‘Every cell in my body aches with longing for my beautiful boy,’ says Cape Town mother Ronelle de Villiers, whose son ended his life at the age of 16. ‘But I have chosen still to seek the beauty and joy in life, to focus and be grateful’. Read her moving journey and watch the video below, where Ronelle offers some hard-won advice on the tactics that helped her husband and her survive this devastating blow
A mother will always be devastated by losing her child. But when that child was in a depressive fog that led to suicide, it’s a particular kind of pain. How has RONELLE DE VILLIERS, who lost her beloved son Philip just before Christmas in 2015, kept going? With suicide the leading single cause of death for men under 50 in the UK and teen depression having risen by 37% in the USA over the past few years, SUE BROWN talked to this battle-scarred but resilient woman about her talented son’s life, his hidden depression, and how she and her husband are choosing to tackle life
We also offer some expert advice for parents whose teens have been sideswiped by depression, and how to look for signs of the illness when it is hidden
Ronelle (50) studied physiotherapy but now works as a photographer and volunteers at a daycare centre in Crossroads township. She and her paediatrician husband Gerrit live in Bellville, Cape Town, and their daughter Jean-Marie (22) is studying engineering at Stellenbosch. Their son Philip ended his own life in December 2015, at the age of 16
‘Philip was a very easy baby, and a lovely, lively toddler. Always inquisitive, he asked the really tough questions about life from a young age, but was an easy and compassionate child and adolescent. Children and adults were drawn to him because he was nice to be with.
He hated injustice, taking it upon himself to protect more vulnerable children. He listened deeply, made each child feel equally important, and rejoiced in their successes. He felt their unhappiness intensely, weeping after a teacher shamed other children in his class. I sometimes wonder if his compassionate side didn’t make him particularly susceptible to depression.
‘A teacher once said that convincing Philip was the easiest way to influence a class – the rest would follow,’ says Ronelle, pictured here with Philip when he was 15
A teacher once said that convincing Philip was the easiest way to influence a class – the rest would follow. He was humble and witty, head boy of his junior school, and a talented academic, musician and sportsman.
In his first year of high school he had to stop hockey, athletics, drumming and guitar due to a wrist injury. He didn’t complain but began to spend afternoons sleeping on the couch. He seemed down, but not miserable, and began to date a lovely girl, Lara.
Concerned about the negative effects of prolonged non-participation, we urged the hand surgeon to operate on his wrist, and Philip returned to sports and music in grade 10.
He asked for ‘one good reason’ why his 16th birthday, coming up that August, could not go on later than the usual curfew of 11pm! Yet in June, unexpectedly broke up with Lara. He spoke very little for three weeks, and we became concerned he could be depressed. He never had that birthday party because a school hockey tour to the Netherlands cropped up: we asked his teammates and coach to please look out for Philip, but they saw no signs of depression. However, we saw a different side to him when he returned from Holland and took him to a psychiatrist immediately. Severe depression was diagnosed and he started on medication and weekly therapy.
After a few weeks of treatment Philip went for an evening run, but uncharacteristically didn’t return. We searched frantically until he phoned some hours later from a friend’s house. He had an appointment with the psychologist the following day and because he had suicidal thoughts, Philip was admitted to a clinic for two weeks.
After Philip [pictured here in a red top] died, Ronelle found a pile of letters he had written. ‘He described feeling intolerably lonely and abandoned by God. He expressed shame at being depressed despite his outwardly happy life, and the intolerable burden of wearing a mask,’ says Ronelle
Allowed a day out, Philip chose to climb Table Mountain with us. After two weeks in the clinic he said he felt fine and safe, and that he wasn’t having suicidal thoughts. In hindsight, we realise he’d already made his decision, and was saying goodbye to the people he loved in the last week of his life. He also said goodbye to his sister Jean-Marie, with whom he was very close. She had just finished her final Matric exams and was leaving for celebrations by the beach in Hermanus.
On the morning of December 4th, I took coffee to wake him up at 7am, to pack for a trip he was going on with a group of friends from his church youth group. My heart skipped a few beats when there was no answer to my knock. The door was locked, and there was no answer to my yelling and screaming. I ran around the house looking for a stone to break the window. When I finallly pulled back the curtain, the first thing I saw was his beloved dog looking at me beside a pile of letters, on a bed which hadn’t been slept in.
