Sunday, July 3, 2011

Let the family of dead student mourn in peace

Sunday Nation 03 July 2011

This past week there has been a furore over the death of a university student along Waiyaki Way after attending a party in a posh Nairobi suburb.

The circumstances surrounding her death were murky, and there were even suggestions that she may have been killed and dumped on the road by some malevolent individuals.

While death is never an easy matter, and suspicious death is doubly tragic, it is possible that this particular death was poorly handled by many of those concerned.

While it is expected that we shall all join in a chorus and condemn the Police Force for bungling the investigation, it is my considered view that, in this case, the police may have very little to answer for.

The larger share of blame lies in the public handling of the matter; and the media cannot escape blame for fanning the flames that may have interfered with fruitful police investigations.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the stages of death, which may also be modified to describe the reactions to the death of a loved one, as shock and denial followed by anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.

Whenever a person dies suddenly, it is usual for close friends and family to enter into a stage of denial, where they initially doubt even the fact of the death itself. It is of course difficult to accept the death of a person who only a short while before was full of life.

Period of anger

This stage is followed by a period of anger, during which the bereaved may lash out indiscriminately at all those around them.

There will be accusations against the friends who were with the deceased, and why they did nothing to prevent the death; there will be anger at the authorities for the slow pace of investigations; there will be anger at the deceased for making the choices they made that may have led to their death; and finally, there may even be anger at God and the powers that be, for allowing such a young life to be snuffed out so tragically.

All these reactions are normal. What is not normal, however, is for the media and the public at large to get involved so intimately in this process of mourning. In this particular case, everyone was rushing to weigh in with their opinion, and engaging in expert analysis of events that they were not even remotely involved in.

The speculation created an atmosphere of so much uncertainty that no one was ready to let go and allow themselves to accept the situation and move on with life.

It is conceivable that some family members and friends have been able to overcome their anger, and moved through the stage of bargaining to one of despondence and depression. In these stages they need support to deal with their emotions, instead of getting more scenarios and theories about their loved one’s death.

Give them space

In order to help the family and friends to enter the stage of acceptance, it may be useful for the rest of us to give them space to grieve and mourn in private.

The media, especially, must refrain from encouraging continuing conspiracy theories to run wild, when they know for sure that if the police will not unravel the mystery surrounding this student’s death, then no one else in this country ever will.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

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