Essay

In an unguarded moment

Living with the legacy of suicide

IT’S EARLY ON a Friday and the usual morning hustle of a school day is playing out in my kitchen. Olivia, ten, is dressed and breakfasted. She’s adding to lunchboxes: chopping up fruit, tossing in chips, searching for lids. Sophie, seven, provides commentary: cut it the other way, honey-soy for me, that one doesn’t match. Soph is wearing her uniform but labours through her Weet-Bix. She has eaten enough to take the edge off her hunger and wants to run free. For Sophie, life is calling: jokes need telling, toys need playing with, books need reading and the cat needs coddling in so many blankets he’ll resemble a sausage roll. As Triple J streams from the speaker, I prompt Sophie to eat up. I should shower but I’m loitering, waiting to hear what Ruby Fields will cover for Like A Version.

‘Are you driving us in today, Mum?’ Liv asks.

‘Yeah, I can today.’

‘Yesssss!’ Sophie hisses. ‘We can listen to more of your book.’

It is indeed my book. My memoir has been published and I have finally summoned the courage to go over it again. My girls and I have been listening to it on audio each time we’re in the car.

‘What’s going to happen today?’ Soph asks and she presses the Weet-Bix around her bowl, spreading lumps so that they might look like scraps.

I think of my book, uncomfortably conscious of what’s going to happen today. An ancient, primitive pain tremors through me but I know that I must tell her.

‘The next part is about my brother, Phil,’ I say.

‘About how he’d flick you with the tea towel?’ Soph grins and mimes a mighty whipping.

Soph has never known Phil. He’d been gone twenty-one years by the time she was born. Yet she loves him. She has loved him ever since I told her that I had a big brother and his name was Phillip. I have shared stories of his larrikin ways, his bone-crushing hugs, his passion for good tunes and the big, soft kisses he would press onto my chubby cheeks. Soph has fallen for him with the same childish devotion I had for him. At school, she draws pictures of him: crowning his head with a mop of curls, curving a smile across his face, printing his name with confident capitals. On his birthday she requests we make patty cakes decorated with pink icing and coconut because they were his favourite. And at home, she speaks of him often: Phil would like this, dontchya think Mum?, his name tender in her mouth.

‘No, not flicking the tea towels, not about that.’ I sound different, like there’s crushed glass across my voice box. I know Sophie hears the pain.

‘About how he died?’ She asks this gently but her face opens with hope. She is justifiably curious; his death has hovered in her life like a mystery. She has asked about car crashes and heart attacks and I have wanted to say: Yes Soph, your uncle was taken from us. But these stories wouldn’t be true and I cannot lie to her. I’ve responded in vague, noncommittal ways: He died Soph and it’s too sad for me to talk about. She yearns for his last story, for
his ending.

‘Yes, baby,’ I say. ‘About how he died.’

‘So how did he die, Mum?’ The way she asks – as if this riddle will be solved.

How I tell her is clumsy. I avoid the term committed but use the word suicide and she asks what that means. I try to explain. Her face contorts into an expression I have never seen and I realise it is horror. There is horror on her little face, on my baby’s little face. And it’s because of the words I’m saying. Because of the thing that he did. The way that he left us. And chose to die.

I am breaking her heart, just as he broke mine.

Soph is still for the longest time. Still. It’s so very uncharacteristic that I cannot help but notice. She holds her spoon, paused midair as though about to eat. The spoon. In her hand. The same little hand that draws pictures of Phil.

‘Why would he do that?’ she finally asks.

And then I am falling, plummeting, hurtling, dropping. I am aching into the abyss of a grief that I have carried since I was twelve. And as I tumble, I can feel that I am drawing Soph down with me, her little hand in mine as we fall together. Her first time.

She is seven.

I am forty-one.

He would have been fifty-five.

 

SEVEN. FORTY-ONE. FIFTY-FIVE. I age him. This is what I do. I carry him with me. Along with my grief, I carry his life. I visualise him in family scenes, placing him at the dinner table while we talk. I consider what his opinions might be, the words he would choose. When photos are taken I see the space where he should be. I let my mind’s eye picture him, shimmering like a mirage. I age him, adding grey to his hair and lines to his face, a slight sag at his jawline. But I always imagine him handsome because I was twelve and he was twenty-six. I loved him in that girlish way – thought I might grow up and marry him, the way you do when you’re very young.

