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Solace after suicide: Katie Bradford on coping with her brother's death

Political reporter Katie Bradford. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

For reporter Katie Bradford, the pain of losing her brother to suicide meant not talking about it.

It’s Katie Bradford’s day off after a long, hard weekend chasing stories for TVNZ’s 1 News. We are in a Grey Lynn cafe talking about the death in 1995 of her brother, Danny, aged 19. She was 13 at the time.

The Listener is talking to the political reporter because many of us know her face, and her family’s sad story is one shared by thousands of other families.

A schizophrenia sufferer, Danny was in Whangārei Hospital, supposedly on suicide watch, but he escaped and made his way back to Auckland, where he killed himself in a very public way.

“The system,” she says, “let him down.” It had a devastating effect on those he left behind: his twin brother; his parents, former politician Sue Bradford and Bill Bradford; and his other siblings.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“Mum and Dad had four other kids and gradually, over the years, you’re able to do things such as put up some photos. It’s hard. Everybody deals with it differently, everybody has to deal with grief and trauma differently in a way that’s right for them. There’s no right or wrong way.”

She adds, “I know you shouldn’t hide away from things, but some things are just to painful to deal with.”

Bradford says, “It was obviously devastating for Mum and a big thing for her. She never talked about it for years. It’s not something we talk about now, because it was just too hard.”

Read more: Solace after suicide: My journey to forgiveness | Solace after suicide: How families find hope and healing after grief

She concedes that, at 13, she suppressed a lot of the shock. It was the school holidays, so, by the time she returned to school, “it wasn’t a thing”. She never talked to her friends about it, because of what she calls the “stigma” of mental illness and suicide.

“I was in a really bad car accident a couple of years later, where two of my friends died and I was badly injured, and I always talked about the car accident. My way of coping with that was being quite public about it. I talked to the media.”

The car she was in was sideswiped by a drunk driver and she became extremely vocal on the issue of drunk driving. She had counselling at school following the accident. “After Danny died, I don’t think I talked to anyone at school about it. Just never talked about it.”

Blame the word “stigma”. It has less effect these days. “One of the benefits of the fact that people have talked so much about it [suicide] and mental health – and I’ve done a lot of stories on it – is that some of the stigma has been removed.”

She says when Danny died, she was in a new high school. “I didn’t tell any of my friends that Danny was in the mental-health unit, because I was worried they’d think there was something wrong with me as well, which is something I’ve always felt really bad about.”

We talk about the journalistic problems in reporting suicide. For many years, the health establishment discouraged virtually any discussion for fear of somehow encouraging more deaths. “It’s important that we talk about it,” she says. “Our male suicide rate is just horrific.”

Discussing the long-delayed but now upcoming Government response on mental health, Bradford falls into political-reporter mode, suggesting details of it may follow Budget day because of the huge cost involved. She wants systemic change as part of that response.

“A recognition in the system of how the people and their families feel, that they are being listened to. I hear that people feel like they are not being listened to. If there’s someone saying ‘there’s something wrong with my family member’, listen to them. They know best. If someone is crying out for help, give them the support they need.”

We talk about a recent media report of a reasonably well-known person’s “sudden death”, often “mediaspeak” for a suicide. A reporter cannot call a death a suicide until the coroner rules that it is one. That verdict can take a couple of years to be announced, so the media often dance delicately around the cause of death.

“Every time I hear of a suicide, high-profile suicides, friends of friends, whoever it is, I think, ‘Why didn’t the person know that so many people loved them? How could they not understand that so many people loved them?’

“We’ve always felt that way about Danny, and I think he felt his family didn’t love him, and if he’d known …” she trails off, conceding wearily, “if you commit suicide, you are not rational.”

Ask for help: Need to talk?

  • Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat
  • Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (0800 KIDSLINE) for young people up to 18 years of age, 24/7
  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666
  • Healthline: 0800 611 116
  • Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 to talk to a trained counsellor, or visit depression.org.nz
  • Anxiety New Zealand: 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
  • Supporting Families in Mental Illness: 0800 732 825
  • Solace Support Auckland: Call 09 425 6750 or 021 998 949 for information on monthly meetings
  • In an emergency, call 111. For more information, visit mentalhealth.org.nz
  • Additional specialist helpline links: mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines/

This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.