Surviving Trauma and Loss

“Family violence happens to everybody, no matter how nice your house is or how intelligent you are. It happens to everyone.”

Rosie Batty

Rosie Batty received the Australian of the Year Award in January 2015. In her acceptance speech, she showed grace and humility. There was no doubting her courage and insight. Her pain was palpable. But I was fearful she would find the demands of sharing her harrowing story over and over again, psychologically damaging and emotionally draining. I questioned whether she was giving herself a safe space to grieve.

I know something about grief. I lost my son, Adam, to suicide in 2011. It is the anniversary of his death today and yet I still wrestle with grief.

Grief doesn’t play fair. It can grab hold of you when you least expect it. It can embarrass you, humiliate you, and knock you down. It is complex, an intricate web of thoughts and emotions that resist any attempt to categorise, to tidy up, to make presentable.

My reaction to Rosie’s compelling story of trauma and loss took me by surprise. Her book ‘A Mother’s Story’ spoke to me on many levels. It stirred my emotions. Feelings of anger, frustration, fear, pain, compassion and sadness stirred within me. I felt torn between hope and despair.

We returned to Australia in 1997, having lived in New Zealand for 11 years. Mum had died several months earlier. She was insistent that the house in Central Avenue, Tyabb be ‘kept’ for us. We were grateful to have somewhere ‘familiar’ to live.

Our three boys played cricket and football for Tyabb and our youngest son attended Flinders Christian College. When Rosie spoke of Tyabb and its’ surrounds, I understood. I had been there. I knew the vista of Westernport Bay she spoke of. I had shopped at the IGA supermarket on the corner. I had walked the dusty gravel road to the Tyabb Football Ground.

On Christmas Day, after a traditional Christmas dinner, the boys and I would drive the short distance to the cricket nets at the Tyabb oval to burn up some energy and test our skills. It was fiercely competitive in a benign way. We never imagined that one of our own would be so burdened by life that they would choose to end it. And we certainly didn’t foresee the drama that would unfold in the practice nets. It was unthinkable that it would become the scene of a violent and opportunistic murder by a father intent on ending the life of his only son.

Surviving trauma and loss requires an awareness of certain realities.

Let us begin by considering the nature of criticism. Criticism can be constructive or corrosive.

Constructive criticism builds up while corrosive criticism is intended to harm. Constructive criticism is a form of evaluation, a personal appraisal of performance, an honest review of services provided.

Corrosive criticism aims to dismantle and destroy. It is hurtful and is a common element in many examples of domestic violence. It can also affect those touched by suicide.

Survivors of trauma and loss need to recognise that

1. Not everyone will understand

Rosie received criticism for not removing herself from an abusive situation. Those that stand in judgment fail to understand just how difficult it is to extricate oneself and start over. This is a huge undertaking, requiring significant reserves of physical and emotional energy as well as the finances to make it possible. In Rosie’s case, she also had the needs of her son to consider.   

What is even more disturbing is the perception that Rosie’s inaction somehow caused Luke’s death.  This is an injustice and ignores Rosie’s unflinching commitment to seeing Luke had the best life possible which included having access to his troubled father. After all, it was something Luke wanted.

When our son Adam died there was pressure from within and without to explain why he had chosen to take his life. In thinking about these matters there is no avoiding the inner critic which is relentless in its judgment, asserting the inadequacy of your actions and pointing to your guilt.

Over the ensuing years, I have come to a better understanding of some of the factors that may have contributed to Adam’s inner turmoil.

I don’t know how other people regarded his death or whether they thought we could have done more to prevent it? I know I have wrestled with what we might have done differently. But none of this can bring Adam back.

2. Evaluation provides clarification

When you lose someone you love, particularly in tragic circumstances, it is inevitable that there will be moments of introspection. It will cause a weighing up of the factors that led to their death, an examination of the part you played, and a consideration of the influence you had on their life, whether positive or negative.  

If the person was struggling with mental health issues the situation is even more complex. People who care for vulnerable people cling to the hope that someone in authority, whether the legal or medical profession, will see the nature of the person’s difficulties and offer support. They might even recognise the need to put some strategies in place.