I carry him in the way I relate to others. I am forever ready to rescue. Anyone can check out at any time. It’s a thought that’s never far from my mind, a kind of hyper-alert empathy. I want to handle people gently and with care. I say sorry – probably too much. I acknowledge pain, feel compelled to talk to strangers in my small town when I hear they’re going through divorce, diagnosed with cancer, have lost their home to fire. I can’t not go there. I tromp towards emotional damage like a determined toddler. I want to let others know it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, this suffering will pass. I am graceless in my efforts, embracing people I barely know in aisle two of Woolworths. What’s your name again? they ask, adjusting their brave face as they reclaim their trolley and prepare to flee.

I carry him in the way I measure time. He died in June 1990. Bob Hawke was prime minister, AB was captain of the Australian cricket team, VFL had become AFL and Midnight Oil was singing about a blue sky mine. The internet was barely an embryo and mobile phones were the size and weight of bricks. Princess Diana was alive and still married. That was the world he knew, the world he left.

I am conscious of the world he doesn’t know, conscious that he is forever suspended in the amber of early 1990. As my life rolls on, as I age, I am cognisant that each year brings innovations and ideas that Phil will never know: GST, smartphones, plasma televisions, Netflix, Obama, Trump, self-serve checkouts, social media, endless leadership spills, global climate strikes. There are words he wouldn’t know: app, hashtag, quinoa, muggle, YouTube. He wouldn’t know what it was to binge on a series, to swipe right, to Google. He hasn’t watched Forrest Gump, didn’t experience 9/11, doesn’t know what the Mabo decision means. He wouldn’t know that Bob Hawke was dead. I think about explaining these things if by some miracle he could come back to life. I think about how long it would take to escort him into the twenty-first century and help him make sense of it.

When I encounter things that predate his death, they give me comfort. Pikelets, duffel coats, toasted sandwiches. Old mate at the servo who still comes out to pump fuel into the car. Desert boots, Paul McCartney – even income tax. Phil would know about this, I think and I hug that sense of momentary connection close to myself.

I have carried him through the milestones of my life, dragging him with me as I graduated university, as I married, as I signed a mortgage. When I travel overseas I show him all the places. Look Phil, it’s London, Edinburgh, Toronto, New York. I am Clark Griswold on that roundabout and I’m okay with that – Phil would know that movie.

 

IN AUGUST 2008 he had been gone eighteen years. He would have been forty-five. I was thirty-one and my beautiful little Olivia was zero, just being born. It had been a fast and aggressive birthing, hot and searing – an open flame raging out between my legs, the room a mess of red and sweat. The wet, earthy smell of blood filling my mouth. As I climbed onto the hospital bed with malicious contractions of afterbirth yanking at me, my brain registered a single thought: Still not as painful as losing Phil.

Sometimes I dream up whole conversations with him. When my life feels like it’s going to shit I speak to him, out loud in the darkness of my bedroom. I drag him into the chaos of my life, half angry that he isn’t really here, and I charge him with the responsibility of weighing in on all that troubles me. As my monologue peters out, I pause and listen. I imagine what he might advise given how old he would be, had he lived. Had he chosen to live.

In recent years, after my divorce, I have leaned on my older sisters, seeking reassurance, comfort and advice from them. But I’ve continually desired my big brother’s counsel: I have wondered what he might say. In my late-night conversations, I imagine him as being supportive. He’d be in his fifties now. Open-minded and progressive, I’m certain. He’d recycle. He’d shop local. He’d vote yes for same-sex marriage. And he’d donate generously to charities that support mental health. Of course he would. I imagine him telling me that divorce is okay – not so much a failure as a reshaping. I imagine him telling me that I matter, my needs matter. My happiness matters.

But at the launch of Teacher (Allen & Unwin) in 2018 – the book I couldn’t quite believe was truly my book – I struggled to imagine Phil in the scene. Perhaps I was so overwhelmed that my imagination couldn’t stretch to reincarnate my brother. When a friend messaged just moments before the party he suggested that my brother would be incredibly proud. The words caught me, disarmed me. Would Phil be proud? I wondered. And then the feeling – the familiar, tormenting agony of longing. I wish he was here.

‘Are you kidding?’ my sisters chortled later that night when I asked them that question and confessed my vulnerability. ‘Phil would be so proud. He’d be lifting you up on his shoulders right now. He’d be saying: That’s my baby sister!

I carry him. It is a burden and a consolation. Carrying reminds me that he lived.

But he did not want to live, my twelve-year-old self still says, her voice young and crisp with the rational clarity of childhood logic. She is right. He did not want to live.

Why would he do that? Sophie’s question is rational, logical, simple.

