The aftermath of family violence: Can you forgive and forget?

Jul 19, 2016 07.22PM |
 

by Wan Ting Koh

COULD you forgive a family member who takes the life of another loved one? A son who rapes his own mother? Parents who torture their own children?

With the recent spate of family crimes in the news, we spoke to psychiatrists on how individuals might cope when faced with the traumatic situation of a loved one harming another. They said that there’s a whole web of emotions involved: Guilt, shame and self-blame for failing to protect a loved one or for not sounding the alarm earlier. The road to recovery is long, and talking about it is the first step to feeling better.

The most recent report of such crimes – a three-month-old baby was allegedly smothered by her father during her feeding time in October last year. Mr Mohamed Shiddiq Sazali, 27, was feeding baby Reyhana Qailah with one hand while playing a mobile phone game with another.

He was reportedly so absorbed in the game that he failed to notice Reyhana thrashing about for some two minutes, apparently choking on the milk.

He was reportedly so absorbed in the game that he failed to notice Reyhana thrashing about for some two minutes, apparently choking on the milk.

He only realised that Reyhana’s body was pale and motionless after his father-in-law entered the room and noticed something was wrong. Reyhana’s mother, Madam Nurraishah Mahzan, 31, rushed home after receiving a text from her husband, but she too failed to resuscitate her child. The final cause of death report mentioned smothering or suffocation and choking on milk as possible causes of Reyhana’s death.

When such horrific things happen, how does the family deal with it?

To say that grief would be “normal”, or even the sole emotion would be inaccurate, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, who added that a family member who is related to both the victim and the perpetrator would feel a more “exaggerated” form of grief.

This may cause an extended period of depression, as compared to when a family member dies of natural causes.

Then, there are the other emotions: Anger, disappointment, and disbelief at the involvement of another loved one. This may make it hard for the individual to reconcile him or her to the incident.

Dr Brian Yeo, a consultant psychiatrist in a private practice at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, said that family members of the victim and the perpetrator will feel guilt and self-blame primarily, especially if they see themselves as the supposed protector of the individual.

“[They will ask themselves] ‘How come I didn’t see this coming, and how come I didn’t take action to protect the people I love?'” said Dr Yeo.

“[They will ask themselves] ‘How come I didn’t see this coming, and how come I didn’t take action to protect the people I love?'”

Dr Yeo noted that such an incident in the family would also call into question the parents’ parenting capabilities if they had other children: “Parents would question whether they are competent and able to take on the responsibility of looking after the surviving children.” In Reyhana’s case, it wasn’t reported whether she had siblings.

The fact that the identities of Reyhana’s parents were disclosed to the public may well worsen situation at home. According to Dr Yeo, family members would have to deal with the stigma on several levels. “All your relatives will be talking about it. It affects how society sees you, your colleagues, your extended family and how you see yourself,” said Mr Yeo.

Not to mention the legal intervention, such as police investigations and social workers who are involved. However, it is the exposure to the public that is “more devastating”, said Dr Yeo. It is this disclosure that allows “the public, neighbours, family members to effectively know and pass judgement”, he added.

 

Other factors to consider

Age was another factor when assessing the extent of the impact on other children in the family.

Children, said Dr Lim, tend to be “more egocentric”, so they blame themselves more. Adults on the other hand, have a “better understanding of the attribution of guilt”, he said.

And then there are the children who grow up in an abusive environment, such as in the case of two-year-old Mohamad Daniel Mohamad Nasser, who was repeatedly kicked, slapped and pinched by his biological mother and her boyfriend for 25 days over a 35-day period.

That wasn’t the only thing that his mother, Zaidah, 41, who goes by one name, and her boyfriend, Zaini Jamari, 46, did. They also made Daniel stand with his hands on his head while wearing only a nappy and forced him to eat spoonfuls of dried chilli.

Their abuse finally culminated in little Daniel’s death, on Nov 23, last year. The morning after a horrific day of torture inflicted by Zaidah and Zaini, Daniel remained motionless. He never woke up.

An autopsy later found a total of 41 external injuries on Daniel’s small body. The duo responsible for the act were charged earlier this month, with Zaidah given 11 years’ jail, and Zaini ten years’ jail and 12 strokes of the cane on July 5.

But Daniel wasn’t Zaidah’s only child. The cleaner, who was pregnant at the time of her abuse, has five other children. All of whom might potentially be more vulnerable to anxiety, depression or feelings of trauma if they grew up in the same environment Daniel, or if they witness the incident, said Dr Lim.

Daniel’s biological father, Mr Mohamad Nasser Abdul Gani, 42, had lost contact with his son and his ex-wife, Zaidah, after a prison stint for drug offences. The heartbroken father said in an interview with The New Paper that he blamed himself for not protecting his son. Said Mr Nasser, who works as a cleaner: “If I could turn back time, I would stay away from drugs, then maybe Daniel would still be here.”

“Instead, I was not there when he was born. I could not be the father he needed to protect him.”

Another case involving a young victim at the hands of her parents made the papers at the end of last month. The perpetrator was a 43-year-old security guard, and the victim? His 12-year-old daughter, whom he molested over a period of ten months in 2014.

The father would wait till his family was asleep or the house was empty before sending text messages to his daughter to go to his room, where he would grope her. After her mother, who was living apart from the family, found out, she confronted her estranged husband. On June 30 this year, the guilty father was sentenced to four years and three months in jail and five strokes of the cane.

Dr Yeo pointed out that for such cases in general, the question is whether the mother believes the child or the husband’s version of events. Either choice would have its own set of consequences. If the mother chose to believe her child, she would have to file a police report which would not only destroy the family, but affect the family finances, especially if the father is the main or sole breadwinner, said Dr Yeo. “Once you start it is not easy to turn back.”

