Simone Goldsmith – Suicide Awareness Blog Day

Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 11.17.19 AMOn September 10, 2013, the World Health Organization and the International Association for Suicide Prevention will co-sponsor World Suicide Prevention Day. To commemorate this day, the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work invites people to participate in their Suicide Awareness Blog Day.

Here is my story.

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Anyone who met my older sister Alana loved her for the same reasons – her infectious laugh, smile, intellect, natural beauty and kindness. She was the life of any party, especially if there was a karaoke machine.

Only 2 years younger than Alana, I always looked up to her and was never far from her shadow.  Although we were born and raised in Sydney (Australia), we shared a deep love for Japan. We both chose to go to university there but in different parts of the country.

One of my favourite memories is deciding at 5am after a night of clubbing to go to breakfast at the biggest seafood market in the world. Off we went, in our high heels and revealing dresses. As the sun rose so did the faces of the Japanese men packing crates of tuna fish and octopus. They were surprised at what they saw. 2 female — Western, bilingual and all dressed up, walking through smelly fish guts at the crack of dawn.

Alana’s suicide at the age of 23 follows an eating disorder. In her final year she informed doctors that her anorexia began when she was 15 when she had self esteem issues about a boy she liked. We were oblivious to this at the time. Later that year she went on a school exchange to Japan, where she lived with a seaweed growing family. She came home emaciated but explained her weight loss by saying her hosts did not feed her enough. We believed her and over the next year, helped her to regain her health and vitality. Looking back we now know that the eating disorder seed was planted in her brain. The problem ran deeper and the eating disorder had already started to take control.

Alana went on to excel in high school and in her final exams. She secured a scholarship and moved overseas to study Asia-Pacific studies, a mix of economics and sociology. One day a close friend of Alana’s contacted us, concerned with her weight loss and antisocial behaviour. The friend felt she was betraying her friendship with Alana, but was so concerned she felt she had no choice. We regularly asked Alana about her eating and if she was OK. She always insisted everything was fine. Her eating disorder was hiding what was really happening inside of her.

Alana finished her degree and accepted a marketing job overseas. But she came home unexpectedly, which was a cry for help. The depth of her physical and mental illness then became all too obvious. Alana isolated herself. She made plans and accepted invitations, and then would cancel. She didn’t communicate, flew into mad rages and self-harmed. She also stopped caring for herself – she rarely showered or changed her clothes.

Every meal at home with Alana was a battle of wills. We knew that the designated meal plan of 3 meals, morning & afternoon tea & supper was essential to maintaining those hard fought kilos. The trouble was that my family’s voice of love & reason competed with the voices in Alana’s head telling her she’s ugly, a burden, worthless. But calm must prevail. So, after sitting at the dinner table with Alana for as long as each meal took, it would be time for a few games of banana-gram (a non-competitive version of scrabble). This was the recommended strategy to battle the post meal urge to charge out the door in a rage of anxiety & walk until the calories were purged. If we survived the post meal madness then we would have a DVD ready to watch.

At the same time, however, Alana managed to work for a year in Sydney in her first and only job. Part-time as an online marketing co-ordinator for an International company overseeing the Japanese office. It was a totally female office and what was staggering was when Alana had to resign to go into an eating disorder clinic, no one realised that she was sick. [Imagine their shock when a year later we phoned her manager to tell her she was dead.]

Alana was admitted three times to clinics but after running away several times, my dad decided to take her on an overseas holiday, a trip intended to motivate her and get her involved in life again. Whilst there were some signs of progress during the trip, the eating disorder voice still had its control. She returned to Sydney in a medically unstable and depressed state. She entered another clinic but after 5 days, the eating disorder voice decided the struggle was over.

At 1.30pm on the 22nd July 2011, Alana slipped out of the hospital’s fire exit unnoticed (this shocking lapse of care will be the subject of a coronial inquest later this year). 50 minutes later, she took her life. And my life changed forever.

Alana’s sudden passing has taught me many lessons. Above all, it has taught me that suicide does not discriminate. It can happen to people of all nationalities, ages and ethnicities. It can happen to those who come from happy families, have no history of alcohol or drug abuse, live in safe neighbourhoods and appear to have everything.

It has also taught me that if a friend or family member is showing signs of mental illness or suicidal intent, always reach out to them even when it’s hard to know what to say. It takes courage but get involved. Try to address those signs and do not simply rely upon what they are telling you. Do your own research and form your own views. Give them the information they need, pick up the phone if necessary. Remain in constant contact and assure them that they are loved, have reason to live and that you are there for them.

