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
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.