It seems incredulous that someone like Greg, whose issues were there for all to see, wasn’t referred to a health professional for a psychiatric assessment and was never provided with a workable treatment plan. Rosie longed for someone to step up and relieve her of some of the burden of responsibility that threatened to crush her.

Greg was a part of Rosie’s life for many years. His behaviour was erratic, his moods unpredictable. His actions were often overridden by a desire to maintain power and control. He exploited Rosie’s caring nature, he manipulated her belief in fairness, and he employed physical and verbal threats to intimidate and confuse. Rosie often felt that she couldn’t rely on the police, the court system, child protection services, or the medical profession to shield Luke and her from Greg’s outbursts. Those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring her safety failed her.

We first became aware of the seriousness of Adam’s situation when he was voluntarily admitted to the Acute Mental Health Unit at the Frankston Hospital. We didn’t know his whereabouts for several days. When we learned of his admission we were somewhat relieved. We hoped this might be a turning point and Adam might get the help he required.

Even now I am confused about what support staff were endeavouring to achieve. I saw no evidence to suggest that they had tried to understand how Adam was thinking about life. We initiated a family conference, hoping that we might be given some guidance about how to support Adam. Instead, the line of enquiry explored events in his life that might have contributed to his mental instability.

When Adam was discharged he was given medication he had no intention of taking, a tentative diagnosis of schizophrenia, a rating that placed him at the low end of risk for suicide, and a follow-up schedule that offered little in the way of supervision. The fact that my request to be present when Adam was discharged was ignored seemed to epitomise the lack of due process and further highlighted the weaknesses in the treatment of people struggling with mental health issues. I felt angry and let down that no effort was made to include us in Adam’s treatment plan, that is, if he had one.

If we are to reduce the incidence of trauma and loss, particularly in relation to domestic violence and suicide, there is one thing we all can do.

Take declarations of intent seriously.

There are ‘red flag’ moments in any relationship under siege, where the levels of anxiety and stress are severe. Red flag moments are a warning, prompting a redefining of boundaries. Red flag moments are a call for increased vigilance and a heightened awareness of risk.

For Rosie Batty, it was the incident that occurred in Greg’s car which Luke later shared with her.

“We were in the car and I was playing on my iPad and he was praying, then he pulled out a knife and said, ‘It could all end with this. Cain has spoken.’”

“He said he was tired of this life and wanted to go to the next life,” Luke continued. “And he said he wanted me to go with him.”

It is wrong to assume ‘religious people won’t kill.’ Sometimes the allure of the next life can distort reality and justify acts of violence towards themselves and others. When this life begins to unravel and lose its appeal, it is not unusual to feel lost and alone. A belief in the afterlife promises a new start, unshackled from the burdens of this life. A disturbed mind might consider this a reasonable option.

I know Adam sought assurance at different times that God’s love, mercy and forgiveness extended to those who took the life of another. I assume he wanted to know where he stood with God were he to take his own life.

Adam’s ‘red flag’ moment wasn’t a dramatic declaration of intent but was equally revelatory. Following his admission to the Acute Mental Health Unit Adam was consistent in his view that his issues were ‘spiritual.’ Whilst he tolerated the interventions of mental health professionals he wasn’t committed to them. He had no intention of persisting with the medication he had been prescribed. A medical solution wasn’t on his radar. Adam believed that he had to resolve the issues he was facing alone. This made it difficult for us to get close to him and to understand his thinking.

Red flag moments should activate targeted interventions. They are a reality check, telling us we need a strategy to deal with this new development, a response that reflects the seriousness of the threat.

Whilst it is easy to be wise after the event I would like to suggest ways both crises could have been handled.

In Greg’s case, the safety of Luke was paramount. Greg should never have been allowed to be alone with Luke. It was unfair to expect Rosie to manage access visits. There were two reasonable options: either ‘supervised’ access or no access. No access includes any contact by social media.

Adam would have benefitted from an approach that respected his understanding of the personal challenges he was dealing with. There are three elements to this strategy: biblical counselling, peer support, and a changed living situation, to help negate feelings of isolation and loneliness.

“There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t miss Luke. And it’s a pain that can be triggered by the most mundane things.”  

Rosie Batty

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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