Q: I am worried about my little sister. She has taken responsibility for our niece and I do not think she can cope with this responsibility based on how she came about being in charge of her. She has the financial resources to care for the child. She is in a good job and she spends wisely. She also has the time because she is unmarried and without a child. What worries me is that our niece has had an unfortunate childhood so far. Her dad committed suicide shortly after she was born, and to this day, we are not sure why he took his life. Her father was a brilliant person. He was an intellectual. There seems no obvious reason for the suicide. And worse was in store as eight years later, her mother committed suicide. She left a suicide note and we are devastated even as we try to analyse the note. I have watched my little sister for the last year and I wonder if she can cope. How should I approach her?
A: Suicide continues to mystify human beings. In the 19th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who was considered the father of sociology, did a study on the subject of suicide and concluded that suicides were more prevalent when social conditions were not favourable. It is also believed that people commit suicide when they feel that life no longer has any meaning and they feel hopeless in their circumstances.
Some persons voluntarily terminate their lives because of mental suffering and chronic depression. So even if her father was not chronically depressed, his dominant feeling could be that he felt he could not cope with the challenges of life and felt that suicide was a better option even though he was academically brilliant.
Your sister left a note, but you did not share what the note said. People try to analyse suicide by researching suicide notes, and sometimes a note can give some insight into the thinking of the one who committed suicide, however, it might not explain everything and leaves the family helpless and guilty.
You are worried that your sister might be at risk of suicide based on family history. If this is any comfort, women are less likely than men to commit suicide. However, what you need to do is to become more aware about persons who are vulnerable to committing suicide. You cannot stand by and 'watch' your little sister. You have to show practical care for her by visiting her and your niece and also going places together. And you have to monitor her to make a difference in her life when she is hurting as she will hurt from time to time.
One person you did not mention but who needs special attention and help is your niece, who is a victim of a double suicide. This is very unusual and can be a very stressful situation for a nine-year-old to deal with. She will become curious one day as to why her parents committed suicide. It is important to dialogue with her and be open with and helpful to her. She will need professional help to understand the issue of suicide. She needs to be surrounded by persons who are sensitive and sensible because there is still a stigma attached to surviving relatives. She needs help and great support systems. You, therefore, have an important role.
Your little sister should be commended for taking on this difficult responsibility of single parenting of a victim of a double suicide and you and others can help by giving her and your niece practical help and support.
Some persons voluntarily terminate their lives because of mental suffering and chronic depression