When someone is lost to suicide…no, not lost. Lost implies they were dropped, misplaced somewhere, that they fluttered from a handbag like a stray receipt. Lost implies the rest of us were careless, that they slipped from our hands because we didn’t clutch them tightly. Lost implies they are merely misplaced, that we will find them if only we search hard enough.

When someone dies by suicide, when they wrench themselves from life, from their own life, from this world, there seems little point in talking about why. Sift through the contributing factors and there can be many, some of them intersecting to create a kaleidoscope of challenges: mental health issues, financial hardship, addiction, emotional stress, chronic pain, social disconnection, relationship breakdowns. But we are still left wondering. We might pore over the very, very small signs that are only visible through the microscope of hindsight: He said he wouldn’t make the party, said he wouldn’t be around that weekend, I thought he meant he was going to be away… But even then, how could we have known? We trawl for clues and torture ourselves wondering if we should have said something else, done something more. We turn over the debris of their decision in our hands, only to find that our hands are always empty. Over time, why becomes irrelevant, because it’s happened. And because it has happened, we can’t ask them.

We can never truly know.

The Australian author Jessie Cole understands this terrain. Both her sister Zoe and her father died by suicide. Her memoir, Staying (Text, 2018), is an attempt to chart the challenging landscape of this kind of loss. It’s a book I read with deep gratitude – someone understands. I read and re-read Jessie’s pages, waking one morning to discover I was clutching the book, gripping it like a lifebuoy, like treasure, like the single thing in this world that might help me make sense. And yet I know, as Jessie knows, that I am clutching at nothing.

You think, Jessie writes,

if someone you love takes their own life, in the end you will find out why. It is a dark mystery that needs solving. But unless they explicitly explain it, the truth is you may never know. We all long for meaning – that elusive cause and effect, a story that makes sense – but resolution of even the most basic questions often relies on guesswork. Hazy, unsure; supposition.

It is this dark mystery to which Sophie’s question alludes. Why would he do that? And her first experience of this dark mystery won’t be her last. Suicide Prevention Australia, the national peak body in this area, reports that one in two young people are impacted by suicide by the time they turn twenty-five. The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates that an average of eight people die by suicide per day – more than double the national road toll. The rate could well be higher but data collection is difficult, and there are inconsistencies in how these deaths are reported across the nation. A motor vehicle accident that’s ruled as death by suicide in Queensland might be logged as death by motor vehicle accident across the border in New South Wales.

The World Health Organization has designated suicide as a serious global public health issue. Their 2019 Global Health Estimates report on suicide identifies it as among the leading causes of death across the world, with close to 800,000 every year – more than malaria, breast cancer, war or homicide. Why would he do that?, however impossible the answer seems, remains a question that matters.

 

SOPHIE’S QUESTION HOVERS in our kitchen. I want to answer her with something more than I don’t know, we can never really know. And so I try to place the right words around Phil’s death, his circumstances at the time. I feel myself shrugging and wonder if my body is shrinking – becoming twelve years old again.

I stumble through an explanation: Don’t know, maybe depression, perhaps…back then we didn’t…

Olivia interjects with surprising confidence. ‘Soph,’ she says. ‘You know how when a horse breaks its leg, the vet has to put it down?’

Sophie nods, her face still wearing a new expression: Terrified. Uncertain. Sad.

‘Well, sometimes,’ Liv goes on. ‘When someone’s brain and their emotions aren’t working right, they feel like a horse with a broken leg. They feel like they’ve got no other choice.’

Liv looks to me for approval and I try to nod, but I am struggling to resurface from my adolescent grief, to be the safe and capable grown-up my children need. A horse with a broken leg…the words take shape in my adult mind. This is how my Olivia has made sense of it – she has carried the knowledge of Phil’s death for some time, guarding it as a secret to protect her beloved little sister.

I had told Olivia about Phil’s death a few years earlier when one of her friend’s fathers had suicided. That had also been a clumsy telling – my own childhood grief provoked and inflamed at the thought of Liv’s young friends having to endure a grief that no child should know. Liv had appeared stoic in her reception of the news, more troubled by my pain than the concept I was explaining. If you ever want to talk more about it… I had staggered towards a conclusion. If you have questions…

‘No,’ Liv had said firmly. ‘It’s okay.’

Now, in the kitchen, with Olivia’s explanation wavering above us, I take a breath and open my arms, inviting my girls to tuck themselves in beside me. Sophie abandons her breakfast and burrows in at my left side. Olivia – always more contained – leans towards me, her head finding the place where it fits for now, just above my right shoulder.

