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

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)


Today is Remembrance Day in Australia.

I walked in our garden in Braidwood today at 11am and thought about how fortunate I am to have lived such a long and happy life.

I thought too about an uncle I never met, Gerald Lyons.

This is a photograph of him taken on his 21st birthday in 1940. He had joined the Marines a year earlier.


Gerald served in the North Atlantic as a Royal Marine. He was rescued from the cold waters there on four separate occasions. The official War records report that Gerald died of an illness on a hospital ship in Liverpool on 21 June 1943.

He is buried in Bistre Cemetery, Buckley. I have written about his grave here.

By sad coincidence the 11 November is the anniversary of my brother’s death. He died just three years older than Gerald.

Like all of my family, he is buried at Bistre too. Not far from an Uncle he did not meet either.


It was a beautiful day for these memories. A long way from a cold November dawn in Wales when friends will walk past the memorial in the town of Buckley to young men who did not return. It is a place, as Curtis Bennett reminds us of standing awkward … unsure with the dead and “experiencing once more, this terrible place of memories”.

In memory of John

John 01 2

Today, 11 November, is a day of remembrance in many countries.

In addition to remembering the fallen, my family has another memory evoked by the day.

My brother, John, died on this day in 1982. He was twenty-six years old. He was a professional footballer with Colchester United.

I have written about John elsewhere on Clyde Street. Many of these posts have been prompted by R U OK Day.

John took his own life.

My sister, Judith, and I are the remaining members of our family. We are the memory keepers of John, the youngest member of our family.

Thirty-three years on we are still bereft.

For my part, like most family members when there is a suicide in the family, I still feel profoundly guilty about his death. I was his older brother and I had an unequivocal duty of care to him and my sister.

John’s full name is John Patrick Lyons. He bore the name of his grandfather and his great grandfather. His was a name given for a long life.

Whenever I think about John, I remember a talented sportsman. He was an international basketball player, a record breaking athlete, a precocious outside half in rugby, and a goal-scoring striker in football.

The photograph at the head of this post was taken after winning the Welsh Cup with Wrexham in 1978. John played in the team that won promotion to the Second Division of the Football League that year. It was a great year for him to be at Wrexham. The team made it to the quarter finals of the FA Cup and the League Cup.

When I think about John, I think of the boy that became the man too. Since his death I have hoped to be a carer for all boys in sport, particularly in high performance sport. It has been a three decade journey that is reinvigorated each day but focused by this day of all days.

John 01

I am delighted that professional football has recognised how important it is to care for players’ well-being. As a footnote to this post, I would like to mention one person whom I have met who practices the care and compassion that I think is vital for young professional sportsmen and their coaches.

It has been my great good fortune to have met David Priestley. He has spent his professional life caring for the well-being of cricketers, rugby union players and footballers. I am in awe of his approach to supporting people in a very public gaze.

I think that he and John would have got on. Thirty-three years ago the support systems in football were offered by teammates … and often alcohol.

David has an alternative approach. This is his LinkedIn introduction:

I consider myself to be, first and foremost, a family man. I am a strong person with a calm and reassuring demeanor. I have worked within professional sport for over 16 years alongside international sportsmen, multidisciplinary sport science support teams, elite coaches and executive management teams. With a strong academic grounding and vast applied experiences, I have accrued insights into the human condition and developed ways to help people perform to their personal potential. I have come to critique a performance-based myopia, and instead believe in the importance of actively shaping a high performing environment and a person-centered culture.

David’s journey has taken him to some very dark places with players and coaches. As a result of meeting him I have added another layer of care in my practice … aspiring to care for carers who carry enormous responsibilities.

In doing this, I remember John and hope that other families are spared 11 November days.