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Dying to live contd ...


Her little daughter, however, now no longer appeared to be very happy. She berated her mother for not coming to see her do athletics due to work commitments. She also pretended to take an overdose by swallowing Jelly Tot sweets.

Despite its efficacy in challenging family dynamics, was this rather drastic method of communication now to be pursued into the next generation? Suicide, like smoking and other self-destructive behaviour, can be contagious (Gladwell, 2004). Furthermore, in an article on page 3 of the Natal Mercury on 13 September 2004, Latoya Newman reports:

"At least one suicide is committed every hour in South Africa, and 20 more unsuccessful attempts are made in the same time span. Suicide has risen 48% over the past 10 years in South Africa, and one third of all non-fatal attempts were recorded among children."

It was thus essential that the little girl realize that suicide was undesirable behaviour. Busisiwe decided that she needed to explain to her that she had acted in a foolish, unnecessary and regrettable fashion. I suggested that the child also felt anger and a need to confirm that she was valuable to her mother. In talking to her, Busisiwe tried to ensure that her daughter realized that she had not ever intended to die and abandon her.

As the sessions progressed, positive changes in the family relationships continued. Her younger brother and mother, in particular, were trying to be helpful to her.

Then other issues began to emerge. Busisiwe began to report that she was feeling depressed. She felt that she was a failure. It was her impression that she was not as successful as some of her former classmates. These feelings of sadness were mitigated by the moments when she spoke of her daughter. She clearly enjoyed talking about the child and took an enormous amount of pride in the child's precocious nature. In fact, it was only when thinking of her child that life seemed to be less than totally unsatisfying. For the most part, however, feelings of failure and mourning for lost time and opportunity were never far off.

Freud (1917) understood mourning as the ego trying to restore to life whatever has been lost by identifying with it and then incorporating it into the self. In melancholia, also, the ego attempts to introject or incorporate a lost object. However, with this process there is too much guilt and hostility. It is as if the sufferer believes that he or she is responsible for whatever has been lost and consequently suffers some sort of internal persecution. In Busisiwe's case this related to a feeling that she had lost her potential for success as a result of her family's lack of support and their stifling requirements, but also as a result of her own inadequacies.

It was necessary to re-create her sense of self by making use of Blatner's (1997) notion of a personal mythology. This idea may have been inherited from Jung who viewed myth as important in providing humans with guiding principles and meaning with which to live life (Stephenson Bond, 2003).

A central aspect of Busisiwe's personal myth was her belief that the ancestors were calling her to become a "sangoma". This identification with a shaman archetype contributed greatly to her coping capacity. In moments of confidence, she viewed herself as sensitive, clever and as linked to her sangoma ancestors.

We focused therefore on what she had managed to achieve in her work environment and on her perceptive and wise manner of relating to her daughter who was becoming an assertive and academically highly achieving little girl.

Busisiwe was in many ways the sort of mother to her daughter that she would have loved to have had herself as a child. It was interesting thus also to associate her with the mother archetype. In addition to mothering her daughter, she mothered most of her family too. She was the figure in the family who could fix problems, care for others, make magic happen.

At the same time she was more than a mother and a potential "sangoma". She was more than a daughter and a fast-food-worker. She was a potential student and a potential businesswoman. Other aspects of her self had to be acknowledged and affirmed. This too was in accordance with Blatner's (1997) injunction that a pluralistic view of the mind and soul be nurtured. She had felt hopeless that these other parts of her self would ever be realized. This hopelessness had hampered her and darkened her relationships with friends and family members. It had to be explored and transformed into realistic plans to set about bringing about change.

As I have indicated, Busisiwe's beliefs with regard to her calling to become a sangoma were a source of strength. She was, however, fearful about pursuing this path and uncertain also with regard to her theological understandings. Religiously, she fell within a very marginal position. Some members of her family were Christian. She adhered to certain Christian beliefs but was not a regular churchgoer. She believed she had a calling to become a "sangoma", yet she was too scared to pursue this route. Spiritually, in the end, she was neither here-nor-there and she was not thus able to benefit from the supportive context or environment provided by either African Religion or Christianity.

With regard to suicide prevalence, the nineteenth century sociologist, Durkheim, found that Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics, who, in turn, had higher rates than Jews. This could not be explained by differences in theology. Although Catholicism made suicide a more serious sin than did Protestantism, Judaism made no special prohibition of suicide and yet had the lowest prevalence. The cause for these variations was rather to be found in the social environment each religious group provided for their members. Judaism created the most close-knit religious community, Protestantism the least, with Catholicism somewhere in between, surrounding the individual with a round of ritual activities.

In general, Durkheim argued that the more tightly integrated into society an individual was, the more he was prevented from committing suicide. His understanding of suicide was not able to take into account cases where suicide is a political act carried out with the rewards of an after-life an anticipated certainty as with today's Muslim suicide bombers. In most other contexts, however, his perspective remains useful.

Despite its dysfunctional characteristics, Busisiwe was very well integrated within the life of her family. Perhaps it was because of this integration that despite her marginal religious position, she was not serious about dying? As has been shown, she intended it to function essentially as a message to them that they were "killing" her with their demands.

Durkheim believed that when individuals felt cut off from society they were more likely to kill themselves. The more social bonds surrounding an individual, the less the chance that such a person would commit suicide. The fewer the bonds, the higher the danger of self-destruction.

In Busisiwe's case, her bonds functioned in an ambiguous manner. Although a source of purpose and value, they also hampered her pursuit of other goals. The care of her daughter was the most consistent source of meaning in her life, but she sought to enrich her life still further by future study and occupational advancement. At times, it seemed to her that she was stuck as a sales lady at the fast-food outlet where she was employed and that she would never go anywhere else or be anything else. Her family, with their vulnerabilities and hungers, made it difficult for her to find the money and time to pursue her ambitions. She felt that they were smothering her.

As with so many other parasuicides, Busisiwe was always well able to express her feelings, but she experienced herself as part of a family system that did not always hear words and was not very willing to change.

She had to try something more dramatic. She had to show that she was dying in order to be allowed to live.

Ethelwyn Rebelo is a psychologist working at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Johannesburg, South Africa.


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