Philip with sister Jean-Marie, with whom he was very close, says Ronelle. He made sure to say goodbye to her before he ended his life
And then the absolute unimaginable, Philip hanging in front of his cupboard.
My neighbour jumped over the wall after hearing my screams and then came a stream of people, and the police.
Later, we read the letters which Philip had written in his darkest hours over two years. They were mostly about his struggle to be ‘okay’. His last few letters were addressed to me and Gerrit, asking us to forgive him. He described feeling intolerably lonely, and abandoned by God. He expressed shame at being depressed despite his outwardly happy life, and the intolerable burden of ‘wearing a mask’. And a mounting, overwhelming fear of the pain of life: ultimately outweighing that of death. ‘I cannot carry this mask any longer. Please forgive me,’ he wrote.
The De Villiers family (left to right): Jean-Marie (22), mother Ronelle, father Gerrit and Philip. ‘Depression so often convinces its victims that their dark thoughts are shameful and must be kept secret from the world.’ says Ronelle
I now understand that depression is so often like a stealthy, deceptive, cowardly ‘black dog’ that sneaks up and sinks its claws into people. A disease that convinces its victims that their dark thoughts are shameful and must be kept secret from the world, that they should be ashamed for not coping. I hate that dog! I hate it! I so wish we’d spoken more to our children about depression at a young age. Explained how, like flu, it’s a common illness that anyone can suffer from, at any age. And that it can be treated.
I wish I could have been there for him in his darkest hour of life. When no hope was left inside of him. I wish I could have held him in my arms, stroked his curly hair and told him that I was there for him, no matter what. Every cell in my body aches with longing for my beautiful boy. It’s a difficult and heavy thing to carry, this hole in your body.
On that horrific morning in those first few hours of shock and confusion, people, police, friends in and out, I sat down on the couch and said to God that I was going to cling to His hand for life and death. This was the only way I could find peace in the mother that I’d been to Philip, in what I could and couldn’t do for my son, and peace with Philip’s decision.
A few days after Philip died, Gerrit and I sat on that same couch and asked ourselves how we were going to be sure to do this together. It was a crucial moment in our relationship and we decided never to blame, rather always to affirm the other. Since Philip died, we’ve walked together daily at 5pm for 20 minutes to listen attentively to the other.
My advice to other bereaved parents is to be kind and gentle with yourself and each other. Grief leaves you with very little energy: don’t waste it on guilt or blame. Say ‘I wish’, rather than ‘I should have’.
Reaching beyond: Ronelle was given this paragliding experience by friends on her 50th birthday. ‘It took great effort not to withdraw from life but we always felt better for going out,’ she says
Ronelle also goes on a restoring annual hike with a group called Solesisters. ‘Depression is often like a deceptive and cowardly black dog that sinks its claws into people,’ she says. ‘I wish I could have been there for Philip in the darkest hour of his life.’
We didn’t withdraw from life, and asked friends to keep inviting us for supper. It took great effort, but we always felt better for going. We’re enjoying hiking and camping with friends again. Our church community is an enormous support.
It’s like a punch in the stomach to hear people say ‘commit’ in relation to suicide, or the Afrikaans word selfmoord [literally, self-murder]. These are words that imply a criminal act, rather than the organ failure that it is: the inability of the brain to sustain life. ‘Died from suicide/depression’ or selfdood [self-death] are also painful words, but give victims the respect and compassion they deserve.
I so miss Philip’s easy, contagious laughter that filled our home. I take comfort in wearing his special coat, and in the exquisite quilt made by the mother of a friend, in his favourite clothes and sayings, in the places that he loved. I like to remember his passion for hiking on Table Mountain.
Gerrit and I keep on saying to ourselves that we wish we had said less and listened more. That we had said, ‘Tell us more about how you feel.’ When he said that he was lonely, we wish we’d asked him to speak to us. When he said that he was so sad sometimes, we wish we had asked him to tell us more.
