real life

'When my daughter died, I thought I'd never recover. Here's how I learned to live again.'

This post deals with suicidal ideation, and could be triggering for some readers.

Mother-of-three Susan Loch lived a carefree life until March 21, 2011. Yet when she woke to find a policeman standing beside her husband, she immediately guessed the sickening truth. Jessica, her 19-year-old daughter, had been killed, the latest victim of a treacherous stretch of the Princes Highway on the New South Wales south coast. Life, as Susan knew it, had changed forever. 

The following is an extract from Jessica's Gift by Susan Loch, which can be bought at many traditional and most online book stores. 

For a long time my life was a wild rollercoaster ride of emotions, a ride that never ended. 

As soon as I began to feel okay, I’d freefall again into the abyss. 

I was always off-balance, shaky, dazed and confused. Life was unbearable. My emotions were raw, exposed and fragile. 

Everyday things—things I had done so many times before, things we take for granted—had become so painful and difficult to do. 

There were many times I’d be happily travelling along in the hum of life, doing my best to stay in that positive lane, feeling that I had made it back to the land of the living after succumbing to the demons of depression for so long. 

Then there would be a thought, or a scent, a snatch of a song, some distant memory, or someone passing by on the street who would remind me of my beautiful child. 

Occasionally, as I walked down the street, I would catch a glimpse of a girl in my peripheral vision and, if she had long blonde hair, I would automatically take a second look. 

I couldn’t help myself. I wanted it to be Jess and for this current reality to somehow be a lie. 

Image: Jess. Supplied. 

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The pangs of pain appeared from nowhere, even when I wasn’t deep in thought or contemplation about Jess. 

I’d be driving down the street, standing in the queue at the bank or grocery shopping. 

There would be no warning. I’d fall apart at the drop of a hat. My emotions would unravel completely, with a dizzying sense of unpredictability. 

I could be anywhere, at any time, and suddenly I was fighting to control the tears slipping down my cheeks. 

If I was out in public, I’d try to find a nearby toilet and hide in the cubicle. 

For some reason most of us feel forced to grieve privately and wear a brave face in public. 

It was impossible for me, I couldn’t do it. Uncontrollably, the sobs would flow with such force I would almost buckle at the knees. 

If I was lucky, I could get back to my car before having a complete breakdown. 

At this point, I still hated my life. When Jess died something inside me died at the same time.

I was left with no will or desire to live. 

I guess that’s the way it is when your child dies. You lose a part of yourself as well. I had no safety net to catch me; I was falling fast. 

I guess at some point I had to decide. 

Do I stay down and end up out, or find the strength and a way to pick myself back up? I needed a lifebuoy. 

A few times I rang Lifeline. I simply wasn’t coping. 

I’m glad I reached out and called 13 11 14; it’s such a valuable service for those struggling with life. If you need it, use it. 

I knew I couldn’t keep going as I had been. My life, the world I knew, was spiralling out of control. I was sick of the fence-sitting, not sure which way I really wanted to go. 

Looking back now to those strange earlier years, it felt much easier to stay depressed. 

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The struggle ahead seemed too great. 

I didn’t believe I had it within me to find the strength to get through, survive and find joy again. 

Image: Supplied. 

When I was in my late twenties I met a woman aged in her sixties. 

Helen had lost a child many years earlier. Her son was 22 when he died. Brad and I saw this woman quite often over the years, and I remember her as a very sad person. 

She was depressed, lonely, bitter and angry. 

It seemed she resented the world for its happiness and joy, hating the contrast to her own experience of loss and heartache. 

I remember, months after Jessica’s death, saying to my eldest sister, Kerry, ‘I don’t want to be like Helen, I don’t want to be sad for the rest of my life.’ 

Helen was the only person I knew well who had lost a child, and I thought I would inevitably end up like her because I was feeling those same emotions—depression, loneliness, anger, bitterness.

I also hated the world for its joy and happiness! 

She was my benchmark of the life of a grieving parent. 

Kerry simply said, ‘You don’t have to be like her. If you don’t want to be, then you won’t be.’ 

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I didn’t know how it would be possible to be anything but sad and miserable forever: happiness seemed too difficult. 

I presumed, with the death of our daughter, I would spend the rest of my days in agony. 

Fortunately, with time, I realised I could choose to stay in the cold, dark, damp room I had built for myself, or I could open up the blinds and let the sunshine in.

