Michael and Frances have been good friends for years. They live in the same suburb in Melbourne’s south-east, went to the same high school and finished year 12 in the same year. And both, while in their teens, had parents who died by suicide.
It isn’t easy to talk about a loved one killing themselves. But between calculated sips of coffee and milkshakes, that’s exactly what the two friends do—in such a matter-of-fact way it belies the misfortune they’ve both endured.
Both Frances and Michael’s parents had a history of mental illness before taking their own lives, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. The circumstances surrounding suicide differ from one victim to the next, as do the experiences of those they leave behind.
Frances’ mother died on Boxing Day 2011, but had been suffering from her illness for almost 7 years.
“Because of that, as a young child, I was subjected to a lot of crap that most people my age wouldn’t have been,” she says. “When she died, my world came crumbling down—I never thought she would have committed suicide—but it wasn’t like I had absolutely no understanding why it happened. I’d kind of adjusted to not having mum in a parental capacity.”
Michael’s father died last year, in what he calls “a completely different situation” to Frances’.
“Around Christmas two years before, he had a kind of heart attack,” he says. “He never really healed mentally from that, but like, it was never really picked up.”
Michael says after his father’s health issues began he saw him make minor attempts on his life.
“Still, we never thought he’d actually do it. You can never say, ‘This is the day he’s gonna do it.’”
Michael recalls the day his father died, and how his finding out about it was foreshadowed by another death. That day, he came home on the train, which had been delayed because someone had suicided on the tracks.
This also delayed Michael learning of what occurred at home.
“I didn’t realise what had happened until I turned the corner and saw the police cars outside the house,” he says.
That neither Michael nor Frances foresaw their parents’ early death despite their struggles with mental illness shows that no-one is ever ready for suicide, and they both say as much.
“I feel as though you can’t prepare yourself for it,” Michael says. “Like… it’s… it’s…”
“You never expect them to do it,” Frances finishes.
This inability to prepare means when a person takes their own life, people around them are exposed to a surge of strong emotions that can be damaging if not managed properly.
Frances explains the direct aftermath of her mother’s death as “anger and agony and stress, and being upset and just confused”.
“So many things run through your head you can’t understand,” he says. “Dad was the main breadwinner in the family, and when he passed I had no idea if we’d be okay financially. We had a pretty big mortgage at the time, I thought I was gonna have to get a full time job.”
Statistical representation of suicide is notoriously good at taking the emotion out of a very emotional issue.
When you hear that around 2100 people die by suicide in Australia every year as a bereaved person, it can trivialise your loss. When you hear it as anyone else, it makes it even harder to understand what sufferers are going through.
But in this case, two such statistics have particular relevance. One is from Mindframe Australia, which observes people aged 40-54 have among the highest rates of suicide in the country. Both Michael and Frances’ parents were in this age group when they died.
The other, from a 2010 study by the John Hopkins Children’s Centre in the US, is even more significant: children and teens who lose a parent to suicide are three times more likely than other young people to die the same way. That study also says these people are also at increased risk of major psychotic disorders.
“Having a supportive social network is really important in grieving, especially because people can feel particularly isolated when this happens,” says Louise Flynn, director of the Richmond-based Support After Suicide community. “Also to have people consider the trauma of their loss when judging their feelings and behavior. That level of understanding is really helpful but quite often it doesn’t happen.”
This is where Michael and Frances became especially important to one another. After Michael’s father’s death, Frances made sure she spoke about it with him.
“When I was dealing with mum’s death, I found a lot of peace getting my emotions out—through counseling and stuff—but also by confiding in other people who had lost their parents at a young age,” she says. “So I made it very clear to Mike that everyone copes with this in their own way, but I want you to know I’m 100% here for you, because I knew how much speaking to someone who understands you on every level helps your recovery.”
Michael says having Frances there as someone to talk to was crucial.
“I went to footy the night after it happened, and a few guys at the club had been through similar things. So to have Fran and people at the club come and talk to me was good, if only because I saw how you could actually cope with it and how it heals over time.”
