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02 July 2009

An excess of grief

Meningitis, a quadriplegic boy, and parents who could not bear the tragedy.

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Has there been a more utterly tragic story in recent years than that of the parents who committed suicide recently in England, by jumping off the high cliffs at Beachy Head, accompanied by the body of their recently dead son, and his favourite toys?

What happened
Briefly, the story is this: Neil and Kazumi Puttick were profoundly loving parents of young Sam, aged 5, who had died of pneumococcal meningitis at their home. This was a day after having been discharged from intensive care at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, at his parents' request, after doctors admitted he could not possibly survive the infection. Neil, 34, and Kazumi, 44, seem to have placed the boy's body in a zipped-up rucksack, filling another with his favourite soft toys and a bright yellow toy tractor.

They then drove 100 miles from their home in their special wheelchair-adapted van, to the famous cliffs near Beachy Head lighthouse, and jumped over, together, falling 400 feet to their deaths. .

They had apparently decided that they could not, and would not face life without their beloved son. A half-eaten banana and a family-size packet of peanuts were left on the back seat of the vehicle.

But the story was far sadder than that. Sam had been profoundly disabled and quadriplegic after a car accident in 2005. He was only 16 months old when his mother's car was in a head-on collision, and his car seat was flung out of the car window. His spinal cord was completely severed and he contracted MRSA while in hospital.

The family home had been specially adapted to enable him to be cared for by his parents, who both gave up work and provided the round-the-clock care needed to maintain him on a ventilator 24 hours a day. Photos show a charming and happy child, smiling in every picture.

Understanding the tragedy
In a way, the parents died of an over-dose of tragedy. They considered his initial survival to have been a miracle, and insisted that his doctors were wrong and that there would be a second miracle which would enable him to recover and "walk, talk, and breathe again". Though that never happened, maybe they hoped for yet another miracle to save him from the meningitis. And when that, too, did not happen, they seem to have been in utter despair.

Their entire lives had come to centre entirely around their boy and hopes for him. Life without him may have seemed barren and pointless. They just could not bear to continue living without him.

We admire people who cope with severe adversity as well as they apparently did, but we forget the severe strain of chronic affliction continues to wear one down. Part of the admiration, often, is a sense of relief that this did not happen to us, and that by coping so valiantly, the victims place less demands on the rest of us. Part of the support they deserve is sufficient assistance to enable them to allow them to be less than heroic at least some of the time, to maintain to some degree a life of their own, which can continue, in addition to their life as faithful caregivers.

Believing in the prospect of a miracle, however unlikely, may become a central organising principal in someone's life. After a succession of catastrophes and disappointments, losing that belief may lead to a collapse of the entire rationale for life.

Could this tragedy have been anticipated? Probably, and though the hospital staff were unusually sensitive in allowing the parents to take their dying son home when there was no further chance of recovery, they might also have foreseen how extremely bereft they would be after the death. Perhaps extra help and support was offered and refused; we do not know.

The sad lure of Beachy Head
Beachy Head is a very beautiful and sad place, which has become the most popular site for suicides in Britain. Way back in the 7th century St Wilfred reported an alarming number of suicides there during a severe drought. Local church records since 1600 show a steady number of such deaths. More than 500 people have killed themselves there since 1965, around 20 per year.

A special charity, Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team, is a Christian organisation, which patrols the cliffs hoping to find and dissuade possible jumpers. Publicity may help to draw the suicidal to the spot, but other factors also operate - the suicide rate went up when a road made it easy to drive to the top, sparing people a long and arduous climb.

Changing one's mind
An aspect many would-be jumpers forget is that it is indeed possible to change your mind while on the way down. A recent survivor who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, did just that, and changed his posture during the fall to try to save himself.

The saddest part of that story is that before jumping he had spent 30 minutes or more standing weeping on the bridge walk-way. He was approached by a German tourist, but she only wanted him to take a picture of her, posing on the bridge.

Suicide warning signs

(Professor MA Simpson, aka CyberShrink, June 2009)

 
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