For the last four years, I have been working for Lifeline as a voluntary Peer Support worker for people bereaved by suicide. The circumstances leading me to do this are indeed sad ones with the loss of our son to suicide five years ago. However, out of the chaos and despair came the resolution very early on that one day I could give back the wonderful support we were given, in helping people at this most difficult time in their lives.
Our son Darin was twenty-five and a Captain in the Australian Army based in Sydney. He was talented and gifted, excelling academically; musically; and in sports. He was brave and adventurous and with a strong circle of friends and interests, it seemed he had everything to live for. After his death, we were to discover he was also clinically depressed.
As the StandBy service was not operating in Brisbane then, we were fortunate to have excellent support from the Army. With our daughter, we became even closer. I well realise that many people have no support and may experience family conflicts which can make one person’s need to discuss something, impossible. Ideally, that’s right where Peer Support starts. People who have lost someone to suicide can benefit greatly from talking to someone who has had a similar loss. Support groups are one option, however, some people also benefit from the one-on-one interaction.
I think it definitely makes a difference that I have experienced such devastation in my own life. It gives me a deep understanding and empathy of others. It allows a connection at such a raw level. In those early weeks and months I think I was about as emotionally low as you can go. There were many times when I stared into that same black hole that had taken my son. It was all so hard and so excruciatingly painful. I suffered a range of debilitating symptoms. The reason for admitting this is that I did indeed come through it. It wasn’t a magical transition. I wanted my life back and worked very hard to experience fulfillment and joy again. I have survived. I know hopelessness but I also know hope. I know the latter is what Darin would wish for me. I so dearly want to empower others with this knowledge.
I work closely with Lifeline’s StandBy Response Service in Brisbane led by Dev Kaphle. After the trauma team workers visit a client, the person is told about various other support pathways, one of which is the service I offer, and then asked if they would like to speak to me.
When I ring them, I find out if they’d like to meet in person and then somewhere neutral, often a coffee shop is arranged. Sometimes they prefer to meet me in their home. I always ask the person what suits them and follow that. While ‘where to meet’ is a small decision, I see it as empowering for the person to make it.
As well as support, I also aim to give some measure of hope. I feel this happens early on by my desire to contact these clients. Then in meeting, they see that I am capable of making an effort in how I present myself. I still vividly remember the effort it took just to get out of bed in those early weeks. In talking to me, I hope they further see that while the loss is always there, I am able to participate in life again and find enjoyment. Maybe it helps others to know if I can do this, they too may get their life back one day.
People need to feel validated to achieve any sense of feeling normal again. Listening is vital in this role. Initially there is so much chaos, confusion, pain and despair and very little clarity or peace of mind. There can be seemingly endless tasks associated with the loss; tasks that you would never undertake voluntarily but which you are forced into.
Then some people face the further insult of being excluded by social stigma’s; or by friends or colleagues with little understanding. What once was normal is now turned upside down and shaken to bits. It is soul destroying to have well-meaning friends who have never experienced this kind of loss to tell you how to feel and to give advice. Their misguided intentions can cause further alienation. To be listened to and feel truly heard is a gift. It is the beginning of hope and finding peace. It is a privilege to work with these clients and be part of such a dedicated team.
I also have a fervent desire to address the shame and stigma issues of suicide; to get people comfortable talking about uncomfortable topics so that those most precious to us have other options. With ever growing suicide statistics in this country, changes must happen. We need to relearn how to be there for one another and connected as a community generally. I believe this can happen as awareness is strengthened and when people rediscover the value of caring about each other.