I would have to wait patiently for happiness to return to my room. But, slowly, the light became stronger, the dampness from all my tears dried. 

My mind became stronger and more resolute, with the years that passed. 

However, for the first few years, and occasionally even now, I needed to apply my invisible mask. 

Some days it required extra glue to stop it from slipping, or falling off completely. 

I would put the mask on and leave the sanctuary of my four walls, whether it was our home or my sisters’ or parents’ home. 

I was doing my best to attend work and to fit in to society. 

I could now communicate with people, though at times I still found it incredibly difficult. 

I would draw a deep breath and try to calm down. I would do this a few times before I could muster the courage to walk out the front door and into the world. 

There were still times when my mask slipped and I would have a complete breakdown, be inconsolable and fall apart, outside my safe space of home. 

The disconnected voices of fear would run around in my head, loud and controlling. 

My heart thumped a million beats a minute. I honestly thought I was going crazy at times. But I kept putting the brave mask back on. 

I did my best. ‘Before Jess’, I was the facilitator for a three-day program that encouraged unemployed people to do a mind switch. 

By asking the attendees a series of questions over the three days, slowly, the layers of negativity and aimlessness were peeled away. 

By the last day, as I looked around the room from one person to the next, I could see in their faces a glimmer of hope. 

That’s all anyone needs—just a glimmer. Once we can see that fraction of hope we can build on it. 

I could see the change happening in some of them right before my eyes. 

It didn’t happen with everyone, as some people just want to keep hitting that snooze button: they’re not ready to wake up. I could only offer guidance; people will put up a brick wall if you try to tell them what they should be doing. 

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I put an idea out there for them, if they wanted to, they could catch the idea or they could let it pass by. 

In helping them back then, maybe I caught the idea myself: I truly believe we all have the potential to change our outlook on life. It’s up to each individual. 

We all have the power within, we all have a choice about how we live our lives. 

We can choose to change our attitude and perception if we truly desire change. 

Possibly the experience I had through this role helped me to recover my sense of hope; it took a while, but once I felt that glimmer I began to move forward again. 

Our lives are on a continuous pattern of growth; today is different to yesterday, and tomorrow will be different to today. 

Tomorrow can be better than yesterday. Regardless, it will be different. Each and every day sees change. We will never be who we were yesterday. 

I feel grateful for change, for the capacity for growth. 

As a parent who is on this journey of child loss, each and every day is an opportunity towards healing. 

Choosing to allow sunshine and happiness back into my life doesn’t mean I have forgotten those sad years. 

Those sad years will always be a part of my life, just like Jessica. 

I now see my life in three parts. The first, I call ‘Before Jess’. The second is ‘After Jess’, but ‘After Jess’ is now divided into two. There was the ‘Living in Hell’ part, those times when I thought and spoke of suicide often but instead, somehow, chose life. The other, the third part of my life’s journey, the second part of ‘After Jess’, I call ‘Living and Loving after Loss’. 

Bit by bit, life without Jess seemed, on occasions, more bearable. Happiness slowly started to unfold  within me and, with time, I started to enjoy the simple things in life again. 

I believe Jess’s spirit lives on in me, she made me want to get up and dance again; it’s Jess’s spirit that inspires me to push myself out of my comfort zone, to make the most of each and every day. I know Jess would want me and all of our family to keep smiling. I will try to hold up that end of the bargain as best I can.

I know Jess would be so disappointed if I had chosen to take my life. How unfair to my boys, they still need  their mum! 

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And Brad—even though things weren’t great between us, it would have pushed him further into depression. My parents were broken with the loss of their ‘little treasure’; my death would have destroyed them completely. Then there are my sisters and all my nieces and nephews. Friends, too. 

Suicide is not the answer to anyone’s problems: it just passes those problems to somebody else. Someone else must deal with the pain, the torment and the heartache. I am glad I didn’t take that option, though I cannot condemn those who do, knowing how unbearable life can be.  

With time, my grief became manageable, but I had to learn a few things about myself first; I had to learn to become a new version of me. The old me was no longer thriving. I had to find a new kind of  normal. Learning to be at one with myself is what I had to do first, that’s what helped me most. This was my biggest lesson, this was what helped me survive.  

Image: Supplied. 

This is an excerpt from Jessica's Gift by Susan Loch. 

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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