The 4am call that changed my life
Warning: This content contains sensitive content
IT WAS Grand Final eve 2008 and my wife and I were headed to Tarrawingee outside Wangaratta, in Victoria's northeast, for a weekend with our closest friends. Our two children, my son Liam and his younger sister Lynsey were like siblings to our Tarra friends and their two daughters. The kids' lives had run very parallel from birth.
Liam was headed out the following day to join mates for a Grand Final day BBQ, as a father, my parting words to him were "be safe", while my wife grabbed Liam by the head as he was draped on the couch, told him she loved him and then kissed him for the last time.
A 4am phone call to Tarrawingee woke us, it was our daughter Lynsey. Liam had suicided and his sister had found him.
I discovered I can still drive a car for two and a half hours with tears streaming down my face and my hands trembling. The only things I remember thinking on that torturous drive home were 'why' and 'how could Liam do this to his sister?'.
Where had this come from? Should we have been more aware when Liam became introverted and less communicative? Why hadn't we acted upon his apparent depression? Why didn't we insist he continue playing basketball with his ex-school mates? What had prompted his excessive drinking and risk taking behaviour? We now know that any or all of these were signs that Liam may have been struggling.
Except … our son never displayed any of these symptoms.
It never occurred to any of us that Liam would ever consider suicide. There was no history of mental health concerns, there was no substance abuse. He was loved and respected by his family and friends, he had a strong social conscience developed over the years we lived in Bangkok. He loved the live music scene, often introducing his friends to up and coming acts. He was in the final months of his Biomedical Sciences degree and had recently been offered an Honours year to study Immunology at Melbourne Uni and had committed to an around the world trip with a close friend. He had everything to live for and yet nothing could have prepared us for this devastating and unexpected loss.
We considered ourselves a happy, well-functioning family who communicated regularly, so when we heard that our nephew, Liam's cousin, had attempted to take his life, we were incredulous as to how this could happen. We were told it was his 'cry for help', but that he was okay now. And I am pleased to say the he is still with us today.
However as a family we never discussed this event. We never asked the question of our children, how are you? Are you okay? We didn't need to, there were no signs of sadness or depression. Our lives rolled on.
So when Liam took his life, for me there was devastating sadness, denial and tears to the point of not being able to breathe, however the most overpowering emotion was of guilt and the inevitable personal trial that followed.
How did I not see this? Why didn't he talk to me? Did his friends see any signs? Was he under pressure at uni? Why didn't I have a closer relationship with my son?
When I was dealing with my own profound grief as well as supporting my wife and daughter, the last thing I wanted to do was to make significant decisions and deal with others. Visiting the morgue was traumatic, then contacting funeral directors, organising a service with his school's chaplain, locating a venue, decisions about a burial or cremation, interviews with police.
Even having to deal with relatives and friends; it was all too hard but all too necessary.
Imperative among the many elements of my role as a parent is to keep my child safe and I had failed. I had failed his mother, I failed his sister and I failed Liam. I have lived with this guilt for a very long time.
While my wife sought support agencies to help her manage her grief, I felt I needed to throw myself back into work as a primary school principal, needing to occupy my mind to minimise the many hours there can be thinking about and analysing the loss.
I could see no point in seeking counselling, in sharing my heartbreak with someone who did not know me, did not know my family nor my son and so I struggled on.
Upon finishing my tenure as an Acting Principal I decided to retire but knew that I couldn't remain at home on my own with my thoughts, waking each day in our family home, surrounded by reminders of a once complete family but knowing that Liam would never walk through the front door.
I found myself a teaching job at an international school in Malaysia for two years which would mean that when my contract finished, my wife would retire also, and I would not be at home alone.
In hindsight, and while I did not think it at the time, it was the most selfish thing I could have done. I deserted the two most important people in my life in their time of need.
The definition of stigma is: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. The stigma associated with suicide can cause guilt, embarrassment, blame, negativity and misunderstanding, and as a consequence can paralyse the necessity to draw the issue of suicide out of the shadows. But how do you start?
It has taken my involvement with others bereaved by suicide to understand that I should not hold the guilt for the loss of my son, that I need to recognise I did not have all the evidence and therefore could not have foreseen the tragic outcome and that everyone's grief is unique. But I still have my moments of personal doubt.
Through my involvement with Support After Suicide I have discovered there are many in our communities who have lived experience of suicide. By definition, lived experience embraces those who have any experience around suicide whether linked to bereavement, attempt or thoughts of.
In Victoria twice as many of our community die by suicide than are lost to the road toll.
Statistically people touched by suicide in some way are four times more likely to attempt to take their own life.
Nationally seven people per day die by suicide - that is 2,400 individuals whose impact throughout their communities can be massively overwhelming.
My son Liam was 20 years old when he took his life. The ripple effect of that suicide had a devastating impact on my wife and daughter, our friends, Liam's extended family of uncles, cousins and aunts, his uni colleagues, the students, the tutors and professors; his basketball teammates and his high school buddies.
I try to find solace in the many wonderful memories of our time as a family. Basketball wins and losses, holidays in the camper driving around Australia, standing before his primary school assembly listening to him recite Days by the Ocean, always leading the bush walks with his sister, encouraging us to scuba dive in Thailand, his creative drawings that now adorn the bodies of his sister, cousin and uncle.
I see my grief like the sand in an oyster. It is painful, but over time a layer builds and builds and eventually a pearl is formed and I have learnt to live with that pearl of grief.
My purpose is to bring the incidence of suicide into the light, to accept that it is a complex issue, but it is preventable. I want us to overcome the stigma associated with suicide by beginning and continuing this necessary conversation.
We all have a responsibility to listen to people. We need to find the compassion and willingness to care about ourselves and others
Can I challenge you to a wider conversation for you to have with yourself, your family, your friends and colleagues. For it is only through bringing suicide into the light that we can begin to address those who need our help and understanding.
My name is Marcus Ward; I am Liam's father and this is a part of my lived experience story.
- Marcus Ward is husband to Noelene, father of two Liam (dec) and Lynsey. He is a retired primary school principal, and an active member of Macedon Ranges Suicide Prevention Action Group - Peer Support After Suicide member.
- Donations can be made to Live4Life to keep the organisation rolling out across Victoria
- If you or someone you know needs support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.