Dorothy and I were childhood friends. We were neighbours and our parents were friends. We were in the same primary school and had many friends in common. As children, Dorothy and I played together, and enjoyed all the games little girls played. When I was six years, my family moved to another town, but our friendship continued because my grandma was still Dorothy’s neighbour. During the school holidays, I used to visit my grandma. Dorothy was always there to receive me, and fill me in with all the girlie gossips. We were like two peas in a pod.
Since we were age mates, puberty hit Dorothy and I at about the same time. The protruding chests, the periods, fascination with our looks, and the whole biological confusion that is associated with growing up. Well, that was until some aspects took a different turn. Dorothy became moody and withdrawn. She stopped coming to see me at my grandma’s house. She refused to see me or other friends when we called at her house. Friends told me that all she did was go to school and go back to her bedroom. She was a “very quiet and good girl” the adults said. “She doesn’t hangout like other teenagers do” my grandma always added.
One school holiday, we arrived at my grandma’s house. As a tradition, I asked after Dorothy and my question was met with the loudest silence I ever heard. I will never forget the look on my grandma’s face. She appeared sad and angry at the same time. I didn’t understand it. She broke the news that every young person dreads. “Dorothy is dead” she muttered. I remember walking round the room, hysterically asking her when and how Dorothy died. All she could tell me was when, but remained mysterious about how. Dorothy was just 14. How on earth could she die? She was the “good” one! Anecdotal accounts had it that she died from a botched abortion; a common cause of death amongst teenagers then (according to the untrained coroners notebooks).
Several things stood out to me when Dorothy died. I don’t remember a funeral. Her dad carried on working as usual. I occasionally saw her mother and I recall thinking she looked older than usual. I remember asking Dorothy’s dad once, what actually happened to Dorothy. Intriguingly, he had that same frown my grandma had when I asked her the same question. It was as if there was an oath of silence sworn amongst the adults. No one was disclosing how my friend died.
I ran into Dorothy’s brother in a shopping mall. Now, Dorothy’s brother is one of those few people on earth who still have their childhood faces in place. I recognised him and approached him. He obviously didn’t recognise me as my face now has its stripes, but hey, it’s all good. Anyway, we got talking and he told me that Dorothy actually hung herself. She committed suicide and he found her in her bedroom! I couldn’t believe what he was saying! I didn’t want to. He told me that he was warned never to say it, as people would have ostracised his family. Dorothy wasn’t given a “proper” funeral because it was an abomination to bury her with dignity. Her suicide was a sin against religion and culture. His dad bought a coffin, and uncles took her body to a graveyard and buried her in an unmarked grave. He was very emotional, and verbalised that he had not gotten over the trauma of finding her. No one counselled him on it, and since he was forbidden from speaking about it, he has suffered all these years. I advised him to seek some kind of counselling. I also got his consent to blog about it, and we parted ways.
It’s 31 years now since Dorothy died and I still remember the first time I heard that she died. The guilt of not reaching out to her more when she confined herself in her bedroom, will haunt me forever. I’m kicking myself for not literally kicking her bedroom door open. What if I just asked her “how are you?” The ‘what ifs’ are endless. On reflection, she had the classic signs of depression. Her mood was low, she lacked motivation to socialise, she wanted to be left alone all the time. Perhaps she cried a lot. I bet her parents didn’t understand what she was going through. At that age, she was seen as the “good” child because she didn’t hangout with peers. It hurts that no one questioned why an extroverted girl suddenly turned reclusive. Did something happen to her that emotionally scarred her? I suppose we will never know.
The African factor…
Depression and suicide are two aspects of human existence that people shut out in Africa. Many people today don’t recognise the signs and symptoms of depression. In fact they don’t even believe in its existence. In teenagers and young adults, depression and mental health problems are very much undetected. When suicide occurs, it is so coveted because of the stigma and shame associated with it. Families of the deceased are not permitted to mourn. In some cases, the deceased are thrown into bushes to “rot”. I hear some people say that suicides are very rare in Africa. I find it ridiculous because, like in Dorothy’s case, suicides are sealed family secrets. Moreover, where non obvious methods are used, and no autopsies are carried out, suicide rates will continue to appear very low.
The key is to pay more attention to depression, recognise the symptoms, and seek help. My friend argues that the stigma attached to suicide is a natural prevention of suicidal thoughts. She thinks it’s a deterrent for people who consider suicide. I don’t believe that, because that stigma does not deter depression. It’s known that most suicide cases are linked to depression.
I hope my friend’s brother gets the help he needs. His mum passed away soon after Dorothy died. He thinks she died of a heartbreak. His dad is still alive. He is living with dementia and occasionally calls his granddaughter “Dorothy”.
May Dorothy’s soul continue resting in peace.
Image courtesy of Phoenix I.