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Michael - Interview 16

Age at interview: 42
Brief Outline: Michael was aged 29 when his friend took his own life. It was in 1994 when his friend died in a fume filled garage. At the time Michael took time off work and found most support by talking to his friends and by supporting others who were grieving.
Background: Michael is a crown servant. He is in a civil partnership. Ethnic background/nationality: White Australian.

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In 1994 Michael was aged 29 when a close friend took his own life. His friend died in a fume filled garage, and was found by another friend a few days later. Michael went to see his friend’s body, which was at the local funeral parlour. Michael was invited to say a few words at his friend’s funeral. He did not go to the inquest.
 
Michael felt devastated by the loss of his friend. He often used to lie on his bed and cry and was unable to go to work. After a few weeks his GP suggested he should have some professional counselling. Michael did have counselling for about 6 weeks, but did not find this helpful. He found it much more helpful to talk to his friends and to comfort others who had been bereaved by his friend’s death. He took about 10 weeks off work, but his friend’s death still dominated his thoughts for a long time.
 
Now Michael still feels sad when he thinks of his friend or sees photographs of them both together. He sometimes talks about his friend’s suicide with others who knew them both, but it is not a regular topic of conversation.

Michael was interviewed in September 2007.

 

Michael felt desperately upset that something so awful had happened. He did not blame himself but...

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I was, well, initially of course I was just extremely upset, I can remember ringing a friend who was living in England at the time actually and kind of trying to just tell him the news and basically being unable to speak the words because it’s, it’s so hard and it’s so awful and you just you know, your first reaction is just disbelief and then upset at something so awful has happened. And something so awful has happened to, you know, someone you love, and you think, “Why was it so bad for him? Why was it so awful for him?”, that even, you know reaching out to someone like me, would not have provided him with enough to make other options viable for him. And that, you know that is quite painful actually. Because… I don’t think I ever blamed myself at all, but you do certainly think a lot, well I certainly thought a lot about why it was that, you know, he couldn’t have rung me, or other people up, or come to see me and you know what it was that was in his mind that was so bad that something like speaking to me wouldn’t have helped at all. But you know I don’t know how, I can’t quite put myself in the mindset actually of it being that bad. And there was just a great deal of sadness and grief after that really, that this, you know, lovely man was no longer there and never would be again. That was very depressing.

 

Michael was depressed and cried a great deal after his friend died. Eventually he started to feel...

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I just got depressed, you know life was very black at the time, …and I would you know, I don’t know, I cried a lot, spent a lot of time just feeling depressed, spent a lot of time wanting to be on my own and being on my own, but then at the same time I think I recognised and I think it was true that although I needed to spend time on my own, when I spent time with other people I definitely cheered up. So I think and having recognised that I then, you know, at times deliberately spent time with other people even if kind of in the lead up to that I didn’t particularly feel like I wanted to because I did know that actually that would make me feel just happier and you know other, and sometimes you talk about other things, sometimes you would talk about my friends death, but just sharing it with other people did actually kind of lighten the load I think.

 

So what happened after that? You’d been off work for a while?

 

Yes, well after I’d been off work for a while, …I mean after about, I was off work for about 10 weeks I think…. My other friend had got out of the hospital, I think you know, eventually it just became time to go back to work, and I did. And I think I went back part time initially and then full time. I mean basically, you know, I gave myself a lot of space to take, take time and just kind of gradually re-immerse myself into the everyday world, and eventually you, you know life does go on and you do slip back into it and you know, initially well, you know for an ongoing period obviously it still dominates your thoughts for a long time and you know I’d get upset very easily a lot, very quickly and I would think about him a great deal and you know obviously that was now thirteen years ago, you know eventually you think about it less and less and other things happen and you have to go back to work, and you know kind of life starts taking over again and eventually things kind of fade a bit into the background.
 

Michael went to see his friend’s body. He found it disturbing but he said it was a useful thing...

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I went to see the body at the funeral parlour, which was very hard, very disturbing but at the same time I think it was a useful thing to do because it brought home I think you know, the reality of it was quite, it was kind of no denying it in your mind after that. As it happened. I was also there when the fellow’s mother came to view the body and you know was ushered out into the next room and we heard her wail and scream when she saw the body. That’s something I’ll, I’ll never forget. We actually made a point of, several of us, made a point of going and seeing his parents who we, you know had met, but had never really known before that, and I think that was useful as well again, another opportunity to talk about things.

 

Talking to other friends who had been bereaved by his friend’s suicide was an affirming...

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Was there any opportunity to meet with other people who’d been bereaved, or didn’t you look into that?