Although an estimated 1 million people take their lives around the world each year, suicide IS preventable. I am sharing my story because I do not want anyone who is reading this to go through the living hell of having a sister, brother, parent, cousin or friend take their life. Believe me, your life doesn’t go back to normal. So we must keep working together to protect ourselves, and our loved ones.

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Since Alana’s passing, Simone has launched a storytelling project called Our New Lives. By offering honest yet interesting discussion, it aims to provide inspiration, information and comfort to the bereaved and to reduce the stigma associated with death, grief and recovery.

If you or a friend are considering suicide please call  Lifeline in Australia or the USA. It is free and confidential.

Alana&I

Angie Cartwright

Angie Cartwright has survived more tragedy and trauma than most. Her grieving began at the age of 5 when she tragically lost her baby sister Erica. Years later her favourite uncle died by suicide, her husband in a car accident, her grandfather by murder (police allege suicide) and her mother to an accidental overdose in 2010. Raised in environment of alcoholism and drug addiction, Angie shares how she turned her life around and how she uses Facebook to help herself and thousands of other bereaved people to heal. In this interview, learn about Angie’s inaugural National Grief Awareness Day which will take place in the US on August 30 — her mother’s birthday.

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You say your grieving process began at the age of 5 when your sister Erica died. How much do you remember about that time? Is that when your Mum’s condition deteriorated?

I can remember vividly all of the circumstances leading up to my sisters’ death. She had been sick for a few days and was crying constantly. My mother took her to the emergency room and when she got back she gave her a bath. Erica had been diagnosed with pneumonia but on the third night she finally rested in the bassinet. The next morning I awoke before everyone else and went to check on her but she didn’t look right. I woke my mother up and told her something was wrong with Erica. My mother ran out of our home screaming down to the fire station in our neighborhood. My mother returned quickly but I believe the trauma had already set in for me and in turn produced a gap in my memory. I truly believe my grief started right after my sister died and I had lost my mother to grief. There were many nights and mornings I found my mother crying over Erica. She always seemed intoxicated during these crying spells. I felt so powerless as a child to help my mother. Children internalize grief, unless they have teachers to guide them in expressing their grief and what to do with that pain. Even at that young age, for some reason, I felt it was my job to fix my mother and make her happy. I went on to lose my mother in other ways later on when she would go off to treatment or drop us off with friends.

You have survived more tragedy & trauma than most, what kept you holding onto life & hope?

I guess before we know hope or the want to live, we have to know the opposites. I knew darkness better than anything else. To get to hope each time was different for me. Sometimes it was my children that gave me the will to fight. Other times it was an internal feeling of I’m not done yet! Hope, I believe, is a gift. I never thought I would have it again after losing my mother but you can experience hope in the middle of grief. Hope never found me I had to go look for it. I had to be willing to do certain things for myself to get there.

How has your grief changed with time?

My grief has changed. But time was not really the factor. It wasn’t until seven years after I lost my husband in a car accident that I started making changes in my life, because after all that time I realized I was no better than when it happened.  When my mother died in 2010 I decided I wouldn’t let this beast called grief take me down like it did in the past. It’s not that I didn’t grieve, I just started changing my behavior. After a year I started to feel better and confident healing was taking place. There is a “cliché” that is said often: “Time heals all wounds.” This is far from the truth. Time cannot heal a broken heart. The grief may ease up, but I believe it’s because we have learned how to manage it.

You were raised in an environment of alcoholism and drug addiction. To what extent did you rely upon substances to deal with your losses?

Being raised in an alcoholic home I was shown that grief and drinking go hand in hand. Honestly I hated alcohol as a child. I always put my mother, sadness, and drinking all together. When I got older I started my own journey with alcoholism. I don’t blame my mother for that, as I had my own choices in life. I used drinking and other substances to numb the pain. As a grieving widow I was given all sorts of medications and today I know those things could not heal my heart. If anything they increase the pain. It allowed me to stay stuck in that pain and time. Like I said previously, seven years after losing my husband, I was no better. Today I know a better way. I have to face those feelings as they come. Easier said than done but it’s possible. After my mother passed from a drug overdose I knew I couldn’t live that life. I am in recovery today, and I deal with emotions from a sober mind and heart.

At what point did you become committed to healing and reinventing yourself? What prompted this and how what changes did you make in your life?