 

No one saw it coming

As to how other family members can cope with the incident, Dr Yeo said that one of the factors is the “intent” of the perpetrator. The main thing would be to subject the perpetrator to a psychiatric evaluation to find a possible motive behind the crime. For the case of a son, who went on trial earlier this month for allegedly raping his mother for example, assessing the son will be a priority.

The 33-year-old man was accused of raping and molesting his biological mother, 56, at their home, where he allegedly restrained her while kissing her breast and forced her to touch him sexually. The incident occurred at the victim’s one-room flat in October 2013, while she was sleeping. Her son returned in the wee hours of the morning and, according to the prosecution, “molested and raped his own mother despite her pleas for him to stop” while her husband, the man’s stepfather, was out.

Said Dr Yeo of the possible impact on the father: “If it is due to a mental disorder, it’s easier for the father to see that… there is an explanation and there is some sort of redress physically and psychologically.”

He added: “If on the other hand the son has always harbored such lustful intent towards the mother, then the father may suffer a bigger portion of the guilt because it’s something that he had some sort of inkling may happen, and he did nothing to prevent it.” If his son had been “plotting or planning” the act for a while, then the father would have a “higher moral duty to act”, said Dr Yeo.

“If on the other hand the son has always harbored such lustful intent towards the mother, then the father may suffer a bigger portion of the guilt because it’s something that he had some sort of inkling may happen, and he did nothing to prevent it.”

Same goes to the son who allegedly caused the death of his father after putting him in a fatal headlock and causing him to suffer a cardiac arrest in February last year. Mark Tan Peng Liat, originally charged with murder, is currently on trial for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The victim’s elder sister, Madam Tan Hoon Choo, 72, took the stand on the first day of the trial (July 7) to testify that she was at home when her brother’s maid, Ms Sumarti Dwi Ambarwati, came to her house in tears, saying that the Mark and his father, Mr Tan Kok Keng, 67, were fighting.

By the time she reached the semi-detached house at West Coast Rise, which was two minutes away from her own, it was too late. Her nephew, a 30-year-old businessman, was standing outside, looking unlike his usual self. Madam Tan said: “His face was pale. He looked very bewildered and lost. I gave him a hug… I had a grim feeling.” She entered the house and found her brother lying on the floor of the second-storey master bedroom. The elder Tan was later taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

No one saw the incident coming. Not the aunt, who described father and son as having “a very good relationship”. Not Mark’s mother, who reportedly broke down in court after her son was charged and said: “What do you expect me to do? Kill my son?”

“It is a confusing and frustrating event, generally you don’t think such things will happen. It is not as if this is a drug user and you fear he will go back to drugs again. These things are much rarer, you wont expect it to happen unless he has prior knowledge that it has happened before,” said Dr Yeo.

“It is a confusing and frustrating event, generally you don’t think such things will happen… These things are much rarer, you wont expect it to happen unless he has prior knowledge that it has happened before.”

The fact that it happened within a close-knit family also makes it difficult to talk about. Said Dr Yeo: “You cannot really talk to other family members because this is going to be so shameful.”

 

The road to recovery

But talking also happens to be the first step towards recovery.

When asked how family members may cope with traumatising events, Dr Lim said that one of the best ways best ways to get over it is “really to talk about it”.

“A lot of people will try to deny this has happened…sometimes in their grief their first stage is denial, so the best thing is to keep talking about it so that the brain can process the whole event,” said Dr Lim. He added that the afflicted individual needs to talk to someone who can not only assess the grief but guide him along on the process.

“A lot of people will try to deny this has happened…sometimes in their grief their first stage is denial, so the best thing is to keep talking about it so that the brain can process the whole event.”

This was how Ms Leela Jesudason coped after the death of her sister at the hands of her nephew in a 2012 case which made the papers last July. Her nephew, Sujay Solomon Sutherson, who was diagnosed with paranoia schizophrenia, had brutally attacked his mother, Ms Jesudason’s sister, with knives, then hid her body under his bed.

“For me the way I cope is to be active. And to do something positive. I started a charity called PSALT Care, with the intention of giving support to families of those who have mentally ill at home, and also support groups for the mentally ill as well. For me, coping is to go round doing these kinds of things,” said Ms Jesudason.

Her first reaction, when she got the phone call in London from her sister-in-law about the incident, was incredulity. Then came the uncontrollable crying. Learning that her nephew was the one who did the deed only intensified her grief. However Ms Jesudason, 50, said that she felt no anger or resentment at her nephew. Only pity.

“I was sad not just for her but for him too because I knew that this is not going to go well for him either. His life is also over in that sense,” said Ms Jesudason. The first thing she did upon returning to Singapore was to engage a lawyer for her 35-year-old nephew, who was later sentenced to life imprisonment.

Said Ms Jesudason: “I don’t blame him. I blame a system that doesn’t enforce medication, because we had spoken to several doctors about him being off his meds, but there didn’t seem to be much concern on their part…he was throwing the tablets away.”

However Ms Jesudason cannot come to terms with her sister’s sudden departure. Nor did knowing that her nephew suffered from a mental disorder make the incident any more acceptable. “I think the sudden departure of somebody that you are close to, it’s very hard to say this could have lessened it, I don’t think so,” said the director of a public relations firm.

When asked whether she blamed herself in any way for the incident, Ms Jesudason said that she felt she “should have pushed a bit harder.”

“My sister was not the sort who would pick up the battle cry. She was a much more placid person than me, I feel like I should have taken up the mantle and gone to see the doctors,” said Ms Jesudason.

“I feel like I should have done more. I don’t know what more is, or could have been. But I should have done more.”

“I feel like I should have done more. I don’t know what more is, or could have been. But I should have done more.”

 

Featured Image by Natassya Diana Siregar

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