‘You’re right, Liv,’ I say. ‘In that moment when people decide they want to die, they feel like they have no other choice. But people are different to horses with broken legs – we always have more than one choice. You’re completely right about our brain and emotions sometimes not working right, not feeling right, but there are always choices. Sometimes people choose to die and that’s what Phil did. I wish he didn’t but he did. I want you girls to grow up knowing that there are lots of choices – all the time. No matter what you face, you have choices.’

A new tsunami of pain swells inside me as I consider what I am trying to do. I am trying to pre-empt their future selves lest they ever find themselves feeling like horses with broken legs.

I am trying to save them.

Olivia hugs me. It is firm and tight and brief, as if her love is a matter of fact. She moves away and back into our morning. But Sophie remains.

‘This is going to bother me all day,’ she says sadly.

It will bother you forever, I think.

And when she begins to cry, the sound is like nothing I have ever heard from her before. She is keening, sobbing, wailing. As I hold her, I feel anger bursting out towards my brother. Did you even think of this? my mind rages. That I would have a daughter who would mourn you – even though she never knew you? I should feel the anger that pulses behind this thought, but I cannot ever be angry with my brother. I’m just forever sorry that my love for him was not enough.

 

I HOLD MY little Sophie and try to endure the noise she makes – this primal grieving cry. I say let it out, let it all out and my voice is soft and gentle. I say sshh but I don’t really want to silence her, just to soothe her, ease this sharp and brutal pain. But as she cries and cries I realise I need to help her find a stopping point, a place to rest the sorrow so that life – and this morning – can continue.

‘Hey,’ I say, lifting her onto the kitchen bench and wiping at her face. ‘Phil wouldn’t want us to be sad like this.’ It is almost a lie because I can’t know what Phil would have wanted. ‘Really?’ The way Soph asks, the doubt in her eyes, causes me to redirect. I move to a truth I am confident with.

‘Here’s the thing, Soph: when someone dies by suicide we spend so much time thinking about how they died, we can almost forget the way they lived.’ My voice is unsteady, but I am determined. How did he live? Twenty-six years doesn’t seem long enough for us to have really known, but I have to be satisfied with that. It was his entire lifetime.

‘Phil was so much fun,’ I tell her. ‘He loved to laugh and be silly and muck around. At Christmas he’d play with me and all my toys. He liked to draw, have I ever told you that? And he loved music and he loved to hug and he loved to take photos.’ I smooth my hands over her hair, brush tears from her cheeks and hold her face. ‘And I know he would’ve loved you.’

‘Would he, Mum?’ Fresh tears fall, but her face looks hopeful.

‘Yeah,’ I say. The way my sisters told me he would have been proud of me and my book. ‘He would’ve loved you so much.’

 

DEATH BY SUICIDE is an entirely preventable epidemic. Research by Suicide Prevention Australia shows that an integrated approach to suicide prevention is vital. Integration occurs when lived experience, scientific evidence and clinical best practice intersect. This means we need better access to services and better integration of services; those who need immediate and ongoing support need timely and appropriate access. A ‘whole-of-government approach’ to suicide prevention is also essential. In Australia, we now have a National Suicide Prevention Adviser who reports directly to the Prime Minister as well as a National Suicide Prevention Taskforce. This is indeed a positive and proactive step forward. Yet all of these are systemic solutions that suggest if structures are in place, our society can absolve itself of responsibility. They are solutions that suggest if we just had enough funding for enough services, the suicide rate would decrease, as simple as that. But the fact is that services can only work if people access them. Even when they do, the effect of a service provider is limited.

I’ve heard Murray Bleach, the former chair of Suicide Prevention Australia, say that ‘suicide prevention is everybody’s business’. They’re words that shimmer around me, radiating like an aura. While I know my compulsion to rescue everyone is neither healthy nor achievable, I believe we need to be more comfortable with other people’s pain and suffering if we are ever going to reduce the number of deaths by suicide. We need to find a way to talk about this thing. We need to understand the ways we can share these stories. We need to open ourselves to uniquely challenging conversations. We need to find new ways of listening.

Many of us remain reluctant to speak about suicide. Perhaps we believe our words will do more harm than good. Perhaps we are concerned that if we speak about suicide, we might induce it, we might cause it to happen and then face a ripple effect: cascading dominoes – a contagious disease – provoked by the words we have spoken.

But when we resist conversations around suicide we are unwittingly perpetuating and reinforcing a stigma of shame and blame. Such a limited and outdated discourse keeps our thinking around suicide tethered to notions of a grave criminal act: something you commit, a mortal sin without eternal rest. This stigma continues to shape our collective conscience. And it can prevent those among us grappling with suicidal ideation from speaking honestly and from seeking help.

