Letting the bereaved speak

Photo by Breeanna Tirant.
Suicide support groups offer companionship to help those left behind cope with loss. Breeanna Tirant reports.

John Bradley goes through life hardly hearing his daughter’s name.

His middle child, Heather, passed away 12 years ago at the age of 26. It pains him that the people he is closest to don’t talk about her, or mention her name aloud.

He thinks the reason people cannot raise it with him is because she took her own life.

John is not alone in losing a loved one to suicide. On average, eight Australians take their own lives every day. That’s a total of 3,027 suicide deaths each year, according to the 2015 Causes of Death Report, by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). It’s an epidemic in Australia, which means there’s a constant need for support groups throughout the community to assuage the endless grief of losing a loved one.

One support group is helping with that and there’s many more springing up right across Australia.

John says, “Friends and family don’t talk about her, they don’t mention her name. If they would just say something without me instigating the conversation. Death ends at life, it doesn’t end your relationship. I still have a relationship with my daughter.”

John found solace by attending the suicide bereavement group, run by The Compassionate Friends Victoria (TCF). Everyone in this group has lost a loved one to suicide, it’s one of the few places they can talk about their loss without judgement and can say their child’s name without any flinching.

The Compassionate Friends Victoria (TCFV) was formed by bereaved parents in 1978. It offers support to those who have lost someone to suicide. This includes a 24-hour helpline every day, brochures and bi-monthly magazines, and an avenue to be around people who understand what it’s like to lose a loved one to suicide.

Everyone handles bereavement differently – and for some it never ends.

Jenny Galati, who runs the Bereaved by Suicide group, knows all too well about the grief of losing a loved one, after losing her 15-year-old son, Stephen, to suicide. “Grief doesn’t stop, you don’t get over it, life goes around it. For some people, it can become bigger and bigger. For lots of people there would be trigger points.”

She says some people will join a group immediately following the loss of their child. “But we’ve had people that will come for the first time 20 years after their child has died.”

John started coming to TCFV two months after Heather died. He found attending a group enabled him to open-up. “I’ll never forget that night, these people understood. They could talk openly about the fact that their child had died by suicide and mention their name, which people just don’t do. It was such a relief. These people got it. They understand.”

John says because he had not had an opportunity to speak up before it made it easier speaking to the group. “I knew that these people understood perhaps how others can’t and the devastation caused by suicide.”

Letting the bereaved speak
Photos by Breeanna Tirant

Suicide support groups offer companionship to help with loss. Talking or even listening to people who have gone through similar experiences can help a great deal, according to TCFV. Lynette Strickland, mother, and volunteer facilitator of the group, lost her 30-year-old son Gareth to suicide two years ago and knows all too well how John feels. “A lot of people don’t open up the subject and don’t want to talk about Gareth,” she says.

“One lady said to me, ‘you need to talk about your son as if he’s still around’ and I thought that was good advice. That is what I need to do. I do need to talk about him as if he’s still here because he certainly was here and he’s still here in my heart.

“It’s not always easy in general conversation because they don’t know how to approach you or how to say anything. They basically act like it’s all forgotten, it’s gone away. A lot of people are nice, they just don’t know how to talk to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. It’s a difficult thing.”

While friends and family are vital, unless they’ve experienced something of a similar nature, they most likely don’t get it. That’s why support groups can be such a valuable resource, according to online support site, Hello Grief.

Jenny says, “People don’t know what to expect when they join a group. I think it’s a very big step for anyone to take and to attend.”

Sandra Green, who lost her 20 year-old son, Jarrod, also helps to run the groups. It took a while to open up and recognise that everyone must do it at their own pace.

Sandra remembers sitting in a large circle of 20 to 30 people. “By the time it went around the circle and it came to me I felt everyone had said what I was feeling, so I didn’t bother talking.”

She says that’s okay in a group setting, you can either pass or talk. “I found hearing every body’s story you clam up and it’s difficult then. I kept going and just hearing everyone’s story made me feel not so alone. Their experiences and emotions were what I was feeling so then that’s okay, I’m not going crazy.”

Jenny says she went along to be with other people and get a sense that this happens to anyone. “Families that are very strong and well connected, who have never had any experience of mental health issues, have a child die by suicide. I didn’t want to normalise it but I also wanted to feel I wasn’t a terrible family, or terrible person.”

Jenny’s husband, Kevin, also attended the group with her, hoping also to be able to help parents, their other children. “Suicide changes your life completely. My other children were 18, 17 and 13. So you’re dealing with their grief and as a family.”

Suicide loss can impact on the physical and mental health of the bereaved. They may experience shock, guilt, anger and blame, stigma and shame, depression, loneliness and thoughts of suicide themselves, according to Lifeline.

Attending a support group was important to Sandra. “It helped me with healing and my growth. It’s not very good to be alone in your grief. The anger and the guilt that comes with suicide, just talking through that, realising that I’m not the only one feeling that way.”

John says: the support group “saved him”. “I had thoughts about joining my daughter and her mother,” he says. His wife, Margaret, tragically passed away from alcoholism, nine years before Heather. “She became depressed and blamed herself for her mother’s death, but it wasn’t her fault.”

For every death by suicide, it is estimated that as many as 30 people attempt to end their lives. That’s approximately 65,300 suicide attempts each year, according to Lifeline.

Lyn understands why people don’t want to speak about it but says: “The more we talk about it the more the stigma goes away. I feel that people feel that there must have been something wrong with how he was brought up.

I think it’s a problem that people do feel that they can’t really talk about it because it’s horrible and I don’t want it to happen to me. I don’t want to get what she’s got. They don’t want to feel that they’re even in the same boat as you. I think they feel afraid.”

John says, “People don’t want to talk about death, they don’t want to talk about suicide, they think it’s contagious and it’s not contagious.

“People quite likely judge the person who has died. They also judge us. ‘What’s the matter with you? How come your daughter took her own life? Are you a bad dad?’ Things like that. That kind of feeling of people judging us.”

John has since become a volunteer, facilitating the men’s group. “Talking about suicide and making people aware is removing some of the stigma of suicide and the judgement,” he says.

If you or a loved one has lost someone to suicide and you need help, call the Beyond Blue helpline: 1300 224 636 or Lifeline: 13 11 14.