The Shock of Sudden Death

I did not put ‘suicide’ in the title of this post. But this post is about the impact of suicide on those who are left behind.

It is about the shock, guilt and grief of those who are bereft after sudden death, wondering how this could have happened when the person who has died was loved so much.

The death of Daniel Vickerman this week has renewed conversations about love and loss.

Half a century ago, Erwin Stengel wrote:

The act of suicide which represents both personal unhappiness and the belief that one’s fellowman is powerless to remedy his condition is differentiated from attempted suicide which may involve an appeal component.

Suicide does not give any of us the opportunity to address an appeal or cry for help. We are left, as in Peter FitzSimons’ eulogy lamenting. Being with others supports us in our helplessness and disbelief.

There were 3,027 deaths by suicide in Australia in 2015. That is eight deaths per day. It is an unabating statistic.

In 2009, Gavin Larkin started R U OK fourteen years after his father’s suicide that “left family and friends in deep grief and with endless questions”.

RU OK’s mission is “to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life”.

I shared my experience of my brother John’s suicide with Gavin Larkin back in 2010 in a post to acknowledge RU OK Day.

This was Gavin’s reply:

I started R U OK?Day in memory of my dad Barry.
I loved reading your story.
John would be proud of you and proud that you can now associate his death with a positive outcome.
My dad was my hero and the person I felt I was most like so his death wasn’t only devastating it also scared the shit out of me.
If this was possible for him was it also possible for me?
I suspect as brothers similar emotions or thoughts may have come into play for you. I hope you are ok?
Apart from realizing I wasn’t dad the biggest step forward came for me when I forgave him for what he did.
Just as you were lucky to have John as a brother, he was lucky to have you.
Good luck Keith
kind regards
Gavin

The sledge hammer part of Gavin’s message was “the biggest step forward came for me when I forgave him for what he did”.

I am still trying to deal with my forgiveness thirty-five years after my brother’s death. In my case, this forgiveness is encapsulated within a profound sense of absence.

It is no surprise that Gavin’s mission was to address suicide. The experience of it as a family member changes everything. RU OK draws upon the work of Thomas Joiner, whose father had committed suicide.

My brother, John, is in the bottom left of this picture, recorded after a day’s training in the sand dunes of North Wales.

I am mindful that the death of a public person like Daniel, or even my brother, John, so long before the immediacy of social media, does not prioritise that death over the thousands of others each year or the seven others on the same day.

What it does do, through the very public nature of the death, is to give us another opportunity to be sensitive to our family and friends.

Research about the well-being of rural men (Margaret Alston, 2012) and more recent discussions about retired athletes (Bruce Reider, 2016; Everett Lehman, Misty Hein & Christine Gersic, 2016) had added to our knowledge about the social contexts of death by suicide.

Bruce Reider concludes his editorial with this observation:

The best evidence we have to date suggests that, while these veteran football players are not immune to the possibility of suicide, they have no special predisposition for it.

This is both reassuring and troubling. As a family member we are left wondering ‘Why Daniel?’, ‘Why John?’. The shock of death by suicide is difficult to release.

Gavin found he could forgive.

I do not drink, which is fortunate, so sometimes I immerse myself in poetry.

Today, as I was thinking through this post, I found a book of Kevin Gilbert‘s poems, Black from the Edge (1994). The final poem in the anthology is Epitaph.

Poetry is for me the balm of forgiveness.

Families who have experienced suicide do carry on. I think the difficulties of grief, guilt and longing come when friends are going about their lives and we are trying to get on with ours.

Poetry works for me in this eternity.

Kevin writes

Weep not for me … my love is

still with you, wherever you are

until forever.

You will find me in quiet moments

in the trees, amidst the rocks,

the cloud and beams of sunshine

indeed, everywhere for I, too, am

a part of the total essence of

creation that radiates everywhere

about you, eternally.

Photo Credit

Daniel Vickerman (Kym Smith, The Sydney Morning Herald)

2 thoughts on “The Shock of Sudden Death”

  1. Keith, we have passed each other every day at the University for years and yet I have never been aware you have lived experience with suicide… however I no longer get surprised by those that do.

    I was friends with Dan and we played a lot of rugby together, and so your words are poignant. The notion of forgiveness is challenging and real – a nuanced distinction that extends the notion of us being non-judgmental. Very well written and it gives us all a lot to think and talk about.

    I know Dan was a good man and the rugby family will miss him.

    1. Hello, Joe.

      Thank you for writing in such a sensitive way. In part, my post was motivated by hearing you speak about Daniel.

      I am struck by your group’s resolve to be together at this dreadful time.

      Next time we pass we will have new connections.

      Best wishes

      Keith

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