything else."
She had also opened up to the children about Lawrance's mental health struggles because she wanted them to know "people don't just choose it, it's not a conscious choice".
And she was conscious that she could not control what others outside the family told the children, so she would rather it came from her.
She added: "The hardest thing [for Leah] was not being able to talk to her friends about it, she was only 12 - it was her 13th birthday two days later, the playground is still a bit cruel when you're 12. And it's because people don't understand it.
"It takes a long time to really understand it. We had to keep going over and over the details."
Leanne's approach is one supported by bereavement charity Nelson's Journey, which helps young people in Norfolk deal with loss.
The charity is currently supporting 81 children and young people who have experienced the death of someone by suicide.
And those who experience suicide of a parent during their childhood or adolescence are three times more likely than their non-bereaved peers to themselves die by suicide.
Debbie Winteringham, child bereavement services manager, said: "The impact of suicide on children and young people is significant, the unexpected and sudden nature of the death can cause a range of challenging responses.
"For this reason, it is important to share accurate, factual and developmentally appropriate information so that children and young people have a clear understanding of the circumstances whilst also recognising that it is not their fault that their special person chose to end their own life."
Leah created a piece of artwork for a Nelson's Journey exhibition, after getting support from the team.
The text accompanying the artwork said: "When I lost my dad by suicide, it left me and my brothers with really mixed feelings that we couldn't understand.
"Suicide also leaves you with so many questions that you will never get the answers to.
"Nelson's Journey helped us to talk about what we thought was uncomfortable to talk about when it was in actual fact a very normal and more common cause of death than we thought. Through this piece of art, I wanted to show a man's struggle through a depressive thought process.
"The background highlights suicide but also shows so many different articles which represent the intenseness of so many negative thoughts that build up in the mind.
"I also used newspaper cuttings as to me, this is a very public declaration and I think depression and suicide should be more openly and publicly talked about without having to feel embarrassment or shame when you are the one left behind.
"Our family journey is now over two years on and with great thanks to Nelson's Journey and each other, we have found peace, happiness and love."
Since her father's death Leah said the experience had "opened her eyes" to mental illness and made her more caring.
And the family regularly visit Lawrance's grave and look in the memory boxes they made at Nelson's Journey.
Now, Leah and her family are climbing Snowdon to raise money for Nelson's Journey.
The challenge will be especially poignant because the family had planned to climb the mountain with Lawrance three weeks after his death.
Now they will be joined by Leah's stepfather Darren and stepsisters Charlotte and Chloe.
To donate, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/familyof8
How to speak to children about suicide
Nelson's Journey says it is really important to be honest with children and young people regarding a cause of death.
Suicide and the resulting inquest are often reported by the press with full details of the person's name.
In later years, young people may search for their relatives name online and discover the full details of what happened.
If they were not given this information previously it can cause many challenges both for the young person but also family members who have to relive the experience when explaining what happened and why they chose not to tell the young person at that time.
The charity says adults should explain simply and gently that the person has died, giving basic details but also remaining honest about what happens. They say if a child asks a question, they are ready to hear the answer.
The charity said it was important to say the person ended their own life. For example: "Your dad did something very dangerous which caused him to die. People do something like that when they are very confused or depressed, daddy thought that killing himself would be the best thing to do. It was very unlike daddy to think like that and it is hard to believe that daddy isn't here anymore."
And it was also key to check if the child has any questions.
The charity said: "Giving a more detailed explanation as to how a person ended their own life can feel very scary but if said gently, factually and simply it can help a child piece together what happened rather than allowing them to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks."
If you have concerns for the welfare of a bereaved children or young person, living in Norfolk you can call the free Nelson's Journey support line on 01603 431788. This free service is available thanks to the generosity of the Norfolk community.