In the shadow of suicide — (The Irish Times)

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The Irish Times

Mon, Jan 3, 2005, 00:00

The death of John and Mary McTernan’s son spurred them to break through the wall of silence surrounding suicide and to help others affected, writes

Marese McDonagh

It had been an unremarkable day followed by a quiet evening in front of the television. Garry McTernan, the eldest child, lover of heavy metal music and fast cars, the joker of the family, had given his parents no inkling of the horror that was about to unfold.

He spent most of the day at his home in Dromahair, Co Leitrim with his mother, Mary. He had worked on a project on the computer. They had discussed music and clothes. She was always taken along and consulted when he went shopping.

“He told me everything. The one thing he did not tell me was that he wanted to die,” says Mary.

That final evening he said a cheerful goodnight to her and to his teenage sister Clare. “Goodnight mum and I’ll see you.” She can still hear his voice.

“He was sitting there in that chair you’re in,” Garry’s father John recalls. When he moved to go to bed Garry said he should wait and see the end of the movie. The film was Scream.

When it was over, father and son chatted about it for a while and then John retired. As usual, the following morning he got up just before 7.30 a.m. He was surprised to see Garry had left the lights on and then baffled to discover that the television hadn’t been turned off.

He went to call Garry who worked in a factory in Manorhamilton. The bed had not been slept on – a pile of neatly ironed clothes undisturbed on the covers made John’s heart sink.

He hurried back to the kitchen and noticed a light in the garage. He shouted out to his son, asking him what on Earth he was doing there at that hour. There was no reply.

What happened next was the beginning of a nightmare that John and Mary McTernan are struggling to find a way out of. There are no words to describe the pain of a man who finds the body of his child and is immediately presented with the double horror of having to tell a mother that her son has taken his own life.

“He kept saying over and over again, ‘Mary, something terrible has happened,’ and I kept begging him to tell me what,” she recalls.

The following hours, days, even months are a haze. When John eventually found the words he hardly dared utter, Mary jumped into Clare’s bed and clung to her surviving child.

John remembers having to call three men across the road to help him. He recalls the flashing lights as the squad car arrived and the uniformed gardaí in the house gently doing a job no one would envy.

The kindness of all the people in their home village has kept them sane in the months since. “The whole village just came here and took us over. They ran our lives. I never knew people could be so kind. You can imagine us just sitting here. In the state we were in we could never pick up the phone and ring someone like a bereavement counsellor,” says Mary.

The one thing keeping them going now is the thought that perhaps they could save someone else’s son or daughter. They are quietly insistent that suicide and all its victims have not been getting enough attention.

“Only 6 per cent of the health budget goes to suicide, but it claims more lives than car accidents – nearly 450 last year,” points out John. “To some extent there is still a taboo.”

They know of seven people in Co Leitrim who have committed suicide within the past 12 months, an astounding figure given the population of the county is just 26,000.

Four months after Garry died, 27-year-old Kevin Fallon committed suicide. He lived five miles away at Creevelea, Drumkeerin. Four years earlier another neighbour, Pat Kerins (26) from Killargue near Dromahair, took his own life.

Garry celebrated his 24th birthday two days before his death on January 9th last and John notes sadly that 24 is often described as the dangerous age as far as suicide is concerned. Suicide is now the most common cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in this country and, according to the National Suicide Review Group, the highest rate of suicide over the past five years has been among young men aged between 20 and 29.

The three families in the Dromahair area whose lives have been affected by suicide have decided to act. On February 18th and 19th, a conference entitled “Suicide: Prevention and Awareness” will be held at the Abbey Manor Hotel in the village.

The McTernan, Fallon and Kerins families have established a committee called STOP (Suicide: Teach, Organise, Prevent). They hope to set up a support group for bereaved families and also want to explore ways of reaching out to depressed people so those contemplating suicide will know help may only be a telephone call away.

“We know that Garry made a number of calls that night,” says Mary. The couple don’t know if the late night text messages and calls made to friends were a desperate attempt to get help.

“Garry McTernan, a young fellow living in Dromahair, wouldn’t maybe even know about the Samaritans,” says John. “We think there should be an awareness that there are people within the county who you can contact when you feel depressed.”

“He was the funny, funny guy,” says Mary. “He was very bubbly and outgoing.”

John cannot come to terms with the fact that his son will not feature in his future. “I can see him in the crib and I can see him in the coffin,” he says.

Mary cannot bear to go to the grave and has only been twice. “It is a horrendous nightmare. You don’t see it coming and you don’t know what to do or where to go. You keep asking why and there is no answer,” she says.

The couple are not angry with their son. “On bad days I might say, ‘Garry, why did you leave me?’ but I believe Garry was depressed,” says Mary. Her husband feels no anger. “This is a sickness just as cancer is.”

The house is full of photographs and reminders. Garry bought his mother flowers regularly, always red roses for Valentine’s Day, and she still has all the cards that came with them. “To the best Mom in the world. From Garry XXXXXX,” reads one treasured note found lying around the house.

A week before he died, Garry told her he knew she loved him. Two days before his death he made a similar comment to his father and both conversations are a huge source of comfort now.

Garry left a note for Mary, John and his sister Clare, in which he tried to explain and reassure them of his love. In it he wrote: “Please don’t cry or miss me. Just talk to me now and again. I love you all and always will.”

Garry’s passions in life were music, John Player cigarettes and fast cars. “That was the thing that we did worry about, that he drove too fast,” recalls his father.

“He was always acting the cod, telling us yarns, making us laugh,” he adds. “He was very kind, a real gentleman,” says Mary. “He would always ring home if he was staying with friends for the night.”

The STOP conference – which will be opened by RTÉ’s Tommie Gorman – will be addressed by a number of experts, including Dr John Connolly, secretary of the Irish Association of Suicidology. Broadcaster Gareth O’Callaghan, who has written a book about his battle with depression, will be among the guests. The organisers say that if they could save one family from what they see as a life sentence it will be worth it.

“You are always planning for your children,” says John. “You want to do everything for them and it is a fright to think of having to go on for the rest of your life without him.” He topped the poll in Co Leitrim in the June local election but it was a bitter-sweet occasion.

On John’s first electoral outing in 1991 there were three votes between himself and a Fianna Fáil neighbour in a fight for the last seat. After a marathon recount in Carrick-on-Shannon, John and Mary returned victorious to Dromahair. Garry, who was 12, was standing on the main street waving a banner that read: “Well done, Dad”.

“The happy memories make this harder in a way because that is all we have but we do know we will have happy times again,” says John.

“There is no way we are going to ground as far as Garry is concerned,” says Mary. “We will keep his memory alive. It is a life-long ambition now for both of us to get people to take this seriously.” They and their bereaved neighbours hope they will be taking the first step in February.