MAY 2012: I'm sitting at rehearsal of the Nothing prepared me for this show at La Mama Theatre and mentally I'm listing the occupations of some of the cast on stage: professional biographer, school counsellor, teacher, visual artist, lawyer, police officer, psychologist, writer, student, removalist, art curator and nurse. What do these people all have in common? They have all lost a loved one to suicide and all are involved in this project to help break the silence around this awful topic. The project confirms for me that suicide is not something that only happens to the dysfunctional, the marginalised, the uneducated or lower socio-economic groups but, unfortunately, to anyone.
OCTOBER 1994: MY second daughter is born the day after my eldest brother takes his life. To say that the following days, weeks and months are intense is an understatement. I experience emotions ranging from pure joy through to deep sorrow. Fortunately I bond easily and quickly with my new daughter so that part is joyful; the shock of what my brother had done to himself fills me with disbelieving shock, anger and overwhelming sadness. I feel as though if I try to speak about how I feel that I will dissolve and dissipate and not be able to find my way back to where I am most needed, at home with my children. So in order to survive I remain silent and keep my distress to myself.
Seven days after my brother dies my mother comes to stay to 'help me with the baby'. Hugging her at the airport is heart wrenching. She feels and looks empty. Over the next month we try to talk about my brother and what has happened, but the conversations are understandably terribly upsetting and my mother asks me to stop. She is heartbroken over the loss of her son, as any parent would be, but along with the heartache I can detect feelings of shame, guilt, confusion and rejection. My mother and I have always been close and able to discuss anything. But this one stops us in our tracks and closes us down. It feels like a vicious cycle – my intense emotional state combined with hers brings an impenetrable silence upon us and this silence exacerbates the pain. We talk a little bit, cry and then shut down. Little do I know that this cycle will continue for years.
I receive beautiful cards, gifts and flowers celebrating the birth of my daughter, but very few of my friends speak directly to me about what has happened or even acknowledge that my brother died at his own hand. There are no cakes or casseroles, no offers of help or assistance. This is very confusing. My friends are kind, thoughtful and intelligent people. I become hypersensitive and start to feel that they are avoiding both the topic and me. Intellectually I know and understand why they can't speak about it – they don't know how. The easiest thing is to keep their distance.
NOVEMBER 2011: I am editing work for the Nothing prepared me for this anthology. The work has been prepared over five months of creative writing workshops funded by Arts Victoria. I am the primary artist on the project but the funding has allowed me to also engage a number of leading Australian writers as guest artists on the project. The work that has been developed is good, very good, and as I edit I am torn between the excitement of the work and the reason why the work has been developed.
January 2014: My brother has now been dead for just over nineteen years. The pain and disbelief never goes away but it changes, just like any bereavement or loss. Over this time I have continued to work in community arts and independent theatre. During this time I have met many people who have either lost a family member, partner, close friend, work colleague, client or project participant to suicide and the same sense of silence, shame and complicated grief that I experienced has prevailed.
Many of these people speak of a community judgment in relation to suicide. I am ashamed to write that I held a fragment of it prior to my own experience. This judgment seems to hold at its nexus that this sort of thing only happens to 'others' who brought it upon themselves because of a level of dysfunction. Further, suicide is also shrouded in historical baggage where the act was seen as a crime and the word 'committed' was applied. When I was a child I remember hearing an adult whisper to another 'you know she committed suicide' and it was said in such a way that I immediately understood that it was a terrible and shameful thing. And regrettably it is this judgment that causes a terrible permeating silence.
January 2006: I start a new job as the arts and culture co-ordinator for Jesuit Social Services. I become aware of a post-vention program within the organisation called Support After Suicide. The program provides support, counselling and group work to those who are bereaved through the loss of a loved one to suicide. Through my work I get to know this program and although I do not seek any personal assistance from it I find myself looking at the website and reading the literature late at night and wondering how a program such as this could have assisted me all those years ago.
August 2010: I resign from my position at Jesuit Social Services in order to return to freelancing as an artist. The first thing I do is contact the manager of Support After Suicide to discuss the possibility of developing a community arts project. My pitch is quite straightforward. I want to partner with the program to develop a community arts project with people bereaved by the loss of a loved one to suicide, in order to give voice to their thoughts and feelings – to confront the silence by creating strong, accessible and compelling art. My proposal is that over ten months I will facilitate a series of creative writing workshops in poetry, short story, creative non-fiction and playwriting and then edit and publish the work developed as an anthology. Project participants will be involved in a series of theatre workshops and we will launch the anthology at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne. We apply to Arts Victoria for funding and are successful.
JULY 2011: THE number of people who want to participate in the project overwhelms us. In order to cope with the numbers we run two workshops a week and over five months twenty-five people write, talk, create and discuss work based around their experience of losing a loved one to suicide. Everyone has a unique story, but the themes are similar in relation to the deceased: mental health issues, lack of appropriate health diagnosis or support, drug and alcohol misuse, social isolation and relationship breakdowns.
The project is hugely successful and receives some further funding that enables us to print and distribute a thousand books and to also stage our work at La Mama.
February 2013: Due to the success of the Nothing prepared me for this project I apply to the Australia Council for funding to develop the follow-up project, Thank you for listening. The application is successful and further money is also received from Arts Victoria and the City of Yarra. For the next eleven months the guest artists and I work with twenty-two people who have all lost a loved one to suicide. We develop another anthology of creative writing and a compilation DVD of twenty-one clips.
August 2013: I am speaking to my mother on the phone. We are planning to donate some money to a young family friend who is participating in a fun run to raise awareness of the impact of suicide. My mother says, 'It is important that we talk about this.' We discuss the work I am doing on the Thank you for listening project and she asks, 'Don't you find this work terribly upsetting?' I reply, 'I think it's an honour to work with people who are willing to honestly share how they feel and the impact that this terrible event has on their lives.' My mother is silent and then says, 'Yes, I understand, it is very important that we talk about this.' This is a breakthrough conversation. It has taken nearly two decades for us to get to this point.
December 2013: The Fitzroy Town Hall is full. More than a hundred and seventy people have turned up for the launch of the Thank you for listeningproject. There is food, wine, speeches, songs and videos. The energy in the room is celebratory. In my speech I acknowledge the juxtaposition of why we are here – if our loved ones were still with us we would not be here, but they aren't and so, here we are.
January 2014: The silence that I experienced when my brother died was deafening. Though I am a high-functioning professional, I lacked the skills to understand what was happening or how to deal with it. By the time I began work on my projects I had come to terms with what I had experienced. But this is not the case for many people. Projects such as this provide a vital opportunity for others to come to terms with the horror that is suicide.