Pretoria orthopaedic surgeon Dr Graham Dickason, his general practitioner wife Dr Lauren Dickason, and their three young children sought a new life in New Zealand. But less than a month after arriving, their three daughters were dead and Lauren detained in a mental health facility.
They had just moved to Timaru, a port city in the Canterbury region, late last month and spent two weeks in mandatory quarantine. A week before the tragedy, they had moved into a residential unit of the hospital where Graham works.
The three children, Liane (six) and two-year-old twins Maya and Karla, were allegedly strangled with cable ties on Thursday (16 September), according to a City Press report. Dr Lauren Dickason appeared at the Timaru District Court at the weekend in connection with the death of the children. She was committed to a mental health facility for observation, where she is apparently in a stable condition.
A former colleague of Graham, also a doctor, says Lauren previously used chronic medication, but she stopped it for fear it would hinder their application to emigrate. Due to New Zealand’s strict selection requirements for prospective immigrants, the use chronic medication for certain conditions might be a disadvantage.
The process of being admitted to New Zealand was suspenseful, said the former colleague. “The immigration process is extremely traumatic. I understand the place where the Dickasons had to spend their quarantine was basically like a prison. You don’t see anyone, your food is delivered to your door and you are only let out for about an hour a day.”
A combination of stress and the fact that Lauren could not use her medication mighty have made coping difficult for her, the person said. The condition she suffers from was not explained.
Graham discovered the tragedy when he got home on Thursday night. Jade Whaley, a neighbour, said they were very quiet neighbours, and what she heard on Thursday night would stay with her for the rest of her life. “We heard this man crying hysterically outside, and he kept asking: ‘Is this really happening?’ He cried terribly.”
South African friends and family shattered
Back in South Africa, the family’s former caregiver was shattered by the news of the little girls’ deaths, reports TimesLIVE. Maria Sibanyoni, who worked for the Dickasons as their children’s caregiver for three years at their Pretoria home, said they were a humble and good family.
“When they went on vacation, I always went with them. I never saw a bad side to them or their family,” she said. She had last spoken to Lauren in June as the family were preparing to move abroad.
“They were so excited about the new life they would start there. They would have moved last year, but then COVID came and they postponed it. Lauren was so happy. She called me and said Graham had got a job and then again to say they had an apartment,” Sibanyoni said.
Speaking to Stuff on Friday from SA, Lauren’s parents Wendy and Malcolm Fawkes said they were “devastated”. “The extended families are in a state of shock as we try to understand what happened. We ask for your prayers and support during this very difficult time,” they were quoted as saying.
According to TimesLIVE, Lauren had been described as a very soft, introverted person. “I cannot comprehend what happened – she was a medical doctor and wasn’t arrogant or anything. She was very humble,” said former colleague and neighbour Natasja le Roux.
She said the couple struggled to conceive their children. “They waited years for those children because she had troubles with fertility and stuff, so it really is a big shock,” she said.
Another neighbour said the couple adored their children. “They absolutely adored the girls. They were so grateful because they struggled to get pregnant and when they finally got them, they loved them,” she said.
Shortly before they left for New Zealand Lauren had shared a Facebook message that read: “I am bent, but not broken. I’m sad, but not hopeless. I’m tired but not lifeless. I’m scared, but not powerless. I have wanted to give up, but did not. How do you get it right, many people ask. My answer remains the same – because the Lord gives me strength to stand up.”
A rush to condemn
In an opinion piece on Parent 24, Samantha Herbst wrote that “social media is on fire …to some condemn 40-year-old South African expat and mother Lauren Dickason to worse than the fiery pits of hell”.
But, Herbst wrote, empathy is a very fine line between condemnation and justification. “It's at this juncture that we can either join the ranks of condemnors or dare to look down the precipice and really consider what happened in the Dickason household that night. What were the contributing factors that set this unimaginable tragedy in motion?
“As a mother and parenting journalist, much of my professional circle comprises parenting experts, maternal health and motherhood advocates, as well as mental health professionals. All mothers themselves, none was surprised at what transpired in New Zealand that night. We were all unnerved, to be sure. Sickened, saddened, angry maybe, but not surprised.”
“In South Africa, the truth could be this: what kind of a mother does this?
* Any kind of mother whose mental health went unchecked pre- and postpartum.
* Any kind of mother expected to smile post-birth trauma – be it vaginal or C-section – and be happy and grateful at all times for her child with zero validation of the trauma she underwent.
* Any kind of mother operating on less sleep than sleep deprivation torture detainees at Guantanamo Bay. This is not a joke.
* Any kind of mother expected to parent in a society where the division of labour falls squarely on her shoulders, even in the most liberal and egalitarian households.
* Any kind of mother raising children in a nation that largely suffers from unaffirmed and undiagnosed PTSD as a result of rampant violent crime threatening our families' safety.
