Three years after his parents died in a suspected murder-suicide, one question still haunts their youngest son. Sam Sherwood reports.
Sean Feary was sitting at home in Washington when his 29-year-old daughter called from Christchurch. Clearly distressed she immediately said, “Grandma and Granddad have been murdered”.
Feary tried to reassure her and said she was wrong and that they were fine. She then told him about news articles that showed his parents’ home in Christchurch and reports that two bodies had been found.
He told her to head straight to the scene and talk to the police officers there. When she arrived, she called her dad again and he spoke with a police officer at the scene.
The officer explained how Feary’s father, Bill Feary, 80, had called the police about 4am on September 30, 2019, and told the operator that he had killed his ailing 77-year-old wife Jill dead, and was intending on doing self-harm.
A police negotiation team and armed offenders squad rushed to the property immediately. After breaking in they found the couple dead.
The district’s top police officer said at the time the deaths were an “absolute tragedy”.
Feary, speaking to the Herald on Sunday for the first time, says he has no doubt the couple planned their deaths.
“To me it’s like a Romeo and Juliet story. Mum couldn’t take anymore and he couldn’t live without her. She was his whole life.”
Sean Feary was born in Wellington but the family, including his older brother, soon moved to Christchurch. Bill Feary, who was the boys’ stepfather, raised them from when Feary was about 8.
“Dad made me the man I am today, he was awesome,” Feary says.
“They always took us on little holidays and things like that, it was just normal Kiwi life. It was great. I couldn’t have asked for better parents.”
Bill Feary spent most of his career in broadcasting as a rigger, before moving to Christchurch and working for a flooring company and then taking up a job as a bus driver before retiring. Jill Feary worked at a local clothing apparel company until she retired.
Sean Feary left Christchurch and moved to the US when he was 30, but kept in constant contact with his parents.
Jill Feary’s retirement was marred by health issues including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - an inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs - as well as a virus that injured her heart. This was followed by breast cancer, which required her to have a mastectomy in her mid-60s.
Despite the major operation, she made sure she was able to travel to see her son and celebrate his 40th birthday.
However, she never fully healed from the surgery, with complications that would continue for the last 12 years of her life. Near the end, she had pneumonia.
Feary says his mum was too stubborn to have someone come and care for her.
“There was no way that mum was going to have someone changing a nappy or bathing her because she went through it with my grandmother and there was no dignity in that,” he says.
“She was definitely suffering and I could tell when I spoke to her, she was in a lot of pain.”
Her health issues continued to worsen and she had to visit the hospital two or three times a week.
“She loved the Christchurch Hospital staff,” her son says.
“They did nothing but take care of her.”
Bill Feary, who took on the role of caring for Jill, became more protective of his wife as her condition worsened.
“He didn’t want her stressing out, didn’t want her doing too much. He did all the cooking, he babied her, and he really took care of mum a lot, above and beyond.
“He adored her, she was his soulmate.”
Bill Feary would often email him with updates about his mother’s health. The last email was to inform him she had pneumonia.
Feary got a call from his mum in March 2019 asking him to come home as she missed him and wanted to see him. He did so, spending a few weeks with the couple, and he said aside from the health issues the couple appeared to be fine.
“Dad was still goofy as ever.”
Feary’s last conversation with his parents, who had 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren was just a “normal phone call”, he recalls.
“Mum and dad were just joking around.”
He was supposed to call them the following weekend but forgot. The next day he was on the phone with the policeman who was telling him about his parents’ deaths.
“It was such a shock; I just went numb.”
After consoling his wife and children, he booked flights and was in Christchurch within two days.
Immediately after touching down, he went to identify his parents at Christchurch Hospital before going to their home.
“The police were brilliant. I got there and it was like nothing had happened; they repaired the house.”
In the bedroom Feary would stay in when he visited was a large bag on the bed. Inside was his children’s favourite chocolate, jet plane lollies for him, socks for his wife, and photos of his children. He is convinced his mum left it all for him shortly before she died.
“I know Mum knew what was going on. Dad wouldn’t have done that, that was Mum through and through.”
A will was also left in the living room.
Feary spent about a month in Christchurch, dealing with police and lawyers and sorting the family home.
“I didn’t really have time to grieve. My whole time there was just dealing with what had happened.”
He credits Victim Support staff for helping him come to terms with his parents’ death while he was in the country.
Three years on, Feary, now 54, is still coming to terms with what happened. A private person, he does not like speaking about it too often and tries to stay busy, but admits there are times when the emotions just come to him, seemingly out of nowhere.
“I miss them every day. I will be driving to work in my van and it’ll just hit me again. Sometimes I have a tear and a wee bit of a cry and I’ll be like why? Just out of the blue. It’s one of those things,” he says.
“I’m just grateful that I’ve got great kids and my wife has been nothing but supportive.”
Asked how he feels towards his father, he says he loves him and holds no ill will for what happened.
“Dad was pretty healthy and he just would not want to live without Mum. I don’t know many men that would’ve gone through what he went through and completely stick behind Mum 100 per cent in the way he took care of her.
“They loved each other so much.”
There are still some unanswered questions for Feary, which he hopes a coroner’s report will one day solve.
But the most important question, that still haunts him, is about his mum.
“I want to make sure my mum never suffered and that she was at peace.
“It would be closure because I keep thinking about it.”
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.