Daniel Strudwick, Saturday, July 14, 2012 © The Cairns Post
RUTH Crouch misses being a school mum. She mourns those parent-teacher nights and she longs to go to another school play.
They might seem like odd things to grieve for a woman who lost her teenage son in the most tragic and public fashion, but she damn well misses them. And her Dec, of course. Always her Dec.
It’s been more than a year since Declan Crouch’s body was found in dense scrub behind the family’s Machans Beach home. The 13 year old was missing for three months and sparked an exhaustive search of the nation that recalled the frantic panic to find Daniel Morcombe eight years earlier.
Declan’s resting place turned out to be just walking distance from his home, at the end of a narrow access road beside the property.
He had taken his own life.
“I never gave up hope once,” Ruth says.
“I knew, I knew that there was a chance that he had suicided, but none of it made sense – he’s got a loving family, he’s got heaps of friends, he’s not being bullied, so why would he?” she asks herself.
“I thought, if I could convince myself that he’d only run away, it might actually be true and this helped me get through those three terrible months.”
Looking back, there were telltale signs of Declan’s deep despair, but Ruth didn’t pick up on them. The tragic irony for the 56-year-old social worker is that her daily work involves assessing the suicide risk in her distressed clients.
“You go through all these different emotions – I’ve been angry with Declan, I’ve been angry with the world.
“But most of all, I’ve been angry with myself for having knowledge in that area and still not being able to pick it or prevent it in my own family.”
Only in retrospect is Ruth able to see what seems so obvious to her now. Her son Declan, who was enthusiastic and social during his pre‑teens, had become withdrawn and disinterested in the friendships he used to treasure.
“I was actively encouraging him by asking ‘Who are you going to see this weekend’, or whose house do you want me to drop you at or do you want to invite somebody over?’ but he would just say ‘no’,” Ruth remembers.
She could have had no idea about the private Facebook conversations Declan had with his mates about suicide or the sketches scrunched up in the back of his drawer depicting suicide.
But there are things Ruth knows now about suicide awareness that she wishes she’d known then. And it is this information that’s helping her heal as she shares it with others.
Suicide isn’t all that uncommon. It is not in the newspapers unlike other deaths that occur by car accident or at the hands of others, but it happens. Just usually not as publicly as Declan’s had been. His disappearance made him a headline, and the unfortunate conclusion of the Declan Crouch saga was that he had killed himself like 2360 other Australians every year.
It’s the eerie quiet surrounding suicide that frustrates Ruth, so she is making some noise about it.
“Once it happens to you, you are so shocked and horrified, it’s like the scales have dropped off your eyes and you look around and you say ‘Oh God, why aren’t we doing something about this?’” she says.
In fact things are being done about suicide prevention and awareness, but research takes time and the outcomes of studies often conflict with the outcomes of earlier studies. It means authorities don’t know where to stand when it comes to talking about suicide. If they promote suicide awareness and prevention, might they accidentally promote suicide itself?
“I know where that’s coming from,” Ruth says, “but I believe in being direct, taking suicide by the horns and saying ‘Let’s really look at this and talk about this’.
“I feel like I owe it to other parents, I suppose.”
Ruth has partnered with Cairns-based public health group, the Dr Edward Koch Foundation, to achieve three goals: Break down the stigma of suicide; increase education, training and support; and lobby for proper mental health facilities for young people so they are not sharing with adult patients.
At a recent national suicide conference in Cairns, she presented the first edit of a DVD she has compiled with Declan’s friends to spread awareness about the signs to look for in a suicidal friend or family member.
It was those young friends of Declan’s that spurred Ruth into action as she watched them come to terms with the sudden death of the boy they called Father Bear (because Declan was such a protective friend, they say). If they knew how to detect despair in a friend, Ruth reasons, Declan might still be alive today.
Dulcie Bird counselled Ruth through those painful months after Declan’s death and she does the same for countless other families in Cairns when a loved one suddenly dies, whether by suicide or not.
Dulcie, who is the CEO of the Dr Edward Koch Foundation, says the friends and family members of a suicide victim are sometimes at a high risk of suicide themselves.
“It doesn’t mean that everyone is at a high risk, but you have some of the trauma that the dead person has, and you also have to deal with the bereavement, which is a very different kind of bereavement compared to other deaths,” Dulcie says.
“It’s a whole different range of emotions – there can be feelings of frustration that you couldn’t help the person, anger at the person because they took their own life, or rejection because they preferred to go rather than stay with family.”
And just as Ruth did, parents will invariably want to understand why their child chose suicide. Dulcie insists there is no answer.
“I think there’s a need to try and understand; to make some sense out of what happened,” she says.
“That’s always a very difficult question, but it’s not possible to find an answer. You just have to live through that period of grief and learn to come to terms with the fact that you will never understand.”
Ruth says her grief followed the classic lines Dulcie describes. She and partner, Peter, were also suddenly confronted with empty nest syndrome, when parents have to deal with no longer having kids around to keep them busy.
“You have your routine, especially with kids, you get through all the tasks of the day and you know what you’re doing.
And then all of a sudden, that’s just gone and as a couple you suddenly have all that time for each other,” Ruth says.
“And so we worked through that.”
Throwing herself into work with the Dr Edward Koch Foundation is helping Ruth reach a “new normal”.
“The old normal’s gone, completely gone,” she says. “The new normal is me being a parent to an adult child (her daughter, Grace) but no longer parenting a young teen, and that’s been the hardest part. I was anticipating at least another five years of parenting him through a difficult transition period. But I feel really driven now and I can’t stop.”
Ruth doesn’t hear much from the other school mums nowadays. But she doesn’t blame anyone for keeping their distance, especially the mothers of other young boys around Declan’s age.
“If it was you, wouldn’t you be thinking ‘Oh my God, I wonder if it’s contagious?’”
“I miss those relationships, I really miss them, but it’s not their fault. They’re just responding to the stigma as well.”
Ruth remembers what she was like at Declan’s age, an innocent child growing up in Bristol, England. She hit her rebellious years at 17. Her daughter Grace reached them at 15, and Declan even earlier. She has discovered that he was occasionally smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol, but realises now that he was probably trying to escape whatever pain he was feeling.
She wonders if her mourning might be easier if it happened away from the public eye. If Declan’s suicide had happened like the others, she could have been left to grieve in private, letting the quietness of suicide swallow her like it does to so many.
But no, she says. This is her healing. And she owes it to other parents to share what she knows.
This way, maybe she will spare another mother like her from knowing how it feels to have no parent-teacher nights to go to.
Anyone in distress should contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
Signs a young person may be suicidal
– Threatening to hurt him/herself or suicide
– Looking for ways to suicide e.g. seeking access to pills, weapons, or other means
– Deliberately hurting him/herself i.e. by scratching, cutting, or burning
- Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
– Rage, anger, seeking revenge
– Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
– Feeling trapped, like there’s no way out
– Increasing alcohol or drug use
– Withdrawing from friends, family or society
– Anxiety, agitation, changes in sleep or appetite
– Dramatic changes in mood
– No reason for living, no sense of purpose in life