I have become committed to healing many different times in my life. Sometimes I hit the ground running with all sorts of ways to help myself.  When one didn’t work, I would try another. There were those times where I wanted nothing to do with healing. When you have lived a life of loss there can be some resentment that comes up. I got tired of having to be the one to pick up the pieces. Today I don’t feel that way. After my mom died there came a day when I knew no one was going to do this for me. Even if they wanted to It was impossible, I had to want to heal. I never thought the day would come again where I felt that kind of hope again. As I started my healing journey I started reading books lot of books! I found Facebook and started to find other grievers and decided to have a small little grief group. The group was a life changer for me. I had found people who felt like me. They understood me. I think the turning point in re-inventing myself was the day I started to grieve freely. It was necessary. I couldn’t go around “acting” like I was fine. It nearly killed me doing that before. I knew my honesty was going to have to be the largest part of me, anywhere and with anyone.

As part of your healing process you created Facebook groups for the bereaved. You now have 17 which include one specifically for teens and young adults. How do these groups work and differ, and how have they helped you to heal?

Grief The Unspoken is a family. It’s a family no one wants to be a part of. But after a loss it’s the only place for a while that may feel comfortable. Everyone speaks your language. The pressure is off to be a certain way. Our closed groups provide a safe place to let it all out and be yourself. We have guidelines in the groups and basically people post when they feel like it. They don’t have to post. Some are not able to post for a while but they read others feelings and they feel like someone understands. All groups run pretty much the same way. We have a few that are different. We have a diary group. We ask no one to comment on anyone’s post in that group. It’s strictly for writing in a virtual diary. We have one that is for venting, it’s a little more controversial. That group is specifically for intense emotions. Some people cannot handle those kinds of post. I have found the group works really well. They scream and get it out and feel better. I believe the groups help a griever to get to a place where they start wanting help. We are not there to fix them. We are there to support them. We try to let the members know of healers we recommend, and we often share our healing to help them.

From your personal experiences and connecting with others online who have experienced loss, what advice do you have for bereaved youth?

If I was to give any advice to our youth, It would be that it’s okay to grieve. Your feelings are not wrong. I would tell them to educate themselves on grief and ask questions. I believe you’re never too young to learn about grief. Sometimes we don’t have the necessary support needed to make this transition. Like in my youth. So it can be difficult to find support. Many of our youth are on Facebook. The web can be a great tool to aid you along your grief journey. I do have a closed grief group for teens and young adults because they needed a place to go. Another important suggestion is to get help. Being alone in your grief is not good, it will only get worse. Many youth will use alcohol and other substances to cover up pain they have no other way to “deal” with. Sadly some of them will take their lives. Young people need to know feelings are not bad. We need to get them out. I look back in my youth and can see where I chose other things to deal with my grief. At that age “feelings” are not cool. It’s my hope that we get grief education in every school and every grade. We can’t teach them to grieve but we can teach them it’s okay to grieve.

You founded the National Grief Awareness Day which will take place on August 30 – your mother’s birthday. What does this day involve and how can people support your movement?

National Grief Awareness Day is a day to bring grief out of the dark and into the light.  On this day we as educators aim to increase awareness surrounding grief. We will talk about the myths and the clichés. We will be “opening a door” for the griever to come out of hiding. The old ways of looking at grief don’t work. Our grieving need help, not fixed, to be allowed in our society to grieve as long as they need to. Our expectations need to change. Many may think that it is changing, but we are a long way from where we need to be.  I say we are just beginning. Today I saw a griever post that her sister told her to “get over this, your family needs you!” This kind of thinking has been with us for years. It will take years to repair the damage that has already been done.  People don’t always take to change easy. I know I didn’t. At first they may feel like we are attacking people.  Or that we are being overly sensitive. These two things are far from the truth. Somewhere along time ago we were taught all these ideas on grief. We took them for being “the truth “myself included. That was until I started grieving intensely and started to apply all the myths and cliches and they didn’t work and they didn’t make sense.

