Defend Truth


Grief and the memory of my sister Beth — you were like magic dust


Professor Mark Tomlinson is co-director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. These are his personal views.

One thing I have learned about loss and grief is that it is not linear, that you never ‘get over it’, and that Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief are little more than a work of fiction.

My sister’s name was Beth. Beth Margaret Tomlinson. She was 30 years old when a man gained entry to her home, raped her, stabbed her and then set her and her home alight. This happened on the night of 19/20th February 2004 — 20 years ago this week.

In the 20 years since my sister’s death, more than 320,000 people have been murdered in South Africa. Adjusting for population size it would take Japan almost 2,000 years to reach that number. Bloodshed in South Africa is so common that it has become fetishised. A simple murder, just a stabbing or a shooting of a nobody will be invisible. To get the attention of the media it must be extreme, be of someone known, it must be titillating. The jaded have to be shocked.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Murder on the rise in South Africa’s ‘big four’ provinces

Beth was a model. She was beautiful. She was white. This is what made it news. The gruesomeness was a bonus, an opportunity to elevate it above the banality of everyday murder.

I am a clinical psychologist (not practicing), and a working researcher/academic. My area of expertise is trying to understand the myriad biological, social, interpersonal, and environmental influences on caregivers, infants, children and adolescents to make us who we are. Much of this work attempts to understand the impact of trauma, violence and loss on how children and adolescents develop. The irony is not lost on me.

In the months and years after my sister’s death I knew I would one day write a book about her and her death. My book will have three themes.

The first will be a memorial to my sister and the life that was taken from her. The second will be what I have learned about loss and grief and mourning. The final theme will be about the ubiquity of violence in the lives of all South Africans, the centuries of violence, apartheid state violence, and the intergenerational transmission of violence.

My sister could light up a place. She could hold a gaze in an utterly unconscious way that made you feel like you were the only other person in the world. One friend described her as being like magic dust — an angel fairy. Beth was kind, warm, funny, forever quirky, and driven by deep empathy and compassion.

One of my favourite pictures of my sister is her sitting with three street children. In the background is a truck and the tail lights of a car. The young boy in the foreground is holding what looks like a sparkler in one hand, and with his other is showing the camera a peace sign.

But it is the expression on my sister’s face that reveals exactly who she was. In the photo she is holding nothing back, she is utterly in the moment, in total awe of the moment.

Beth Margaret Tomlinson

Beth Margaret Tomlinson, who was murdered 20 years ago on 20 February. (Photo: Supplied)

My sister’s murder has never been solved. During the course of the week that followed her murder, we were visited by the two detectives who were to tell us that they had few leads. I remember watching them and thinking on the one hand how I appreciated the effort of their visit — knowing this would not happen for most family members of a murder victim.

But more importantly, had I harboured any illusions about the capture of my sister’s killer, these hopes were dashed as I watched them. They seemed bewildered, over-burdened and somehow going through the motions. They were not going to arrest anybody. Not that they were necessarily bad detectives or that they did not want to solve the crime. But rather that they knew the chances were so slim, that in South Africa if a killer is not caught within the first hours, the first day, then the chances of them being caught receded to near zero.

They knew this. And I think the calm dignified desolation of my parents perturbed them given how little they could offer.

Antoine Leiris’ moving memoir of his wife Helene who was killed at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris in November 2015 (You Will Not Have My Hate), movingly describes not being able to speak — of how in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s death “sentences of more than three words tired him [me] out”.

In my case it was different. I was not able to stop talking. Certainly, in the short term. Leiris also speaks of the “bureaucratic irritations that pollute grief” — the police, the funeral. This was not my experience. My bureaucratic irritations served me well in the beginning, contained my grief, gave it some bounds, shored it up so that it did not bleed all over the place.

One thing I have learned about loss and grief is that it is not linear, that you never “get over it”, and that Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief are little more than a work of fiction.

One of the things about my mourning was what reminded me of Beth. When I began to imagine that I had “worked through her death” (another banal and meaningless piece of psychobabble), something would suddenly drag me back deep into my grief. Sometimes it was expected, when someone spoke directly about her, or about another murder in our blighted country.

Other times it was random, listening to a song she had no way of knowing, being introduced to somebody called Beth, the word sister, being asked by somebody whether I had siblings.

You learn (maybe) to live with grief, to live through it, next to it, and at times (when you are lucky) ahead of it. But that is as good as it gets.

For Beth, my beloved sister. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Heart felt condolences Mark to you, yours and to all victims of violence.

  • Daphne Cooper Cooper says:

    What a beautiful piece – and yes, agree that grief is a very strange and unpredictable beast

  • Anthony Burman says:

    Lovely. Thank you.

