How do you live after your child commits suicide & you never saw it coming? A grieving parent reflects
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
Published in 2019 by Ethos Books, Loss Adjustment is a personal reflection by copy-editor Linda Collins on her journey with her husband, Malcolm McLeod, after their daughter, Victoria, committed suicide in 2014.
Collins, 60, works as a copy editor at the political desk of the Straits Times. McLeod is deputy picture editor at ST. 0
Victoria was their only child.
Three years after the incident occurred, Collins recounts her 17-year-old daughter’s suicide in this book, weaving in her daughter’s diary entries, personal memories and accounts from the people in her life.
Here, we reproduce a few excerpts from the book. You can purchase a copy of the book here.
By Linda Collins
It is three weeks after Vic’s death.
Routines are disrupted
There is no preparing breakfast for Victoria, ensuring that she eats some of it, and that she has brushed her teeth and got dressed.
No waiting at the front door to perform my goodbye ritual of tapping Vic’s backpack for luck and a “Bye, darling, love you,” as she runs down the steps to the school bus. No more will my pleas ring out for her to stop and tie her shoelaces properly.
Though I still get up at the same time. I am programmed to do so. And once Victoria is out the door, or rather, I imagine she is out the door, I go and wait at the living room window and pretend to watch the school bus pull up downstairs and enclose her.
I hear the sigh of its pneumatic door, and a clank. And I remain at the window, as I always used to do, for that one last glimpse of Victoria, which was her seated, silhouetted profile as the bus swooped away down the hill. “Bye-bye darling,” I whisper.
Returning to work is a struggle
Other routines clamour, too.
Malcolm and I have had to return to work. There are bills to be paid.
For Malcolm, it’s good to keep busy, to submerge himself in the demands of a daily newspaper. And he has a team around him of loyal picture-desk colleagues who will take care of him.
I take a few more days to return to the office. I’ve been wounded by past slights and am hopeless at reading office politics. I feel vulnerable.
Cool-headed Jennifer from my social tennis group — one of those chiselled British women with a deep sense of duty and decency — drops me there, so I don’t have to get a taxi or catch a bus.
As we pull up to the industrial facility that houses the newspaper’s operations, I feel immense dread. It is because my life is utterly changed, and yet returning to work symbolises picking up the reins of continuity.
It trivialises Victoria’s death. How can resuming work and paying the bills be more important than mourning the loss of one’s own child?
Such grief will take a lifetime.
If I get out of the car and go in through the entrance, it means suppressing that grief. It means the farce begins of having people think that you accept she is dead. And it is the beginning of ‘After’.
Our daughter’s room remains unchanged
In the security of my condo apartment, space opens to sit and think, and remember.
We have not changed anything in Vic’s bedroom.
The school bag, with its exercise books and tucked-away packet of chewing gum, sits on the chair by the homework desk, ready to be picked up and slung over a shoulder. The hairbrush is upturned on the dressing table. Posters for Avril Lavigne and Angus & Julia Stone adhere to the walls.
I have, as a concession, turned off the heated hair straightener, and put the school uniform back in the wardrobe.
Apart from those things, the room is the same as it was the morning Victoria must have jumped out of bed, run past Mittens and Angelina who would have been sleeping on the sofa, slipped out of the front door, and gone over the hill past the tennis court and remnant of jungle, to the apartment block from which she fell to earth.
A narrative forms. Is it accurate? I don’t know. But I need a narrative.
Looking at what she left behind
It replays in my head, day after day: It was the first day of a new school term. I had got up at 6:45am to prepare toast and coffee for Vic. I tapped on her door to wake her. After a while, when there was no response, I went in and saw the empty bed, the covers hastily, untidily thrown aside. She was normally so neat.
It was her goodbye. The bedroom.
As the weeks have gone by, I have been looking at what Victoria left behind, searching for clues.
And of course, any trace to prove and re-prove her existence. That she did, in fact, live, and was not some figment of my imagination.
I find a lot of clues, under the bed, and hidden at the bottom of boxes of discarded childhood toys. They are diaries from childhood.
Reading someone’s diary may give us a clue into their mental state
Over the years, I had sometimes seen Victoria writing on pages within their pretty covers. I assumed it was a phase that she, like many girls, go through.
I had not read them, as I was too busy just trying to juggle work and home, and also because in a discussion once with some mums in a writing group, they all told me it was important to respect your daughter’s privacy.