This will be the first NGAD and I’m beyond excited. On this day we ask you to do anything you can to increase, educate, and support grief and the grieving. We will be using different colored butterflies as our symbol this year. The different colors represent that everyone grieves differently. We are asking people to make grief awareness videos which we will post on our website. We are making banners for people to hang in front of their homes. You can also donate to our cause, even $5 goes a long way. Since this is the first NGAD we are limited on what we can do and need all the help we can get. We hope by next year we will be doing a conference, and getting grief into our schools, treatment centers, doctors, and counselors’ offices. The other thing you can do is to think about  grieving. Ask yourself do I have anyone in my life that may be grieving? Go and see them. Send them some flowers. We ask you to take the topic of grief into your homes. Maybe at dinner that night ask your family what they know about grief. Share what you have learned. Share posts from all the grieving sites on Facebook and the web. We have a huge community full of so many loving and kind people who are helping those in grief.

Kristie West

“It isn’t about glorifying death. It will always have a negative side. But there is another side to it too and this is what people don’t look for or see anymore.  Death has such a profound impact on our lives, our relationships, the direction we are moving in… It can free us, unite us, give us purpose, break us to pieces (so we put ourselves together more authentically), open our hearts, change our lives.”

Kristie West lost her father Ian 7 years ago to an unexpected heart attack and 5 other family members within 4 months of his death. Kristie, who currently works as a grief specialist in London, relates how she came to view these events in a positive light. She explains what adults can learn from kids when it comes to death and how the Kiwi’s new Death Cafes hope to impact the bereaved. 

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Screen shot 2013-08-14 at 7.07.28 AMWhat’s one memory with your dad you will always cherish?

A specific memory doesn’t come to mind…but when I think of him I hear him saying “go for it Kid” which is what he said about every new travel adventure, country move or new plan I made.

You lost your father 7 years ago to an unexpected heart attack and 5 other family members within 4 months of his death. What are your overriding memories of this initial grief period?

The overwhelming feeling initially, after the first few hysterically painful hours, was the numbness that took over and stayed with me for months. It wasn’t a comfortable or painless numbness.  In a way I felt like a rock – and there is nothing light and easy about being a rock.  Everything felt trapped in my body and I physically hurt all the time.  At the time it was a coping mechanism and is incredibly common – so many people feel very numb and then feel guilty as this is not how they believe they ‘should’ feel and not what others expect them to feel either.

You no longer view these events in a negative light, rather you see them as important, profound and deserving of respect. What were the reasons for this change in perspective? 

Getting to this space of complete healing is something I believe is possible for anyone who wants it…but it takes work. This type of healing is not passive so simply waiting for time to pass or spending endless hours (or months or years) talking about it won’t bring this kind of change.  I went looking for true healing. Something in me told me that I didn’t just have to live with the pain, and that surely the last legacy was his loved ones in pieces, unable to talk about him easily, and thinking about him less and less over time.  He deserved more than that, as did we, and I just knew there had to be another way.  On my journey for ‘another way’ I found processes that, with my effort and support from others, truly changed these events in my life forever. This is the work I now do with others.

Do you ever feel disrespectful and/or have moments when you experience surges of grief?

For me…never. I did so much work around these deaths in my life that I haven’t had anything painful come up around them since. When something is completely healed it means there is no pain.

I don’t feel at all disrespectful. I understand that people can see it that way, which is very unfortunate as this belief (that it is respectful to be in loads of pain) is one of the things that can keep people hanging on to pain after a death, unwilling to let it go.  The reality is that having no pain around my dad means I can think about him as easily as I think about my mum who is alive and well.  I feel connected to him, when I think of him I smile, and thoughts of my dad don’t ever hurt me… so I never need to ignore them.  No-one ever needs to apologise to me for bringing up my father and days that remind me of him are good days… not bad days.  Few people can say that.  Surely no one wants their memory to be a source of pain to those who love them. This certainly isn’t what I would want for myself and I think it is one of the greatest gifts we can give those we love who have died.

You’re a grief specialist. Why do you think people tend to view death in a negative way? 

We are actually very conditioned in how we see death. Everything in life has two sides but we have been taught – by our families often and by society – that death is only bad and sad and something to avoid and hope no one we love ever goes through.  We see it as horrible and meaningless. Even for those who believe that death plays an important role and has a point or happened for a reason i.e. often those who are religious or spiritual, they don’t have any way to actually experience it that way as they have been conditioned in the same way.

We teach children from very young about how to feel and act around death.  A small child, trying to understand death and make sense of what has happened might “I’m so sad grandad has died…but it’s good that he can’t eat the black jellybeans anymore because those are my favourites”.  And how do we react to that? As adults we often berate them and tell them that this is a terrible thing to say, that it is very sad that grandad is dead, and not to let your grandmother hear you say things like that.