  • Trevor Gray says:

    How many South Africans have been killed in the past 20 years by violence?
    How many prosecutions have occurred?
    How many convictions?
    Would it be an accurate estimate to have a 10% conviction?
    Would this be further diluted by crimes of “passion/ jealousy/ GBV where the perpetuating is easily apprehended?
    Based on this surely we have to acknowledge the whole system is broken?
    One is heartbroken for every South African who has lost someone to the crime epidemic.

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    A very poignant post. My wife is a life coach and she specialises in grief. She would agree wholeheartedly with what you have to say about Elizabeth Kubler Ross. There are many, many stages of grief and the latest research is very much more compassionate and far reaching. People can be helped along their grief journey with the right counsellor.

  • Laurette De Jager says:

    Thank you for sharing such a poignant, honest and accurate portrait of grief. My heartfelt condolences to you and yours, Mark. My experience of living with loss and grief is similar. I experience the Kübler-Ross model as cyclical, one may live through many of the perceived stages, many times over a lifetime, but one never truly work through grief. I do not think the model is a work of fiction but I do agree that it’s been applied in a linear fashion when in truth, life and living is a cyclical experience.

    Grief becomes a constant companion, sometimes even a confidant of sorts. But then, this is just my lived experience and not necessarily true for everyone.

  • Sean Hammon says:

    South Africa is diseased. The levels of paranoia that citizens are submerged in from morning to night is inhuman and unhealthy. My European friends are bemused by my mistrust and hyper-vigilance. Submerged in a cesspit of PTSD, adrenaline and cortisol, many in turn elevate their own permissable levels of aggression and violence. It’s not without reason: around every corner there is a brutal savage that would stab your grandmother to death for a phone. And they’re going nowhere. And they’re not being caught. And they don’t have the inclination or influence to change. Worse: there are many cultures here that not only condone, but idolise, the murderous warrior. Self perpetuating. Diseased. And Ramaphosa and his outer planet buddies couldn’t care less behind their billion rand security details.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Her light lives on.

  • Peter Geddes says:

    I also lost my sister, in a motor accident over thirty years ago. There is always a tender spot in my heart that often gets touched by a seemingly insignificant word. Whenever, perhaps once every five years, I drive down the road leading past the then accident scene, I feel a tension grip my heart. It won’t go away and I don’t want it to …

  • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

    I do not understand how your opinion can get posted? Yes I understand your grief for your sister but you’re not the only one who has experienced such. My friend saw his sister being shot in the face on CCTV while three black men stole her vehicle to drive to a shebeen. They were arrested but the evidence disappeared conveniently even though the tragic event can still be seen on the internet. My country has been sold out to thieves and murderers. What makes your sorrow more worthy for publication than ours?

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It was appropriate that you brought some focus onto the issue of what the media chooses to report on. With seventy plus murders a day, how does SAFM et al choose what to include in its news broadcasts? “A simple murder, just a stabbing or a shooting of a nobody will be invisible. To get the attention of the media it must be extreme, be of someone known, it must be titillating. The jaded have to be shocked.” Indeed, humans universally display a penchant for the macabre as do they for revelations of misdeeds and misfortune. The Germans have a name for it – schadenfreude. What dismays me is that our national broadcaster, SAFM, plays along with the “if it bleeds it leads” mantra. Evolution has given us some perverse tendencies, but these should be discouraged, not encouraged as sadly is the status quo.

    • Georg Scharf Scharf says:

      By reading about this experience we can also have empathy for your trauma. It is good to listen to such feelings and memories. It makes us stronger humans in caring for grieving people. Thank you for this. Your article can have a meaning for us in coping when such an incident would happen to any of us. I boil with anger, that the police could not convict them. I was high jacked years ago. My neck was broken, because they did not want to waste a bullet. Fortunately they fled leaving me as dead when good people made alarm and the police came. Fortunately I was not initially paralyzed. A year after this high jacking I still drove around with a loaded pistol on my lap, cocked and safety off. A year later I saw headlines on the newspaper stands that screamed ” six high jackers killed”. When I phoned the police officer of my case he confirmed that they were my high jackers. Only then did I relax and after a neck fusion operation (a great success) did I become my normal self. It was three to four years of PTSD hell. I truly try to understand another one’s suffering and believe that sharing it is good for one’s soul.

  • Debbie Reynolds says:

    A beautiful moving tribute. So true. So sad. Cry the beloved country. Cry beloved Beth.

  • Bobby 10 says:

    Condolences to you Mark. I worked with Beth and remember her light, the trauma of her murder and impact it had on all her friends and colleagues. The realization that something so horrific could happen in real life and was not confined to fiction deeply shocked us all. We felt such fear – something that had been unimaginable until then. I often think of Beth and wonder what she would be doing now if she was still with us now. A life cut short in such a cruel and tragic way! RIP Beth

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted