Sib­lings left be­hind

The WHEN A CHILD DIES IN TRAGIC CIR­CUM­STANCES, THE FO­CUS IS OF­TEN ON THE PAR­ENTS. BUT HOW DOES A BE­REAVED BROTHER OR SIS­TER RE­BUILD THEIR LIFE? “I called Triple Zero, then I had to call Mum and Dad... Mum dropped the phone in shock; all I could hear was t

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Joe Hildebrand - By AN­GELA MOLLARD

Stephanie My­ers was just 13 years old when she dis­cov­ered her sis­ter had taken her own life in the back gar­den. She had come home from school with a friend and when she couldn’t find 17-year-old Vicki in the house, she wan­dered out to the yard. The hor­ror of the scene will stay with her for­ever.

“I found her down the back and yelled at her to open her eyes and wake up, but she didn’t,” re­calls My­ers. “I rang Triple Zero, then I had to call Mum and Dad who were both at work. I screamed down the phone to Mum, ‘Vicki has com­mit­ted sui­cide.’ Mum dropped the phone in shock and all I could hear was the sounds of her howl­ing.”

Four­teen years have passed since that day, but My­ers re­mem­bers ev­ery de­tail: what her sis­ter was wear­ing; how her dad said he’d be home in 10 min­utes then hung up; how the fe­male po­lice of­fi­cer who at­tended was so deeply af­fected.

When a child or teenager dies in tragic cir­cum­stances, of­ten the fo­cus is on the par­ents. But what of the sib­lings who are left be­hind? How do they cope? How do they re­build their lives when the per­son grow­ing up along­side them is sud­denly gone?

Ear­lier this year, the death of Stu­art Kelly was a head­line no one wanted to be­lieve. Four years af­ter his el­der brother Thomas died fol­low­ing a one-punch at­tack in Syd­ney’s Kings Cross, Kelly, 18, took his own life. A year ear­lier, the teenager had re­vealed he car­ried “a deep scar you can­not see”.

The na­tion shiv­ered in sor­row at his death. To lose one son… and then an­other. Those poor par­ents. But as we’ve dis­cov­ered from speak­ing to the young men and women who lost a si­b­ling sud­denly and trag­i­cally, their lives are also pro­foundly changed on those fate­ful days.

My­ers, 27, who’s now a mum her­self, says she was deeply sad­dened by the death of Stu­art Kelly. “It broke my heart be­cause I un­der­stood ex­actly what he was feel­ing. I couldn’t stop cry­ing be­cause that could’ve been me. Af­ter Vicki’s death I so of­ten thought about tak­ing my life, but I couldn’t do it to my­self or who­ever found me.”

While she knows her par­ents did the best they could fol­low­ing the tragedy, My­ers re­mem­bers feel­ing deeply alone in her grief. “My el­dest sis­ter Liz was 21 and she moved out to get mar­ried not long af­ter Vicki died. I’d hear Mum cry­ing most nights and Dad would be up un­til late, just sit­ting there.”

While My­ers saw a grief coun­sel­lor in the first year af­ter her sis­ter’s death, noth­ing could ease the sense that her child­hood had ended that day. Hav­ing al­ways been a happy kid, she stopped see­ing friends and started skip­ping school. “Ev­ery­one knew what I’d been through so they were easy on me,” she says. “There were no bound­aries, which prob­a­bly wasn’t a good thing.”

Two years af­ter Vicki died, My­ers be­gan self-harm­ing. “I just wanted the pain to go away and I thought if

I hurt my­self, I’d feel that pain in­stead of what was hurt­ing in­side me.” One day her mother saw a cut on her arm and both she and sis­ter Liz con­fronted her. “They came into my room and broke down in tears. They were so up­set with what I’d done, but for the first time I felt like some­one was notic­ing that I wasn’t cop­ing.”

The per­fect storm of grief and pu­berty had hit My­ers hard. Why had her sis­ter left her? Why hadn’t she told her fam­ily she’d loved them in the note she left? Why was there a sui­cide sup­port group for her par­ents but noth­ing for sib­lings? As she says: “I wanted to talk to other kids who had lost some­one; to talk to some­one my own age.”