Kids have their eyes open to all the different elements and impacts of death and we adults teach them something different, just like we were taught.

Kids, left to their own devises, have a lot to teach adults about dealing with death openly and naturally.

What advice do you have for bereaved youth who want to see the joy, beauty, meaning and truth in a death – without risking glorifying it?

It isn’t about glorifying death. It will always have a negative side. But there is another side to it too and this is what people don’t look for or see anymore.  Death has such a profound impact on our lives, our relationships, the direction we are moving in.  It can bond us to people, send us on a new path, cause us to soul-search for answers to very big questions about ourselves. It can free us, unite us, give us purpose, break us to pieces (so we put ourselves together more authentically), open our hearts, change our lives.

If I could give just one simple piece of advice it would to stay open through the experience. Stay open to everything and don’t block out or ignore anything that could seem positive because it seems ‘disrespectful’.  We respect and honour those who have died far more when we can see how even in their death they added to our lives and changed the world for the better.  Because that is a beautiful legacy to leave.

Tell us about the Death Cafes you have recently began and what impact you hope they will have on the bereaved?

In June I started running regular online Death Cafes and they have been attended by people from all over the world. These are very different to my work and I am very clear with participants that the Death Cafes have a different purpose to my work, aren’t a kind of grief support group, and that I don’t teach or coach through them. I take off my G.R.I.E.F. specialist hat and simply hold the space for open discussions around any element of death people would like to discuss, which is what the whole movement is really about.

To my mind they can specifically benefit bereaved people in 2 ways – firstly they give them a space where it is ok to talk about death. Secondly they can be exposed, with a new level of openness, to people sharing things around death that are different to the norm.  I ran one death cafe where one participant talked about how the death of someone close to him had made him the man he was today. It was very inspiring and beautiful and other people started to contemplate their own experiences in different ways too.

But the point of Death Cafe it not to push this on people – whatever conversations come up come up and we go with them. The space is really just about open conversations around death.

Alex Bannon

Alex2Alex Bannon tragically lost both parents before the age of 16 — her father to a heart attack and her mother to cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. Now aged 18, the Sydney native shares how she manages sudden surges of grief and what we can learn from her aunty.

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What is one memory with your mother & father you will always remember?

I’ll always remember how strong and brave my mum was on the day she told me  she only had two months left to live. I remember her coming into my room after I’d been crying. She saw the tears in my eyes and held my hands and looked me in the eyes and whispered “Alex, it’s okay, I’m going to be okay. I know that my prayers to God weren’t exactly answered but maybe that’s the purpose. Maybe my purpose in life was to give strength to others and die as a legacy and that’s okay. It’s time.”

In regards to my dad, I’ll always remember the countless trips to his work. He was the Marketing Manager at the Powerhouse Museum and I always wanted to go with him because I loved their chocolate pebble machine. I remember running a muck around his work but him being completely fine with it. I’ll also always remember that he was such an involved father. Even though his job kept him busy, he never missed a Father’s Day activity at school.

Your father died suddenly; did having a warning about your mother’s death lessen the pain at all? 

My father passed when I was seven years old from a heart attack. It was my brother who had found him, then me. Our mother was on a holiday in China with her two sisters but flew home immediately. I don’t think there is ever a right age or time to lose someone but with saying that, I was so young when my dad suddenly passed away.

After everything we had been through with my dad I thought nothing could ever happen to my family again. But on the 25th January 2011, my mum was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma- a rare cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. I watched her go through countless chemotherapy, radiation, hallucinations, wake up in ICU. Having a parent with cancer just became part of my life, the idea that one day my mum would be cancer free gave peace to my mind, but somewhere deep down I knew it was long journey to go. We were told she’d have two months on the 22nd March 2012 when my brave mother decided to stop all treatment and spend what quality time she had left at home with her loved ones. She knew in her heart that no matter how many more needles they stick into her that she was terminal and that it was her time. 13 days later, on the 4th of April, my amazing mother sadly passed away at our home surrounded by her family and friends whom she loved.
 
I didn’t have as much time with my dad as I’d had with my mum. When my dad passed I wasn’t subject to thinking about every detail in the future and how his death would affect my life. But with mum it was a totally different thing because I was a teenager. Although I had a warning, I knew it was still going to hurt. I was not only grieving the fact that she was going to die but was also dealing with the loss of our future together — her being there on my wedding day and becoming a grandma. The warning didn’t necessarily lessen the pain of losing our mother-daughter bond and my only parent but being told she’d have two months left really bought everything into perspective and made me appreciate every aspect of life. That’s one thing that I always think about; that it shouldn’t take your mum to tell you she has cancer and two months left to live in order to tell her how much you love and thank her everyday for everything she has done and to appreciate everything around you.
 
