Those left

The date 11 November has added poignancy in my family.

In addition to our family history in the First World War, it is the day thirty-six years ago that my brother, John, died.

John was a professional footballer at the time of his death. He was 26 years old.

His decision to take his own life has affected my actions ever since that day. It has connected me with the loss others feel on this day … and every day.

Since John’s death there have been many cases of professional sport people taking their own lives. These are just a very small part of the enormity of suicide deaths in society.

In recent years, I have been struck by the growing research into players’ well being and I have been following research in Germany. I thought Ronald Reng’s biography of Robert Enke (2011), A Life Too Short, was a very important contribution to this conversation. Robert died on 10 November 2009.

Ronald’s book was awarded the sports book of the year.  Rob Bagchi said of this award:

Two of the previous three winners of sports publishing’s oldest and richest prize, Marcus Trescothick’s Coming Back to Me and Brian Moore’s Beware of the Dog, were fearless accounts of the ravages that self-doubt and depression can wreak on elite sportsmen. Reng’s acutely observed book completes a trilogy of required reading not only for those who have been flippant and unsympathetic to the issue of mental health among well‑rewarded professionals in the past.

Ronald made a very significant point about Robert … “the friendships he struck had clear boundaries and no one, apart from his family, knew of the turmoil he suffered”.

In my brother’s case we had no indication whatsoever of any depression issues. Thirty-six years is a long time for retrospection, dealing with a sense of guilt and the bereftness of loss.

So 11 November is one of those days when those left reflect. John was 26 when he died. In my small town of Braidwood, New South Wales, we will be remembering 88 loved ones who left for the Great War from a rural community and did not return. They lie in foreign fields. Most of them were considerably younger than, John and Robert.  All 90 were profoundly loved.

Photo Credits

Pictures of John and Robert from Wikipedia.

The light they brought to the world

I have just read Stephanie Abraham’s post about her brother’s suicide.

It is powerful and profoundly helpful discussion about the impact of suicide. She observes:

during bereavement, we need more support than those grieving other types of death, but often receive less. The grief that comes with suicide is especially complex and traumatic because it’s typically sudden, sometimes violent, and we’re left reeling with questions about what happened and what we could have done differently. We’re also more likely to face stigma, shame, and isolation.

Stephanie shares a link to a Harvard study (2009) and their conclusion that “Survivors may grieve more intensely, and for longer periods, than people mourning other types of loss”.  Stephanie adds:

Suicide jars people to the core, which makes them even more awkward and scared about talking about it. People feel preoccupied about making mistakes or saying the wrong thing. I understand. Still, although there are no magic words to make the pain go away, words do matter, especially in times of great distress. The way we speak to the bereaved can comfort or sting.

She provides some important suggestions about how others might help comfort:

  • Don’t ask details about the death
  • Console the survivor
  • Don’t ask about the mental health of the deceased
  • Focus on the well-being of the survivor
  • Don’t project your guilt
  • Offer to listen to the survivor
  • Don’t pretend everything is normal or that nothing happened
  • Share positive memories of the deceased

Stephanie concludes her post with this paragraph:

When someone dies by way of suicide, their death often overshadows their life. The responsibility to remember them for the light they brought to the world, rather than for how they left it, shouldn’t just rest on survivors’ shoulders. We should all keep the deceased alive through sharing stories about them. (My emphasis)

Stephanie’s post is very timely. My brother John took his own life in November 1982 three days after his 26th birthday. I am keen to remember the light he brought to the world and in doing so try to address the awkwardness each of us feels about suicide. Stephanie’s guidelines are immensely helpful in this process.

Photographs help too.

Photo Credits

John at Primary School

John at pre-season training (bottom left)

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)