We need to be willing to cross our personal threshold of terror in order to discuss this ‘dark mystery’. Serious conversations around suicide require a measure of courage and investment beyond the simple and often random ‘checking in’ we might do with family and friends.

As a starting point, we need to feel emotionally capable of reaching out to those who have been affected by suicide. There’s a common refrain of not wanting to upset someone who has already ‘lost’ so much, but I wonder if a sense of personal distress tremors beneath our excuses. Those who have not been affected by suicide, those who feel it’s too awkward a topic, need to move beyond this discomfort because those who live with a death by suicide need to be able to remember. It is a complicated death and leaves a complicated grief. Those who are grieving after a suicide need to be able to talk about their loved one, to share the way they lived and to imagine the person they might have become. They need to struggle, first-hand, with the dark mystery. They need words and human contact to try to make sense of a thing that will never make sense at all.

We need to hear the stories of survivors and we need to create a culture where people experiencing suicidal ideation can express their feelings, without fear or judgment. We need to be open to those conversations, ready to connect more deeply on the things that matter with the people we love. Suicide is a response to pain – unbearable pain where a person feels unable to see a day ahead of themselves. That pain may be impossible for another to perceive, but we need to understand that their pain is real and excruciating for them.

As Jessie Cole puts it:

Being in pain isn’t a form of failure; it just means you’re alive. It’s time we stopped casting out those among us who are hurt or frightened. Those among us who have been harmed. A wound isn’t contagious, but it’s slow to heal if it receives no tending. We need to bring them back from the other side of the river… It is dark there, and they are dying in great numbers.

We need to become comfortable with someone else’s pain. We need to listen with genuine care – no matter how traumatic it might feel to us – when someone tells us they’re thinking of ending their life. We should use the word suicide and talk about it without judgment. Because our silence isn’t working.

Talking about suicide can feel risky and fraught – and not only because others’ lives are at stake. Putting words around suicide forces us to consider the dark mysteries within ourselves – the moments where we’ve felt most alone, where we’ve felt excruciating pain, where we’ve considered suicide ourselves. It can rattle something within us that we might feel shame at others knowing.

Despite my ongoing childhood grief, despite carrying Phil through my lifetime and despite my bleeding heart, I am a realist. I know that simply being okay with someone’s pain and talking with them may not prevent suicide. Phil had a loving and supportive family and he still chose to go. But that was 1990. In 2020, thirty years after his death (I will be forty-three, he would’ve been fifty-seven), the suicide toll continues to rise even though services have increased and improved. We need to try something new and press against this ancient stigma. We need to personally consider the way we’re approaching a great many things as a society. Suicide is indeed a dark mystery, but that does not mean it is impossible to solve. We must love people enough to step beyond our discomfort and towards their pain because, as my twelve-year-old self discovered, just loving someone is not enough.

 

BEFORE WE LEAVE for school that day, before we pile into the car to hear more of ‘my book’, Sophie comes to find me in my bedroom. There is a new heartbreak etched around her. I sit on the bed and she climbs onto my lap. I hold her and hold her and hold her, worried that I have handed on a legacy of grief to this, my porous little girl. From the speaker in the kitchen, strains of Ruby Field’s Like A Version cover choice slide into the space around us.

Their jokes don’t make me laugh,

They only make me feel like dying,

In an unguarded moment…

 The Church, I think. Early ’80s. Phil would’ve known this song.

And I know, as I hold my little girl, that it’s time to stop holding him so closely. It’s time to stop carrying him.

 


‘The Unguarded Moment’ – S Kilbey/M Parker © 1981 Northern Songs Sony/ATV Music Publishing Ltd. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


 

REFERENCES

 

Cole, J. (2018). Staying, A Memoir, The Text Publishing Company.

 

Suicide Prevention Australia 2018-2019. ‘Annual Report: Year in Review’, 2019. https://www.suicidepreventionaust.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2018-2019_Suicide-Prevention-Australia-Annual-Report.pdf

 

World Health Organisation (2019). Global Health Estimates 2019, Suicide in the World. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO

 

Suicide Prevention Australia (2019). National Policy Platform, April 2019. https://www.suicidepreventionaust.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Suicide-Prevention-Australia-National-Policy-Platform-April-2019.pdf

 

Suicide Prevention Australia (2017).  Many Voices, One Goal, Achievements, Challenges and Opportunities From 1992-2017. https://www.suicidepreventionaust.org/wp-content/uploads/bsk-pdf-manager/2018/12/many-voice-one-goal-25-years-suicide-prevention-australia.pdf

 

 

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