How often do you experience surges of grief and how do you manage these? Where do you find peace?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that grief isn’t a period of time that you pinpoint, experience, and then move on from. I’ve learnt that I’ll always be grieving the death of my parents, but over time can learn how to deal with it in a better way. I can never predict when I’ll experience surges of grief. It’ll catch me at the most random of times, for example, I’ll be driving and suddenly remember a memory and burst out into tears. I’ve learnt that everyone deals with grief in their own way and that if you fight your feelings, you will only make things worse for yourself. So now when I need to cry I will and when I need time alone I’ll have it. I also remind myself often that it’s okay not being strong all the time, that I can breakdown and that it’s normal. After all of this I think of a really happy memory, smile and say to myself, “Okay until next time” and continue with what I was previously doing, which I guess can be kind of weird but that’s just the how I manage my grieving.

I believe that peace is a really hard concept to define. I think that there’s a huge misconception about what it is. I think people believe that peace is something that when you have it, you’re suddenly enlightened and your set for the rest of your life. But in my opinion I believe that peace is a constant struggle. Some days you feel you have it and you feel really great but on other days you don’t and you feel really down. But peace for me means having those moments where you say to yourself “I’m going to be okay, I’m happy right now and that might change tomorrow and that’s okay, but for now I’m happy and I’m going to embrace it”. Peace for me nowadays is in the simplest of things and I believe in living for those simple things in life. Like someone picking up your pen that you dropped to someone unexpectedly making you smile and laugh. That is where I find peace; when I’m happy. And some people may read that and think that’s a really weird way of finding peace and that’s okay, but for me that is what puts a smile on my face and brings me peace. But in a spiritual perception, I know its cliché but I do find peace in natural beauty — sunrises and sunsets, starts and birds flying in the sky. I also really do believe that music has the ability to help anyone go through any situation or stage in life they’re in and that it can help him or her on the road to recovery. I’d recommend the artist Matt Corby to anyone. Music like his really soothes the mind and soul and get generally put you in a better mood and can help with one’s mind finding peace. But I know that finding peace is different for every one; it’s something I believe that you find on your own terms in your own time in life.

I also believe we write our own stories, and each time we think we know something, we don’t. Perhaps peace exists somewhere between the world of learning how to grieve and actually grieving and that in peace comes from knowing that you just can’t know it all. Life is funny that way. Once you let go of the wheel, you might end up where you belong.

Are you able to talk openly to your friends about what you have been through?

I am now at a point in my life where I can talk about what I’ve been through. If anyone, not just my friends, were to ask me I would openly tell them. I never want what has happened to me affect the conversations I have with people. I don’t want them to feel like they need to walk on seashells around me or avoid anything to do with my parents so I try and incorporate memories of my mum and dad into relevant conversations. I believe in finding the light in every situation no matter how dark it is. Just because both my parents have passed doesn’t mean their memories have too. Spirits not only stay alive just by thinking about them; I believe it’s by talking and sharing stories about them. I believe that everyone is born with the ability to change someone’s life for the better so as vulnerable as my past is, if it can help or connect anyone to a similar situation then it’s totally worth opening up about.

You currently live happily with your aunty. What can others learn from how your aunty acts towards you?

It’s really uncanny because living with my aunty was something I originally I never expected or wanted. Two months after my mum passed I made a decision to move out because I could no longer live with my mum’s partner whom she had married 5 months before she passed. I expressed how I was feeling to two of my close family friends on a Sunday in July and the next day I packed my suitcase and hand bag, shoved everything I could into both and without him knowing I moved in with a family friend. I was living with her and her daughter for six weeks and it was so great but I knew I had to figure out my next move. This ended up being my aunty’s house where I am now with two of my cousins. I’ve never looked back after making that decision and have never been happier.