While fur­ther coun­selling helped, Vicki’s death con­tin­ues to have a rip­ple ef­fect through My­ers’s life. For years she has bat­tled anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, but is cur­rently man­ag­ing with­out med­i­ca­tion. In many ways My­ers, who lives in Syd­ney, is an­grier now than when her sis­ter died. Her sis­ter’s choice, she says, has im­pacted not only her per­son­ally, but also her mar­riage and her abil­ity to be the mother she yearns to be.

Her hus­band Nathan “some­times doesn’t un­der­stand the way I am”, she says qui­etly. And then there are her girls – Is­abel, six, and April, two – who can’t un­der­stand why their mum some­times seems so sad. “I feel in­com­pe­tent at times and when I’m up­set or anx­ious I don’t feel I can be left alone with the kids be­cause I can’t cope.” She pauses for a mo­ment: “When some­one com­mits sui­cide they may take their own pain away, but they put it on ev­ery­one else.”

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to the char­ity Wings of Hope, a shock­ing 65 per cent of those be­reaved by sui­cide are more likely to at­tempt sui­cide them­selves, and 80 per cent are more likely to drop out of school or work.

For­tu­nately, it’s her chil­dren who have gal­vanised My­ers to get bet­ter. She’s back play­ing the net­ball she loved as a child and reg­u­lar gym ses­sions help her cope. Af­ter a pe­riod of un­em­ploy­ment she’s work­ing as a job-search trainer, a role which makes her feel pur­pose­ful and com­pe­tent. And there are up­sides, she smiles. She and her el­dest sis­ter Liz are won­der­fully close. “When­ever I’m with her I never feel alone,” she says.

The sud­den death of a teenager ric­o­chets through fam­i­lies in ways you can’t pre­dict. There are sto­ries of de­voted cou­ples di­vorc­ing, of teens end­ing up on drugs and in prison, of home­less­ness.

But per­haps the most heart­break­ing story was Stel­lar’s con­ver­sa­tion with Paul Stan­ley, whose 15-year-old son Matthew was fa­tally punched out­side a party in Bris­bane in 2006.

When asked if he could put us in touch with his younger son Nick, who cel­e­brated his 12th birth­day just hours be­fore Matthew died, Stan­ley couldn’t help. “I haven’t spo­ken to Nick for two and a half years, and he doesn’t want to speak to me,” he says.

Stan­ley ad­dresses thou­sands of school chil­dren a year as part of Queensland’s One Punch Can Kill pro­gram, but he no longer talks to his own son. Look­ing back, he wishes he had han­dled things bet­ter. “At the time, no­body wanted to talk about Ni­cholas be­cause he was still there. In­stead, ev­ery­one wanted to talk about Matthew be­cause he wasn’t. Nick has suf­fered re­ally, re­ally badly and if I’d lis­tened bet­ter I may have picked up that things were wrong. It’s ter­ri­bly, ter­ri­bly sad.”

THE SIB­LINGS OF those who die in what be­come high-pro­file cases un­doubt­edly suf­fer on an added level. Azaria Cham­ber­lain’s three sib­lings have gone to great lengths to stay out of the lime­light while Brad Mor­combe, twin brother of Daniel, only re­cently spoke of his re­gret. Now a fa­ther him­self, Mor­combe, 26, told how he’d wished he’d gone with his brother when he begged him to go to the lo­cal shop­ping cen­tre.

Guilt colours Elissa Ian­netta’s mem­o­ries of her brother Anthony. The now 22-year-old was the sole sur­vivor of a road crash in Mel­bourne that killed five teenage boys, in­clud­ing her brother, in 2010. She lives with the knowl­edge he died pro­tect­ing her. “I was trapped for 90 min­utes in the car with my brother dead on top of me,” she says. “He’d pulled me into his lap when the car flew out of con­trol and all through that long wait I could feel his cold­ness and the stick­i­ness of the blood in his hair.”

For the next four years Ian­netta strug­gled. Grap­pling with grief and back pain, she be­came so de­pressed and anx­ious she needed med­i­ca­tion. Hav­ing al­ways been a tomboy who hung out with her big brother and his mates, she was sud­denly aim­less and crip­pled by so­cial anx­i­ety. At times she wanted to take her own life but knew she couldn’t do that to the brother who’d sac­ri­ficed him­self to save her.

