Shaped by a painful past: navigating a father’s suicide

The devastating loss of a parent through suicide is a tragedy that is life-changing in so many ways. For those who mourn there are guilt and shame and an overwhelming sense of abandonment and betrayal.

In Australia, it is the fathers who are taking their own lives. Men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. The second highest rates of suicide are among men in their middle years (i.e. 40-54 years)

Julian Leeser, Member for Berowra, recounted the suicide of his father in his maiden speech in parliament. He said it was 20 years ago this month that he learnt his father was gone. As reality hit, he felt a great emptiness ripping at his stomach.

The police located his father’s body at the bottom of The Gap at Watsons Bay.

Leeser said in his speech,

“Suicide, they used to say, is a victimless crime, but they never count the loved ones left behind.

In the past 20 years, we have changed our approach to suicide, depression, and mental health.

And while there has been a focus on the mental health of adolescents and young people, we must remember that people suffering at other stages in their lives are also important.

And sadly the number of older people taking their own lives is increasing – my own father was fifty-five.”

Leeser said by disclosing details about his father’s suicide to Parliament, he hoped to spark a wider conversation about depression and mental health leading to change. He identified two ways of improving suicide prevention.

  1. We need to rebuild caring communities where people know and notice the signs and acknowledge the people around them.
  2. We need to create the conditions where those who are thinking about suicide feel comfortable enough to ask for help.

I recently attended a viewing of the movie, “Sully – the untold story behind the miracle on the Hudson.”

After logging more than 20,000 hours of flight time, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III became internationally renowned on January 15, 2009, when he and his crew guided US Airways Flight 1549 to an emergency water landing in New York City’s frigid Hudson River. The Airbus A320’s two engines had lost thrust following a bird strike.

What is less known is the other defining event in Sullenberger’s life.

“I was 44 when my father took his life on December 7, 1995. I still remember it was a Thursday. Until then, I knew only that he had his dark days, but not the depths to which he was pulled. He had just been discharged from the hospital after major surgery and, facing a long convalescence at home, perhaps he thought he was being noble by sparing my mother the burden of caring for him. It may never have occurred to him that she was the one left to find him, to call 911 and to clean up the bedroom where he shot himself. He left no note. Like many with depression, he had become inwardly focused, unable to consider the consequences of his actions on others. For me, there was shock, disbelief — and anger. I had young children. How could he remove himself from watching them grow up?”

Sullenberger believes the challenges associated with his father’s suicide made him stronger and prepared him for the event that made him famous.

He said, “Because I couldn’t save my father, I did everything I could to save everyone on that flight.”

Sullenberger has some sage advice to offer those committed to reducing suicide rates. He believes an essential part of human nature, and society as a whole, is shared responsibility.

“In our society, we have obligations. It is part of being a civilised society,” he said, adding one of those obligations is helping those in need overcome the obstacles in the paths of their lives.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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