‘I like to remember Philip’s passion for hiking Table Mountain,’ says Ronelle. Her advice for bereaved family members? ‘Grief leaves you with very little energy: don’t waste it on guilt or blame. Say I wish, rather than I should have. Affirm rather than blame each other.’
Depressed people feel alone. By sitting and listening and being with them in that pain of loneliness, you can maybe make them feel that they’re not alone. Their thinking isn’t reasoned or clear so I have come to realise that being a compassionate listener is much more important than giving advice.
Nothing can lessen the pain of losing Philip, but I have chosen still to seek and see the beauty and joy in life, to focus and be grateful for the people and the things that I do have. I believe that my beautiful son’s life was greater than his death, and that this is what Philip would have wanted for us. And that we will one day be reunited, as God has promised.
‘It’s so easy to be snappy or withdraw…’ What advice does Ronelle give to anyone who, like her, has lost a relative due to depression?
I couldn’t have survived Philip’s death without the belief that God is ultimately in control of this broken world, and in His promise that He will give beauty for ashes. I believe that one day we will be reunited with Philip and that on the other side of that devastating evening, Jesus was waiting for him with arms wide open, welcoming him home. And that Philip is whole now. No more sadness, no more pain, no more loneliness.
Philip with girlfriend, Lara. ‘I believe that my beautiful son’s life was greater than his death, and that seeking joy and being grateful are what Philip would have wanted for us,’ says Ronelle
Is your teen depressed?
Specialist psychiatrist Karen Swartz of America’s highly respected John Hopkins University advises concerned parents to consider any changes in three main areas:
1. Changes in mood – Is your teen feeling sad, irritable or lacking enjoyment in activities (especially ones he or she used to enjoy or love)?
2. Physical changes – increase or decrease in appetite, weight and sleep. Is he or she unable to focus or concentrate, with little or no energy, and struggling with sleeplessness or getting out of bed in the morning?
3. Changes in self-perception – a loss of confidence and self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness
While most people experience one or more of these symptoms in their lives, to diagnose depression, psychiatrists look for a cluster of symptoms lasting at least two weeks that interfere with someone’s emotional, social or academic functioning
‘[Depression is] still a mystery to so many people and they don’t know to take action,’ says Dr Swartz. ‘The goal with educating people on the basics of the disease is so they know it exists, that it’s a real medical problem. Then they might say, Oh, my gosh, I might have that. And they say it’s treatable, so maybe I should do something or talk to somebody
ADVICE FOR PARENTS OF DEPRESSED CHILDREN
Cape Town clinical psychologist Gustav van Greunen works with a range of problem areas surrounding teenage depression and has journeyed with the de Villiers family since Philip’s death. Here he offers suggestions for parents of depressed children:
- Know that there are many cases where the outcome of suicide does not suggest that anybody did anything wrong (as was the case in the De Villiers home)
- Listen more. In an attempt to help and manage our helplessness and fears as parents when our children are troubled, we can talk more than we listen. Understanding through listening is always a good approach
- Offer a safe emotional environment at home
- Guard against talking/acting from a place of helplessness
- Mobilise help/treatment, but in a collaborative way
- Try to think like a child/teenager when attempting to understand
- Dads, please be as involved as mothers tend to be
- Be a team
- Suicide threats should generally be taken seriously
- Establish anchors for the child and the family unit when the child is troubled
If you feel that you or someone you care about is not coping or is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, make sure to get help! Consider contacting your GP or calling Lifeline SA on 0861 322 322 or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 12 13 14
Hope House offers counselling to both adults and children as young as three. All services are provided in return for a donation of whatever you can afford. Hope House can be contacted on 021 715 0424. It has branches in Bergvliet, Blaauwberg and Kuilsriver and at various schools
You can also consider the Dealing with Depression course at Christ Church, Kenilworth, Cape Town, starting 16 July 2019. It’s for anyone experiencing depression or supporting someone going through it and runs every Tuesday night for 4 weeks. Attendees have no obligation to be church members. For details, click here
Alternatively, call CCFM’s 24-hour prayer line on 021 788 3340
REST OF WORLD
Change is possible so take action now! Google local depression or suicide helplines, or contact a medical professional to start on the path towards healing. Click here or visit suicide.org for a headstart