In the end, strength of char­ac­ter pulled her through. “I had al­ways been a bub­bly per­son. I grew tired of feel­ing sorry for my­self and didn’t want to be in a cloud of black.” She be­gan med­i­tat­ing and go­ing to the gym. The gloom lifted and she de­cided to get her truck li­cence, hav­ing al­ways en­joyed ac­com­pa­ny­ing her dad on his driv­ing jobs. She’s worked for the past eight months driv­ing a con­crete mixer and loves it. “One of my big­gest fears is peo­ple, so when one of the guys in the yard started talk­ing to me I freaked, but I had no choice – I had to do this.”

Now liv­ing with her grand­par­ents af­ter her mum moved to Amer­ica, Ian­netta no longer drinks, pre­fer­ring to nour­ish her­self with ex­er­cise and med­i­ta­tion. She re­cently read Eck­hart Tolle’s The Power Of Now, which teaches how to live in the present. “I’ve never spent $30 on a book, but some­thing drew me to it and it’s re­ally help­ing.”

While tragedy frac­tures so many fam­i­lies, oth­ers rally in grief. Less than a year has passed since tal­ented water polo player Cole Miller was killed in a one-punch at­tack in Bris­bane, but the Miller fam­ily has coped by turn­ing both in­wards and out­wards. They look out for each other and ap­pear to have a re­newed ap­pre­ci­a­tion that life is pre­cious. As Cole’s brother Billy says: “There’s no rule book for grief and it’s hard to pick up the signs when some­one is hav­ing a tough time, but our fam­ily has been lucky – we’ve been able to bond to­gether and we’ve had so much out­side sup­port.”

The el­dest of the four Miller kids, the 28-year-old says the fam­ily took some comfort when Cole’s or­gans helped six oth­ers. “Mum had al­ways said we needed to state on record that we’d be or­gan donors, and we’d al­ways gone, ‘Yeah, yeah, noth­ing’s ever go­ing to hap­pen.’ But when it did, it gave us a small bit of hap­pi­ness in a bad mo­ment.”

The grief, he says, comes and goes in waves, but there is also the risk that it can be­come a repos­i­tory for other frus­tra­tions and chal­lenges. “It’s like a con­ta­gion, one mis­take hap­pens and then all your bad thoughts gain mo­men­tum and it be­comes easy to blame ev­ery­thing on grief.”

Ac­cept­ing that sad­ness comes with­out warn­ing – at work, in the shower – is dif­fi­cult, but rou­tines, ex­er­cise and talk­ing help, he says. “Men don’t talk about things enough, but talk­ing doesn’t make you a lesser per­son. Whether you chat with a mate over a cof­fee or get pro­fes­sional help, it’s im­por­tant to get the sup­port you need.”

The Millers re­cently cel­e­brated what would have been Cole’s 19th birth­day with a fam­ily meal, as if he’d still been here. Miller’s mum Mary-leigh trav­els down from the Sun­shine Coast to Bris­bane once a week to cook him din­ner and stay the night. It goes with­out say­ing that this first Christ­mas will be par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult with­out Cole.

There’s no se­cret to sur­viv­ing loss, but lis­ten­ing to Miller it’s clear that fam­ily sup­port, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, op­ti­mism and stay­ing in­volved in the world helps. On the day we spoke, he’d helped out at a water polo ju­nior club day and as­sisted in train­ing a LGBTI water polo team.

He says he’ll never stop feel­ing Cole’s loss, but he has to keep go­ing. “I just have to live the life I was go­ing to live if it hadn’t hap­pened,” he says. Lifeline 13 11 44. For those be­reaved by sui­cide, visit wing­sofhope.org.au.

TRAGIC LOSS Stephanie My­ers strug­gled to cope af­ter the death of her sis­ter Vicki (in­set, on right).

SUR­VIVOR GUILT Elissa Ian­netta was in the same hor­ror crash that killed her brother Anthony (in­set, with Elissa and their mother Rose Sutera).

NEVER FOR­GET Billy Miller wants to hon­our the mem­ory of his younger brother Cole (in­set, with Billy).

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