Having a solid routine to fit into is also an important distraction for people in the first few months afterward, according to Flynn. Michael both embodies and endorses this theory.
“I was always doing something after it happened,” he says. “I got really heavily into footy. I was training maybe three times a week, going to the gym four times. It was a good withdrawal, and like, I think you’ve got to have people around you all the time you can talk to as well.”
Michael says talking to his girlfriend at the time and best friend was also beneficial to the healing process.
“Just constantly texting me, keeping my mind off it was super helpful. I used to talk to her for like two hours before I went to bed just so I didn’t keep reminding myself about it.
“And I’d call up my best mate all the time to see what he was doing—and it’d be 12 o’ clock at night, he’d never be doing anything—and I’d ask, ‘Do you wanna come over and just hang?’ and he would. It was just good to have that connection, because it’s when you’re alone, that you feel it most.”
Frances turns her attention to the stigma towards suicide. As it turns out, she has some bones to pick with the way society handles the issue, and how relatively little they understand about it.
“What many people don’t understand about suicide is when a family member suicides, you not only have to deal with the fact they’ve passed away, but also with the fact they were in a position mentally where they chose to do that,” she says. “My mother left my brother and I two notes before doing what she did, one at home and one on her person, and you could tell from it that she wasn’t in her normal place mentally. But you could also tell she felt everyone else would be better off with her gone.”
Frances says suicide is often portrayed as selfish.
“Most people view suicide as an act on face value without considering the different circumstances and reasons why people choose to end their lives,” she says. “They’ll be like, ‘How can they leave their loved ones behind? What a selfish thing to do—’”
“It’s not selfish, not at all,” says Michael, staring down into his empty glass.
“No, not at all,” says Frances. “In fact a lot of suicides are committed when people are thinking irrationally and that everyone will be better off if they do this.”
Louise Flynn agrees the public perception of suicide lags well behind the reality.
“There is a stigma around suicide still, and many people have simplistic or incomplete understandings of suicide,” she says. “That then results in an inaccurate judgment on those who take their own lives, which of course, then affects those left behind.”
I ask Michael and Frances what they think of people saying things like “I know how you feel” or “It must feel terrible” to try and comfort them. The response is unanimous.
“Don’t do it,” they say. “You don’t know how we feel.”
Flynn rolls her eyes when I ask the same thing of her.
“I know people are trying to be supportive in saying that, but they’re really not. The depth of the experience is such that no-one else can really understand it, so it sounds simplistic and trite to say that.”
Flynn isn’t as worried with people saying the words “I’m sorry”.
“Some people don’t actually mind hearing that, it depends. It’s difficult to come up with a response that works in every situation, it really depends on how well you know the person in question.”
There’s a parallel from the literary world to understand how Michael and Frances are moving on from their parents’ suicide present day. For English in their final year of VCE, both studied Life of Pi, the tale of an Indian boy who survives eight months at sea with only a tiger for company.
Having survived great suffering and grief, Pi, the protagonist, thinks of his experiences in a way that allows him to move on productively with his life, something both Michael and Frances have had to do.
“My mother put herself in front of a train: when I found that out, I had to sit and think for a while about why she chose to end her life that way,” Frances says. “I concluded that mum did it that way because she knew no-one who loved her would have found her—because she wouldn’t have wanted that for anyone—and by doing it that way, she was sure she’d be successful.”
Michael explains his experiences in a similar way.
“I’ve kind of come to terms with it now,” he says. “I have no anger towards Dad at all because, in the end, he did it for me: he thought that if he took his life the rest of our family would be happy and get to keep all we had.
“As much as I hated this happening to me, there’s kind of an upside, because like, I’m able to help my friends if something like this ever happens to them. I’ll know how they feel and what they need to get through it, and they can see I’ve gotten through it so that might give them hope.”
By Alexander Darling
For help or information, contact Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Michael’s name has been changed for privacy reasons.