The following stories discuss death, mental illness and suicide, viewer discretion is advised
An intimate multimedia feature from journalists Brinley Duggan and Freia Lily exploring mortality and the impact it has on our society.
Sally arrives to our interview about three minutes late and knocks delicately on the front door. In her hand she has a bag of baked sweets she has brought from her favourite bakery. She promptly apologises for her tardiness and explains there was more traffic than she expected. Her clothes are tidy, her hair is immaculately neat and in her hand she has two pages of notes about what she wants to talk about.
“I could talk the leg off of a chair,” she warns us as she takes her seat.
She seems nervous but ready to be open, she wants to talk about herself; where she is, how she got there and what the future holds. Initially she is trepidatious but soon she laughs about how she will need to lick the icing from her fingers after taking a bite from her sweet.
Then she starts talking about her diagnosis of stage four cancer. But she is calm about it, it is what it is. She gets technical, almost surgical. If she makes a mistake she corrects herself. She might not have told this story out loud before, but she has rehearsed it.
Intertwined with commentary about how the doctors gave her two years to live she reminisces about her family, particularly her children and repeatedly says how proud she is of them. They are her biggest achievement.
She feels for them. She will die and they will be orphans, she says almost wrapped with guilt. They are her primary concern.
Their reactions are the only thing she cannot control.
She chooses to mask the fear she has for herself with selflessness for her children. Then she laughs. She laughs because otherwise she might cry.
She laughs because she has had a good life and she has afforded the same to her children.
Ronda and Jack agree to be interviewed on the proviso it is at their house, and they get to cook us dinner. Schnitzels are on the menu.
On arrival the table is set. There is a pitcher of soda water filled with fruit, four glasses and a charcuterie board ready to be picked at.
Jack has just finished having a shower and Ronda is busy roasting vegetables.
The house is homely and well lived; a welcoming juxtaposition to a busy street not even 100 metres away.
Care and love seems to hang from the walls and thoughtfulness is almost like background music.
Ronda’s husband and Jack’s father, Danny, died of Motor Neuron Disease.
Jack’s memory of Danny stems from a developing brain coming into adulthood; a boy becoming a man.
He remembers struggling to get along with his Dad. He seems stuck there. Like their relationship then was their relationship always.
But Ronda remembers a typical father-son relationship which never got to develop. And recalls a loving father and caring husband who did everything for his family.
This conflicting memory has given growth to a symbiotic relationship which ruminates care and consideration.
Jack feels like he has to assume the role of a father, to exhibit the same responsibility for his family Ronda saw from Danny.
And Ronda makes sure Jack is allowed to be himself.
They say there is no greater loss than the one of a child.
The wound it leaves behind is visceral, the scar never fades.
It simply changes shape and one gets better at covering it up.
For Christine, she had twenty-one years to come to terms with the impending death of her son, Nicholas.
To speak of him now, twelve years on, is somewhat of a relief; almost like taking off the bandage and giving the skin fresh air. Sunlight. A chance to breathe.
When Nicholas ultimately passed away from Muscular Dystrophy, Jonathan lost a brother. A friend. And a love no amount of time can replace. Instead he has taken that love and projected it into the world in a way that belies the pain of Nick’s death.
Because although there is fondness in their memories of him, and although their outlook on life after Nick is one of positivity, there is no denying the raw emotion of grief in losing him.
Christine and Jonathan graciously welcomed us into their home and peeled back the layers of life and loss congealed into the walls. They were candid in their experience, and they were frank in the necessity to grieve, and celebrate his life, together.
Maddy reached out to us to offer perspectives of her experience in palliative care.
She welcomed us into her home in Fitzroy and introduced us to her furry canine housemate, Pam.
Pam made her way to Melbourne from the Northern Territory after being adopted when Maddy worked as a nurse in Alice Springs.
Her time in the centre of Australia saw Maddy develop a fondness for Indigenous art which now adorns her walls, filling the space with colour and curiosity.
You can see how they try to teach you something. How they offer a story which you are given the choice to perceive or look past.
It takes a particular type of person to be a nurse, to sympathise with people in pain on a day-to-day basis. To adopt their problems as your own while pushing any intrinsic difficulties to the periphery.
Empathy and sympathy are two friends a nurse must greet every day. And a keen observation of human behaviour is embraced in order to make sense of how we react to situations out of our control.
For Maddy, death is a part of her job. Just as bricks are for a builder, or money is for a banker.
How to deal with death is a learned skill and one she is still trying to navigate.
But what occurs after death, grief, is unfamiliar to her and for it, she has no remedy to ease the pain but to do it openly, and with each other.
Brin had the grand and somewhat last-minute idea that for our final episode we talk to a grief counsellor and write about each other. Not only in response to all of the questions raised in the preceding conversations, but also to counsel ourselves. At first I thought that was a strange thing for him to say. We’re doing alright, I said to him, I’m proud of the space we’re making for people. But then he looked at me in the way that only Brin can, as if to say, do you really think we’re coping with this? Maybe that’s not what he was saying at all and it’s just my inner projection, regardless, Brin has always had a beautiful tendency to let silence raise the noise of what I try to tune out. It’s a characteristic of his that exudes a perception very few people have. It is what makes him such a good journalist, and an even better friend. Navigating the emotions ensued when creating a project such as this one has revealed both an intimacy and vulnerability to Brin I had not seen before. For all his stoicism, there is a deep ocean of pensive and pacifying nature below the surface. While I sometimes think it wouldn’t hurt for him to be more open, I’m not sure I could have done this without his ability to bring me back down to Earth.
. . .
Freia is afraid. She sits and cries in silence. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to show weakness. Freia is bold and strong. She sits and cries in silence. Resolute; a veil for her fear. She once told me she wants to be challenged, and in the absence of a challenge she challenges herself. But Everybody Dies has been a challenge she needed, not one she forced on herself. A challenge forced on her when her brother died, when her mother cried, when she learnt to hide her fear. It’s okay.
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