“Take these,” she said as she bundled me out of the car at the airport 12 years ago. “They are the thick socks from my days as a customs officer. Government issue. It’s cold over there and they’ll keep you warm. I don’t need them anymore.”
I said thank you, took the socks and gave her an awkward hug as I headed off into the airport with my backpack. If I’m honest, I was still a little pissed off with my mom and dad at palming off the airport drop-off duties onto my aunt. Seriously, I was moving overseas for God knows how long and they didn’t even seem to care enough to drive me there. Even worse, they asked my aunt to drive me, someone I don’t think I’ve had a proper conversation with in years, possibly ever.
I keep going back to this memory. I wonder, why the socks?
Is it a metaphor or is that her way of saying to me she cares and she wants to wrap me in a little bit of her love as I head out into the world? Was she trying to find a small way of showing her affection? Was this a desperate attempt to connect with me?
Or am I just backfilling the emotions I want her to feel because she died by suicide?
I’ll never really know.
I’m a professional communicator. It’s my job to communicate. I know how to write inspiring speeches. I train people to give rousing presentations. I pride myself on crafting key messages that resonated with individuals, no matter what the context. In fact, give me a microphone and the captive audience and I’ll turn it into performance. Even as I write this, just the mention of a microphone seriously tempts me to break into song. My go-to karaoke number is David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust. Just in case you were wondering.
But when it came to writing this story, when it came to talking about something from the heart, when it came to thinking about talking to you about some really confronting and painful stuff, I found myself really struggling. How could I connect so well with audiences on so many subjects, yet struggled to connect with you, with my family, with my friends on something that is so personal? Why can’t I talk about it?
The sudden death of a loved one hits hard. When I was just 20 years old, we lost one of my best friends, neighbor and sometime teenage crush Scott in a car accident. I will always remember my dad grabbing my hand at the funeral moments before he was due to give Scott’s eulogy. He was shaking, holding back the tears and whispered, “I don’t think I can do it.” You have to get up there. I remember him hugging me tightly after the funeral and sobbing great, big, gut-wrenching dad tears in my arms; my strong, unflappable dad standing with me in that moment of intense grief and sadness.
It’s funny, you know, we all talk about Scott quite a lot. Funny stories come up at the dinner table all the time, like the time Mom woke up and went to the kitchen after hearing a noise in the house and finding Scott with his head buried in our giant milo tin, helping himself to a treat that wasn’t allowed in his household while all of us were sleeping. It makes me smile to think of him standing there, his cheeky face streaked in milo as he was busted by Mom, who was probably trying not to laugh as she kicked him out of the house.
Scott’s absence is often acknowledged in a warm and wistful way as an extended family, and weirdly, we’ve actually been able to find some good things happened following his death. I think we’ve all become a little kinder to each other. We’ve reached out to each other a little more often, shared a little more interest in each other’s lives. Don’t get me wrong, we still get angry at each other and get a little wrapped up in being the center of our own lives. But ultimately, I think there was a shift in how our families relate to each other in a bit of a good way.
Did you know that almost twice as many men die from suicide in Australia than die on our roads?
This means you are probably more likely to know a man in Australia who has killed themselves than died in a road accident. That statistic staggered me when I first found out about it. You think about all the publicity around the road toll. Think about the advertising campaigns we see about drunk driving, speeding, wearing a seat belt and road safety. Think about how much we tell each other to take care on the roads, take regular rest breaks on longer drives. We talk about it a lot.
If we are losing double the amount of men to suicide, how come we don’t see more about keeping each other safe from suicide? My family has been unfortunate enough to lose a loved one to both suicide and a road accident. Yet, I feel like we are more comfortable talking about Scott’s death and advocating for better road safety than we do about my aunt’s death. Why don’t we talk about it to the same degree? In the years following my Auntie Kaye’s death, there are mentions of her far and few between.
It’s almost like talking about the concept of Kaye and her sadness rather than the woman herself. I have lots of memories of Kaye from when I was a kid, but they all follow the same theme. Well, they certainly do, as I look back trying to connect the dots. She was always there, but not there. She tried to connect with us, but always somehow disconnected.
One Christmas, she waved me over to come and sit with her on her lap for a cuddle. I remember, even as a kid, I was a little surprised, but quickly ran over and crawled up to sit with her at the end of our big family dining room table. For a moment, I snuggled up into her as she talked with Dad and my grandparents. But that connection lasted just a few seconds before she pushed me away. “Get off, your bony bottom’s digging into my leg,” she said. So, I got off, and that was that. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually mentioned that to anyone in my family. I wonder why it is I haven’t talked to them about it.
I was away living in London at the time she died. My sister said something to me the other day that was along the lines of, “No, well, you wouldn’t remember that, would you? You weren’t here.” I don’t think she was saying it to hurt my feelings. It was more just a statement of fact. She’s right. I wasn’t there. I think that’s why I’ve struggled to talk about her, because somehow I haven’t felt like I had the right to tell her story. It’s not my story. But you know what? It is my story.
I have felt extreme guilt I didn’t talk to her more over the years, even more so since I started working in suicide prevention, learning about the warning signs and how to have conversations about suicide in a safe and supportive way. I feel so guilty I wasn’t there for my family immediately after she died and the months leading up to it. But more often, these days, I think of the guilt and shame they must be feeling and still possibly feel and why this is somehow a more heightened sense of guilt than another form of sudden death where we mourn the loss of the time we could have or should have spent with them. We should have talked with them more.
I don’t want to think about what could have been anymore. I want to replace the guilt with honoring her memory. I want to talk about funny stories and memories. I want my dad to be able to smile and laugh as he remembers their time growing up together. I want to picture her when she was happy, how she lived rather than how she died. I want us to talk about her love of animals. Maybe that time when she was taking care of that abandoned little kangaroo, the little Joey. I remember that little thing nuzzled into her khaki SeaWorld work shirt. And just for a moment, it reminds me of that warmth I felt as a kid when I was nuzzling into her chest.
We will never know what she was thinking, why she took her own life. We can make assumptions. We can pull together everything, every scrap of paper and note she wrote in the past 20 years. We can analyze every tiny thing she said to us in passing, but we will never know. What we do know is it’s really, really bloody complicated. We didn’t stop her from killing herself, but I have to believe most suicides are preventable and there is evidence suicide is mostly preventable.
But most of us aren’t doctors. We aren’t counselors. What can we do? What can you do? I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you what I focus on in light of what happens in our family. Talking with everyone who is still here, talking with those who are important to me and really listening with an open mind and an open heart to what they’re saying. I don’t want to lose my dad, my brothers, my sister, my friends. I don’t want to lose myself. We all have a lot of stuff going on in our lives, but it’s noticing the small things that will make a big difference. How do you take care of yourself? Who do you call when you’re having a tough time? How do you take care of those around you?
I want you to do one thing after reading this. I want you to pick up the phone. I mean, call — no texting, no Facebook message, no Snapchat or whatever the kids do is in these days. Pick up the phone and call a loved one you haven’t had a chat with in a while. Talk to each other, even when it’s tough. Especially when it’s tough.
I’d like to say thanks to Auntie Kaye. You know, those socks. Well, she was right. They were the best damn socks I’ve ever owned. Those ugly things I scoffed at kept me warm through at least seven freezing cold European winters. I wish I’d told her they were bloody good socks.