I didn’t look into that actually, no. As I said, I knew lots of other people who knew the person who killed himself, and talking to them about it was a great, …was a large part I think of what helped me. Partly because they knew him so we could actually discuss, you know, the actual details of what happened and our memories of him and, you know, like shared, we had a shared history and re-living that was obviously quite a meaningful thing. But also, seeing how other people were reacting was also, was a useful thing as well. I think, as I’ve said, you know, I just felt generally happier when I was with other people than not, and I think that was not, that also was the case when I was with other people who had been bereaved by my friends suicide. Some of whom, you know, were taking it possibly even harder than I was, and in some ways talking to them and feeling that, you know, I was perhaps the stronger one of us was also quite an affirming experience too.


So you felt you were helping them?


Yes. And that was… if felt that, I don’t know, I guess that’s almost like a normal thing in life to do, perhaps that was a, a bit of normality that, you know that was something that brought a bit of almost normality back into my life again as well.

 

Counselling did not help Michael but he did feel he needed time off work and to be able to use...

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I also took about ten weeks off work actually, and I think I needed to, you know I was a wreck, and just was not capable of, I, I have work that requires thought and I was not capable of giving it that thought. And you know if I’d been forced to go into work and cope with that I’d just, I don’t know what I would have done but, taking time off work was definitely a good thing. My doctor was happy to write me sick notes for that. After about five weeks he actually became less happy just to write sick notes for time off work and he thought I needed to go and get some counselling. I actually didn’t think I needed counselling, I thought my reaction to what had happened was reasonable given the enormity of what had happened. However I thought, pragmatically, he was reluctant to continue to sign me off if I didn’t go to get counselling and so I thought well I would go and get counselling. And I still remain of the opinion that I didn’t really need counselling but that that was a good thing to do because it gave me the space to work through things in my own time. I actually found the counselling less than useful which is, looking back, surprising but you know, you know I guess it’s hard to find a good counsellor that you will necessarily interact with well, and I think some of the things we talked about were ridiculous. I mean one thing that sticks in my mind was this, several years later and it still sticks in my mind, after I’d been to see, after I’d been to the funeral I said to him, I was explaining I was describing it to him, and I said, “The coffin was very small.” And he said, “Oh why do you think the coffin, what do you think that means?” And I just think that it means that the fellow who died was quite a small fellow and he didn’t need a big coffin. And I still can remember thinking back at the time, you know, this is not doing me any good this conversation, however, never mind.


How did the counselling sessions go? And what happened at the beginning?


They tended to be very slow actually, because I, I think if you don’t want, I think that’s a general rule actually if you don’t want to be in a counselling session it’s going to be hard for the counselling session to do much good. And he would…, the counsellor tried to ask those kind of symbolic meaningful questions I think, and I actually don’t think that was the state of mind that I was in at the time, I just needed to go through I think the stages of grief. And you know take some time to come to terms with things and you know, I, to my mind my friend’s death wasn’t a symbol of anything, it didn’t mean anything. It meant he was unhappy in his life but it didn’t mean anything to me in a, in a, in that broader sense, and I, you know perhaps it was just the wrong kind of counselling. I think I, I think you know, the strategies I used to cope were, you know taking time and being with people and talking with other people about the issues, about you know my feelings and about my memories and that kind of stuff, and nothing more than that. So I think the counselling wasn’t just aimed correctly. And so what we would actually tend to do, is sit for long periods without, not saying much and that’s just, I, you know, was completely the wrong thing for me.


Did you have to pay for it?


No, it was all on, this all happened in Australia, and you can get a certain amount of counselling for free.

 

Michael kept things that had belonged to his friend as a physical reminder of him. He felt that...

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Yes, I kept a kind of scrap book because, …you know just some small things, like we put a, I put a death notice in the newspaper and cut that out and kept that. And a friend of mine actually wrote a little obituary in a local paper, for the fellow who died and I kept that, cut that out, kept that, and my friend, the friend who died had actually you know brought me back a little kind of brooch thing from, well a trip he took to the United States once, and I kept all these things in a, in a box together, and certainly at the time I would look through that you know on quite a regular basis, and I think, it, these, these things you could actually touch and feel and handle, did, you know, it’s quite odd, some of them, they were just words on a, on a page, but they were kind of physical reminders of his physical presence I suppose so… that was quite meaningful to me, I mean, …in the immediate aftermath of his death it tended to just to make me upset and you know I would cry, and and be very very sad, but I probably had to, and …and certainly you know over the next couple of years say, you know I would get those things out and look at them from time to time, and just, to be reminded of him was a very intense feeling, and it was…, it was kind of an odd mixture of upsetting and and, I don’t really know how to explain it actually. I would continue to get upset but at the same time I would want to do it because there was something about you know not just consigning him to history I suppose, there’s some ongoing part of him that was somehow embodied in these things and so that kind of sense that he, something about him was still having an effect in the world you know was, was, was quite powerful.

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