Journalist Martin Scarsden, the central character in Chris Hammer’s bestselling novel ‘Scrublands’ is on assignment in Riversend, a small, isolated country town. He is to write a feature on how the community is surviving, twelve months after the most traumatic event in the town’s history – a mass shooting.
The town is under threat. Money is scarce. Businesses are closing. The oppressive drought conditions mirror the desolation felt by many of the residents.
Martin has worked previously in Asia and the Middle East where he witnessed dramatic events. His role was clearly defined. He was licensed by his profession to be both present and not present, standing apart, behind the cameras and the headlines, not in front of them, a voyeur with a notepad, the ghost in the room.
But something happened when he climbed into the boot of a Mercedes in Gaza. It had always puzzled him, even through the hours of counselling, why being abandoned in the Mercedes for three days had such a profound impact on him. It was accumulated stress, they told him, that he had seen and heard too much, and the experience in Gaza had tipped him over the edge.
This explanation didn’t sit well with Martin. He recognised the symptoms of post- traumatic stress. He knew he was a different person. He understood the challenges he contended with daily. But he was certain the cause was not stress related.
His contact with the people of Riversend brought these factors into sharper focus. He was able to understand why his life was falling apart. The narrator says,
“He knows now… The story was something that happened to other people; he was just there to report, an observer. And that all changed in Gaza. He became the story; it was happening to him… He was a participant, like it or not. Things no longer happened only to other people; some small part of their grief, or their joy, or their hollowness wore off on him, became part of him.”
Before Adam’s death, I had an awareness of suicide. I read about suicide in the media but never felt motivated to discuss the topic with anyone. I had never had cause to entertain thoughts of suicide and had no clear understanding of why someone would want to end their life.
Later in life, I worked as a disability employment consultant. Many of the people who accessed our service struggled with mental health issues. There were some who self-harmed.
Consultants were encouraged to complete ASIST Training, a two-day interactive workshop in suicide first aid. ASIST teaches participants to recognise when someone may have thoughts of suicide and work with them to create a plan that will support their immediate safety.
I recall participating in a role play where I was talking to someone who was struggling with the pressures of life. The purpose of the exercise was to encourage us to insert the question ‘Are you having suicidal thoughts?’ into the conversation. If the response was affirmative we had to develop a plan to keep the person safe.
Although I recognised the importance of the training I didn’t connect emotionally. By way of contrast, there was a woman attending the training who had recently lost a nephew to suicide. I observed that she was emotional at times and on one occasion excused herself from the room. For her, suicide wasn’t theoretical, it was personal and it cut deeply. Over time the scars would heal but they would remain tender to touch.
It is one thing to read about suicide but it is something else to find yourself in the storyline. And it is not the type of storyline you want to be part of. By implication, you are a player in the tragedy and by association, share some responsibility.
As a parent of an adult child who took their life, I can’t distance myself from their personal struggles and I can’t absolve myself of some responsibility for their actions.
It is the role of every parent to equip their children for life, to model love and acceptance, to teach them how to think and how to act. Parenting is about preparation, providing your children with the tools to not only survive but to prosper, whatever the circumstances of life.
As a result of my reading and study, I have come to a better understanding of the suicidal mind. I understand the confusion that comes from competing thoughts, I recognise the conviction that no one could possibly understand, I appreciate the feeling of being let down, and I can see how a diminished existence might cause you to question your sanity.
As a survivor of suicide loss, I share in the pain and confusion of the deceased. It falls to those who are left behind to carry the burden of loss and disappointment and to ponder what might have been.
Codger Harris is one of the more interesting country characters in the novel ‘Scrublands.’ He is something of a recluse, living alone in a shack out in the scrub. He farms cattle but there are no fences so the cattle wander in search of feed. It is later in the story that we learn of Codger’s past. He was a bank manager in Bellington. He lost his wife and son in a tragic motor vehicle accident. Codger says,
“The day my family died, the day the truck went off the road at Bellington, was the day my life stopped. The truck killed my wife Jessica and it killed my boy, Jonny. And it killed me inside. It still hurts; thirty years on it still hurts.”
Codger blamed himself for his loss. He believed he should have been with his family to protect them. If that proved impossible, he could have died with them. They were his life.
When we experience a tragedy, the death of a loved one to suicide or the loss of a family member in a motor vehicle accident, our life is altered forever. The pain and heartache may, as Codger discovered, last a lifetime. The challenge for all who have experienced significant loss is to go on living. In doing so, we honour those who have died for we are the custodians of all the love and laughter, sorrow and heartache, they brought to our lives. We hold the memories of their life and death close to our heart.
For more information on ASIST Training check out the information sheet below.