One of them had read her girl’s diary and there had been terrible scenes and tears. The message from that was that as modern women, we owed our daughters the respect of having a place of privacy, where they could vent and express themselves.
If only I had questioned this, read up on the pressures young teens face these days, realised how vulnerable they are to outside influences, how they need respectful monitoring to see where their thoughts are leading, and who is influencing them, and to be able to step in and shed light on any darkness.
Victoria wrote that she wanted to die
Now, I force myself to look at these harrowing diaries of my late daughter’s, and I comprehend how they are an articulate testimony to a reality she could not express to us, for whatever reason.
Pride? Shame? Fear of somehow letting us down? Not burdening us? A desire to seem the perfect child? (Though we ourselves would never think in those terms. Did she not see who we really were? Just Linda and Malcolm who loved her to bits?)
The handwriting changes as she grew older, the marks on the page their own illustration of persona.
The writing goes from fat curls and the touching simplicity of “I had sandwiches for lunch”, to the very last handwritten entry, a screaming tight scrawl veering off into unintelligibility:
“I want to be dead. I just want to be dead. Maybe the reason I haven’t mentioned it is because I don’t want to stop feeling like I have access to this option. I just want to be dead is that too much to ask???” Then a scrawl of a short sentence that is indecipherable except for, “Please xxx ME aat ________”.
I’m a mess for several days, after that.
That was her sign-off, I suppose. An unread cry for help. We did not hear it. We did not see it. Until now, when it is too late.
Our daughter had gradually changed over the years
Again, I find myself constructing a narrative, to try and control the story although it is impossible to do so.
The handwritten diaries end around the time Vic turned 16.
They go from innocent musings on Harry Potter to the emergence of a longing to die, starting from the age of 14, when she felt she no longer fit in at school. Vic started going to the top of tall buildings and wondering if she could jump off and end her agony of self-doubt and disconnection.
These silent chronicles of despair tear apart my perception of myself as an aware, sensitive mother. They are too devastating to absorb.
I close the diaries, for now.
One minute you’re with your daughter, the next moment – she’s gone
How do you lose a daughter, and all your past as you understood it, and all your little hopes for the future? In terms of time, very easily, as it happens.
One minute you are a family sitting on the sofa eating spaghetti bolognese while watching a food programme on TV. Next morning there are just two of you slumped there crying.
Of course people ‘lose’ daughters all the time to go off to tertiary study or with unsuitable boyfriends, or to move in with suitable ones. Or they go off for gap years or overseas or to work in other towns.
But losing one to death is final.
She is not just temporarily mislaid pursuing youthful self-discovery, or no longer a physical and emotional presence in your day-to-day life. She is never coming back.
It’s self-evident, isn’t it? (No matter how much, part of me will never accept she won’t be coming back.)
Everyone has experienced some form of loss
However, loss is something everyone experiences in some form, and so well-meaning people tell me they understand what I am going through.
Their context, though, might be a tearful farewell after dropping off a daughter for her first year of university in a new town. I appreciate their lives are forever changed. That there might be grieving for the loss of an identity dear to them, such as their role as the mother raising children.
But even if they do not realise it at the time, they have new purposes and plans on the horizon — the proud parent at graduation, mother of the bride, grandmother. Their child has a new future and they have a role in that.
But our teenager died, and what’s more, did it in a way that leaves those left behind forever broken, because it was her choice to die. To not have a future.
So you wonder what carelessness or fault or ticking time-bomb was in your upbringing of her that caused you to lose her?
It is probably, ultimately, a pointless question in terms of a definitive answer, but I ask it anyway. I peer at every memory as if it is a precious stone, keeper of a secret that I can read if only I try hard enough.
I’m not looking for blame, or seeking forgiveness. I’m seeking a connection with Victoria, first of all.
Even regrets over opportunities missed and events mishandled, mark that she indeed lived.
And Victoria would want me to reflect. She would hope someone reading this might be helped, or that it addressed a ‘why’ that sparks recognition, or insight.
Sep. 10 is commemorated as World Suicide Prevention Day.
Local bookstores BooksActually, Booktique, City Book Room, Littered With Books, Times, and Wardah Books are on board with Ethos Books to donate S$1 from each pre-order copy of Loss Adjustment to the Samaritans of Singapore to support mental health advocacy and suicide prevention.
The pre-order period for Ethos runs from Aug. 1 to Sep. 27 and for bookstores, it’ll be from Aug. 16 to Sep. 16.
SOS 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association of Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
Top photo via Unsplash, by Nathan Oh