I can’t pinpoint how my Aunty has helped me but I know that she is a major reason for where I am today. She always lets me know that she is there for me no matter what and would support me in any decision I make. My aunty also gave me all the time in the world; to find my own ground and get back up on my own two feet. I think that’s important for others to realise, that people will heal in their own way and time and that it shouldn’t feel forced. Something important as well that I really want to express is that no matter how much advice you have offered to you and no matter how many times someone tries to help you in their own way, that it’s important to remember that advice that has worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you. I believe that in time you find your own way of dealing with things so you should not get frustrated when you’re struggling. Also, at the end of the day no one can heal yourself but you. Advice from others can only go so far,  it’s you that has to make the decision to keep moving. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re your own person and you are finding your place in this world and if that means taking all the time in the world then so be it. I also believe it’s important to recognise that you can’t help what has happened to you in the past, but you decide where to go in future; that you are not the mistakes, the downfalls- you are what you choose to be today and how you treat the people around you. My aunty really helped me come to this understanding and I hope it’s something that more people become conscious of.

Alex1

Michelle Linn-Gust

Michelle Linn-Gust is an American author and speaker on coping with grief following suicide. Having lost her younger sister Denise at the age of 21, Michelle offers advice to bereaved youth and shares how she responds to the inevitable get to know you question: “Do you have siblings?”

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MichelleWhat kind of relationship did you two have?
We were like friends. We shared a room for ten years; we knew everything about each other although we probably wouldn’t have admitted that had we’d been asked. We fought like friends do, too, but we were trying to grow up under the same roof and learn who we were supposed to be in the world.

What’s one of your fondest memories with her?
Family vacations exploring the motel swimming pools.

What were the circumstances that led to her death?
She was bulimic, depressed, and had been date raped.

You were only 21 when she passed away. What was it like to experience this loss at such a young age?
For a period of time I felt like my future was taken away. My sister was the last person I expected to end her life. It took me some processing to return to a place where I saw my future and hope again.

What have been your biggest challenges since her death, and how have you overcome these?
My biggest challenge was going on despite my sister not being in my life in the same way. I had always been so focused on my dreams and some of them got put aside because of her death. One of them was writing fiction which had been a dream since I was I was six. I ended up doing a lot of work in the suicide field but I picked up my fiction again several years ago because I know that my sister would want me to fulfill my dreams. She would say, “I appreciate all that you’ve done for the suicide bereaved but don’t forget the dreams you had before I died.”

How do you get your friends to understand what you are feeling?
I didn’t need to. They were great. They asked, even years later, how I was doing. If they didn’t want part of it, they drifted out of my life.

How do you respond when people ask if you have siblings?
I never minded saying that one had died but now I find it harder only because the discussion turns to my suicide work and I want to talk about all the other things I’m doing, not her death. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I have a great life and she’s still with me. No one has asked recently but now I’d probably say I had three siblings since she still with me. I won’t act like she never existed so I would be truthful if they asked where they live: Illinois and Heaven.

How has your grief changed over the years?
My grief has changed a lot. I don’t believe grief is a lifelong journey like I used to. I thought I would never be the person I was before she died but I know now that at my core I am still that Michelle and I try to honor that person by doing the things that were important to me then- my writing and also learning to surf.

You went on to coach high school students. What advice do you have for young people affected by grief?
The world is still your oyster. Life is short but great. Don’t let this derail you. Your loved one is still with you and wants you to be happy.

You have also written several books. How has writing impacted your recovery?
It probably has in ways that I don’t realize since I’ve done so much writing and speaking about it. Recently someone told me that not everyone gets the chance to immerse themselves into grief and this kind of education. I won’t ever really know the answer to that, I just know what has been my life and that I’ve made the most of experiences handed to me.

Hayley Carr

Hayley Carr is a 9 time World Champion Martial Artist. Currently working as a life coach, the Sydney native lost her close friend Jem in a snowboarding accident 10 months ago.

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Hayley CarrTell us about Jem.

Jem was the kind of guy you would never expect to die. A legend among friends. The most alive person I’ve ever met, and the most passionate person about life I have ever known. One of my favourite people on the Earth. He was different though. When I describe him like that, most would picture someone very extroverted, outgoing, possibly loud… none of those were his ‘known-for’ qualities.
Jem was an old-soul, with a passion for romancing every moment in life, snowboarding, making a great coffee, chatting philosophy and music, and well-known for not only being able to pull off any outfit he ever chose to wear, but being a well-respected gentlemen. Especially to his mother.
The best thing about him though, was everyone felt like they were his best friend. You could sit in front of him, and talk, and you would feel like you were the only person that existed on earth. He had a gift for making you feel like you had a sign around your neck that said “make me feel special”.
We met when I started working at the cafe with him, and became friends instantly. He took on a big-brother role to me, and we would shout movie-quotes at each other over the counter, and leave motivational quotes for each other on the bench at the start of our shifts. What a legend he was!

