by Xinhua writers Lyu Qiuping, Song Qiang and Qi Leijie
SHIJIAZHUANG, June 24 (Xinhua) -- Holding an empty bottle of pills,Zhang Li was found by her husband and rushed to hospital. It was her third suicide attempt.
Zhang, 50, and her husband used to be medium-level government officials in Shijiazhuang, capital of north China's Hebei Province. Her son had a good job in Beijing after graduating from university. Zhang's family life was perfect. But two years ago things changed. Her son jumped to his death. Zhang's world fell apart.
She requested long-term leave from work but never returned. She did not want to see anyone, neither family nor friends. She and her husband moved out of their apartment. She could not sleep and the only thing she could think about was how to die.
"My son had gone. I thought what's the point in living," she said.
Zhang and her husband did not want to open the curtains and kept the lights off in the evening. Spring Festival, the most important occasion for family gatherings in China, became the most difficult period. "I was afraid of hearing the fireworks. Others enjoying their family reunion. All we had was complete silence," she recalled.
DIM LIGHT IN DARKNESS
In China where most couples are allowed to have only one child, losing a son or daughter can mean a parent taking their own life.
Government figures show that up to 1 million families have lost their only child. The number is increasing by 76,000 every year. Heavy drinking and smoking, arguments, divorce and suicide attempts are among the problems these families face.
In Qiaoxi District of Shijiazhuang, there is a high divorce rate among families who have lost their only child. There are only 160 people in the 110 families that have lost their only child in the district - less than two members per family, according to local government figures.
Zhang and her husband are fortunately still together.
Zhang was buried in sorrow until she met Tang Jinting. They started to speak to each, mainly about religion.
Tang is a volunteer at "Heng'aijiayuan" meaning home with eternal love. The non-government organization offers bereaved parents services such as home visits, counseling, shopping, cleaning, and care at home or in hospitals. It has helped over 300 parents who lost their only child.
Tang, a retired civil affairs department employee in Shijiazhuang, said, "Learning that Zhang Li loved traditional culture, especially Buddhism, I told her her son had entered Trayastrimsha, or heaven in Buddhism cosmology."
Zhang was encouraged to join the organization to divert attention from her son. "She used to be an official and knows a lot about organizing events," Tang said.
The NGO organizes activities including outings, fruit picking, chorus performances, and lectures on traditional culture. Most of the activities are held during festivals, a time when deceased children are missed the most.
According to Wang Congpin, manager of the organization, Heng'aijiayuan was founded by a psychologist surnamed Liu. The psychologist went to Sichuan Province, where thousands of parents had lost their children in the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. After returning to Shijiazhuang, Liu founded Heng'aijiayuan, offering help to parents in similar situations.
Volunteers create a case record for each parent, said Wang. "Like a patient who has his or her own case record in hospital, we also have a record for different parents and provide different services," he said.
MORE EFFORTS NEEDED
In mid-June, Vice Minister of Civil Affairs Gong Puguang visited Heng'aijiayuan, encouraging the province to support the development of social work services and volunteer organizations.
Liu Weidong, deputy secretary general of Hebei provincial social work promotion association, said the provincial government earmarked 1.5 million yuan (240,150 U.S. dollars) earlier this year to support NGO services provided to parents who have lost their only child.
In late May, subsidies for each parent whose child is handicapped or has died was increased.
Apart from Shijiazhuang, Heng'aijiayuan centers have been set up in the cities of Baoding, Handan and Qinhuangdao of Hebei Province. Among the organization's 168 volunteers, 43 are parents who have lost an only child, including Zhang Li.
But difficulties remain, according to Liu.
Some parents spend all their savings and even become debt-ridden taking care of their sick child. Some become ill following the death of their child, with little pension to cover their own medical expenses.
Liu said more should be done, such as accident insurance, help with treatment of serious diseases and financial assistance for funeral expenses.
"Government authorities and society should work to address the problems together," he said. (Zhang Li is an alias as requested)