Johannesburg - A smorgasbord of up close and personal conversations with authors led by facilitators was the order of the day at the Kingsmead Book Fair 2022 taking place at Kingsmead College in Johannesburg.
One such discussion titled “Can Words Mend A Broken Heart?” was led by Lorraine Sithole. Relebone Rirhandzu eAfrika, author of Broken Porcelain; Glynis Horning, who wrote Waterboy: Making Sense of My Son’s Suicide; and Paula Marais, author of A Nuclear Family: A Novel of Mental Illness, Marriage and Murder opened up to attendees about putting words to tragedy.
The session, which was an hour long, delved deep into the loss a mother feels after losing her child to suicide and the struggles associated with living with mental health challenges.
The women, whose books all explore mental health issues, shared their personal experiences of living through depression and coming to terms with grief.
In writing her story and working on the characters in her book, Paula Marais said that when a family loses a child to suicide there is a break in the nuclear-family setting.
"When something like this happens, there's a break in the family – a before and an after. The whole family changes. Albert, who is a young boy who takes his own life, must have been down a trajectory otherwise he wouldn't have done what he did. Alice, who is the mother, then starts doubting herself and asking what she did wrong not to see what her son was going through."
As a mother who has lost her son to suicide, Glynis Horning weighed in on the conversation, saying there was always a sadness to the loss the family had suffered, but that remembering her son as he was before he took his life was important for her.
"There's always this sadness. He was a kind, loving, beautiful boy who excelled academically. Everything was lined up for this boy, and it is vital for us to remember him as he was before," she said.
Relebone Rirhandzu eAfrika said growing up there was always something in her that felt different.
"I would always ask my friends if they thought about death a lot. When I look back, I felt like death was a part of me because of the family members we lost when I was young. Children don't always interpret what happens around them," she said.
On the question of who supports parents along their journey of loss, Horning said the support they had received as a family had been extraordinary.
"A friend of mine who is a counsellor would come back to me with her perspective. A friend of mine who was a teacher would also be a good ear and offer perspectives on how to help my son deal with his depression. It is very difficult to be isolated in that loss," she said.
Rirhandzu eAfrika, whose book explores her journey of dealing with depression, said it was important in most instances to be heard and seen by those around you.
"When I was growing up, I didn't know what kind of support I needed. We were all going through it by taking it one day at a time. In the beginning, it was tough for my mother, but she's understanding right now because she's seen the mental breakdown.
“She's able to help a lot better because I am able to articulate myself. She's learning more to listen to me and to help wherever she can. I always tell my friends and family to speak my love language.
“Speaking someone's love language is a lot more comforting than we realise. The only way we can find a rhythm that has meaning is if our parents can deal with their own mental health issues," she said.
Horning spoke about how Spencer, her son, had received all the help they could possibly get him as someone who had been diagnosed with depression.
"He had a lot of fatigue and was put on medication. The help we got him was seeing a psychologist and psychiatrists. We've always been open and non-judgemental as a family," she said.
On how to deal with loss and mental health issues, the authors said that speaking up more and putting psychological well-being front and centre is what needs to be done.
"We need to reassess how family dynamics work. We are a different set of individuals. We need to see children as a gift. There has to be a way where we say: ‘We are all equal and there's mutual respect and love’," said Rirhandzu eAfrika.
According to Marais, there isn't always a visible sign.
"There isn't a sign around your face or neck. We need to talk more about mental health and destigmatise. We need to get it on the front lines," she said.
Horning concluded by saying that a mental health illness that was undiagnosed was both dangerous and scary.
"Destigmatising mental health is the only way we can get through it. There is nothing more scary than unmedicated depression. Medication must certainly be considered," she said.