What’s your favourite memory with him?

Back in the day when we worked together, he had to often go home early on big nights out because he had to open the café the next day. Then one night when everyone was out in Sydney city, and I was feeling particularly tired, he decided we were having an all-nighter. Due to my constant banter, I felt like I had to live up to his expectations, and we ended up being the only two who stayed out late, almost to prove to one another we weren’t soft when we had to work the next day. It was one of the most hillarious nights I ever had. It got to 3:30am and as we sat in the gutter on the street eating a kebab, we decided it was all or nothing from that point forward. We would either go home and end up respectable the next day, or let loose and see where the rest of the night took us. Of course we coaxed each other into the latter. So off we went, sneaking into all kinds of bars and nightclubs with different stories, clearing dance-floors so he could show me his moves, and at one point at about 6am we started telling people we were professional dancers from out of town, and started making up salsa moves in a tiny club as the sun was coming up – we thought we were amazing! We ended up getting home around midday the next day, after catching a train and both falling asleep and missing our stop by a long shot. Going to work later that day was a killer, but we were laughing so much about all the antics that happened it made it all worthwhile.

How old were you when Jem died and what were the circumstances surrounding his death?

Jem passed away last year in August – I was 26 years old. He died in a sudden and shocking snowboarding accident – his favourite thing to do – it completely rocked everyone.

What were some challenges you faced afterwards and how did you overcome them?

I faced the same challenges as everyone, dealing with the fact that there were things unsaid, he wasn’t coming back, and he was such a big presence in everyone’s life. (No matter how long it had been since people had seen him or how far away he was – there was space for 800 people at his funeral, and people were flowing out the doors – like I said, he was everyone’s best friend.) Also, how he died was so horrible, and so stressful for his best friend who was with him at that moment, it was excruciating to think about how everyone else was dealing with it too. There were a lot of wonderful people who were so upset.
The way I dealt with it was how I deal with everything – I wanted to find a way to live on in his honour, and so I asked myself, “what have I learnt from this?’ The answer was, “we live in minutes, Don’t waste a single one holding back or being unhappy or complacent.” I think many of us got the same lesson. Many of his friends have had huge changes in their life since his passing, and we all feel like he’s with us in our own way. I left a 6-year relationship with someone who I was madly in love with, but unhappy, gave away most of my possessions and have started living a nomadic lifestyle. I would never have had the courage to do this right now if this lesson did not hit me so hard and fast. I also re-kindled friendships that had faded that were really important to me, and now I feel more alive than ever. Today I focus on being so grateful for every moment of my life, and I never forget for a moment the lesson that Jem gave me. I know that it’s quite morbid to think in this way, but it makes me feel like in some way he will never die.

Were you able to talk openly about your friend and your feelings with those around you?

Absolutely. Jeremy’s friends who I hung out with when I was working at the cafe are some of the most amazing people. I hadn’t seen them all for a number of years, and instantly they were so welcoming, caring, thoughtful and open to everyone. They all opened their homes and their hearts so everyone could be together and support one another. It was a really special time.

What helps you to heal?

Spending time in nature. A few weeks after Jem died, I took myself away for a weekend and spent time in nature. I’m always reminded of the cycles of life, and how amazing it is, and feel revived and closer to my spirit when I do.

How has this experience influenced you in your adult life?

I will never forget that powerful time in my life, and I truly believe the course of my life has shifted so beautifully because of it. It’s still so sad that this is the reason why, however this is the way it is. It’s a deep appreciation everyday for the moments we keep.

You have studied neuro-linguistic programming and currently work as a life coach, specialising in peak performance, confidence, health and lifestyle. What advice do you have for young people who have experienced a loss?

Loss teaches us.
It is OK to feel completely sad, and lost.
I chose to believe that there is no such thing as forever, and no such thing as failure, but we can always learn from everything; And once you learn, you can never un-learn.
If you have experienced a loss in your life, don’t hide the feelings that come up, just let them be.
In time, you will be ready to move forward, and when you are, ask yourself what you learnt from all this?
The quality of your life is dependent on the meaning you make of things.
If you can take everything that happens to you as feedback form the universe, you will find positive purpose, meaning and gratitude for everything that occurs in your life, and use it for your highest good.
All in good time.