* Any kind of mother parenting in a nation where gender-based violence ranks among the highest in the world (with a femicide rate five times the global average).
* Any kind of mother parenting in an unprecedented pandemic, leaving parents with zero certainty that the decisions they've made on behalf of their families were the right ones.
* Any kind of mother who feels forced to leave her home country and family, denying country and countrymen to take root in a foreign land.
* Any kind of mother operating in a toxically positive landscape that looks at gratitude as a heal-all, with no affirmation of the many hardships that accompany big blessings.
“The real question for me is not, ‘What kind of a mother does this to her children?’ Rather it's, ‘What kind of a society does this to its mothers?’
“We can all take responsibility,” Herbst added. “We can all hazard a guess at what transpired. We can write it off as a once-off tragedy that occurred as a result of a sick mind. We can all tut-tut at the sadness and carry on with our lives.
“Or, we can ruminate … swirl it about, properly ingest it. Own it. We can take responsibility for it. We can heed it as a warning and a call to action. We can ask the right questions and move towards putting plans and policies in place to ensure that no mother in South Africa gives birth and raises a family without stringent mental health checks. We can talk about our own experiences.
“Most assume Lauren Dickason suffered a psychotic episode. It's the theory that holds the most water for those wanting answers.
“Since I opened up about my own brush with postpartum psychosis, other mothers in my circle have admitted to something similar. The more I talk about the postpartum identity crisis, anxiety and depression, and the dire state of motherhood in South Africa, the more women around me whisper, ‘This is me’.
“The act of killing – or wanting to kill – our own children should never be excused or normalised. But what about the red flags paving the way to tragedy? The more we as mothers talk about our darkest and most shameful experiences, the more we see we are not alone and the better the chance at intervention before tragedy strikes.
“Maternal mental health advocate and lactation therapist Jabina Coleman wrote, ‘Everyone wants to hold the baby, who will hold the mother?’ It's a question that stuck with me in early motherhood and it's one I hope sticks with you.
“We did this, South Africa. We need to hold our mothers or it will be at the cost of our children.”
In a moving tribute on Facebook, former Nederduitse Gereformeerde Church dominee Petrus Kühne wrote, in Afrikaans:
Jy kan jou kinders doodmaak.
Jy is tot enigiets in staat. Erger as wat jy ooit kon bedink. Afgrysliker as wat enige kennisse kon voorsien. Jy is jou brein. Sê die kenners. En ons breine is, moderne wetenskap se vordering ten spyte, nog steeds n grysland wat sy geheimenisse nie maklik deel nie. Ons weet dalk meer van die donker kant van die maan as van ons brein. Ons brein, waar ons lewe gebeur.
Watter dieptes van donkerte noop n vrou om haar kinders om die lewe te bring? Watter afgronde van desperate uitsigloosheid dryf jou verby jou unieke kantelpunt? Hoe dig en ondeurdringbaar is die newels van depressie wat jou tot op daardie punt bring waar jy dalk glo dis beter as jou kinders nie meer leef nie?
En is jy in daardie verskriklike oomblikke die mens wat jou man ken? Jou familie? Vriende? Wat knak in jou gemoed?
Ek het al wakker geword met as eerste gedagte…this is a good day to die. Die gedagte dat die wêreld veel beter daaraan toe sou wees sonder jou. En dat daar n plek is waar geen kwellende gedagtes meer jou brein uitput nie.
Hulle lewe is weg. Die vorige een. Niks sal weer wees soos voorheen nie. Haar man, haar familie…gebroke. Sy…stukkend. Ai. Ons brein is so wonderlik. Homo Sapiens het die ander Homo spesies oorleef en ons breinkrag het daarin sekerlik n rol gespeel.
Maar ons breine kan ontspoor. Iets gebeur. Chemies loop iets skeef. Soos daar blykbaar in ons liggame selle is wat op n dag buitensporig begin verdeel, lyk dit my kan daar in ons brein, ons dinkwereld, ook n kortsluiting plaasvind. En ons doen n ding wat almal skok, wat niemand verwag het nie.
O! Hoe jammer kry ek haar man. Haar familie. Haar mense. En vir haar.
Ek weet egter dat die moontlikheid tot die vreeslikste optrede ook in my skuil. Ek weet dat daar in my dinge woon wat wegkruip net anderkant my bewussyn. Dis om mens te wees. Gelukkig is jy as jou brein jou enduit dien…en jy nooit by die stukke van n lewe hoef te staan nie.
Ag. Ek verstaan hiervan niks. Net weer intens bewus van ons broosheid. Hoe die magtige! sogenaamde mondige mens so vreeslik breekbaar is.
Ek hoop iemand hou hom vas, nou.
Ek hoop iemand staan hulle mense by.
Ek hoop iemand hou haar ook vas.
See more from MedicalBrief archives: