Death: A Slow Voyage of Acceptance

Trigger warning: discusses suicide

“I don’t know how to tell you this… [your brother] passed away this morning.”

I had to read the message several times before I processed it. Then my legs stopped holding me up. I sat down hard.

I wasn’t close to my brother, but he trusted me. I’d always assumed that he would kill himself one day, but expecting something doesn’t make it easier to bear when it finally happens.

My deckhand sensed something was wrong and turned from his computer. “Nic? Are you okay?”
I pulled myself together for long enough to get him started on his online training course, then stumbled up to the office.

Most of my brain wasn’t processing; the fraction that still functioned was working through the all-too-familiar mental checklist of, “How to deal with a personal crisis when I’m on board a ship.”

  1. Stabilise the situation
  2. Warn my head-of-department that I may have trouble focusing for a while
  3. Reschedule non-critical tasks
  4. Ask my close colleagues to give me some space
  5. Find somewhere safe to cry
  6. Stay busy with simple jobs until my brain comes back online.

Following the checklist, I held myself together for long enough to explain things to the chief officer, rescheduled that afternoon’s meetings, and arranged for someone to monitor the contractors. Then I went to my cabin and cried until the insistent beeping of my pager forced me back to work.

“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe

My final email exchange with my brother was less than two months before he killed himself. I was in lockdown on a friend’s sofa in the UK; he was in Australia. He asked to come and stay with me. I refused.

I’m joining a ship shortly… You’d be on your own in a foreign country in a pandemic. Once this is over and I’m allowed to go home, we can spend some time together.”

I’ll spend the rest of my life questioning that decision. If I’d said yes and stayed ashore with him rather than going back to sea, would he still be alive? Logic says no; emotion says maybe. Maybe he would have delayed killing himself for a few more months. Or maybe he wouldn’t. I’ll never know.

I didn’t even try to get back to Australia. What good would it have done? Even if I’d managed to arrange flights and permission to enter the country, I would still have been in quarantine during the funeral. And I would have left my ship short-handed at a time when crew change was almost impossible.

Was that decision pragmatic, or an attempt to justify my cowardice? Was I scared to face my mother, to apologise to her for not being there for my brother? When I demanded her word that she wouldn’t kill herself too, was that for my sake, or for hers? A year later, I still don’t know.

My crew was fantastic. For a few days, they all did their best not to add to my workload. But grieving is a lonely business, especially on a ship, and it takes more than a few days.

I’m a women in a male-dominated industry: crying is against the unspoken rules, but when the wound was so raw, I couldn’t help it. Whenever I was careless enough to allow myself to think, I couldn’t hold back the tears. If the situation wasn’t so grim, it would have been almost funny watching grown men try to work out how to respond to a crying woman. Only one of them applied common sense and just asked me directly what he should do.

Logically, grief is a perfectly normal response. I’d be worried about any crew member who wasn’t affected by a family member’s death; on the other hand, I had a job to do. If I lost focus, people could die.

But if I wasn’t fit for duty, who could have covered for me? Would I have even realised if I crossed that line? Logically, someone would probably have said something if I crossed the line; emotionally, the strain of constantly assessing my own fitness for duty while knowing it was impossible for me to judge was draining.

My brother had mental health issues. In crisis, he often reached out to me for help. I’d ask him what he needed from me, but what could I do from a ship? What could I do to help someone on the other side of the world when I could barely access email? When did I stop trying?

He tried so often to get help, but it always backfired. Each time made him more reluctant to try again. Once, he emailed me from the local hospital:

Nic, people aren’t listening to what I’m trying to say. They assume what they see is drug-related… Hospital was the right place for me, but I don’t know how to overcome my communication issues.

I’m almost at the point where I have to…hand my treatment and communication over to someone who can handle it…I don’t think they are equipped to deal with me…I’m not equipped to deal with them…I hate to put this on you, but I don’t know what else to do.”

I was his big sister. I should have known what to do, but I didn’t — it’s not something they teach us at maritime college. Given the prevalence of suicide at sea, maybe they should.

From a ship off West Africa, I contacted a mental health support organisation in his area, but they said that local services, “… wouldn’t allow another person to speak for someone else on their own… he will need to exercise engagement himself.”

Anyone who can’t communicate clearly obviously can’t access help or treatment. That must mean it was his own fault he couldn’t get help. Somehow, that doesn’t seem quite right. Still, what do I know? They don’t teach us that at maritime college either.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between 15 and 44, and in the top 5 leading causes of death for ages 1–64. In 2018, the suicide rate was more than two and a half times the Australian national road toll. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1 in 5 Australians had a mental or behavioural condition between July 2017 and June 2018.

If that’s the case, why are there so many barriers for people seeking treatment? Why was it so hard for a professional to actually listen to my brother? I want so much to blame them. They should have done something — anything — to help him.

But how often do I do the same as those doctors, dealing with the easy, obvious symptoms rather than looking for the underlying cause? How often am I trapped in a dysfunctional system, helpless to do more? Can I blame them, when I’m no better? Logic says no; emotion disagrees.

In the seven months I was on board, three of us lost close family to suicide; many more lost family and friends to other causes. As part of a supportive shipboard community, we were the lucky ones. Dealing with the consequences of being away from home is part of being a seafarer, and not all ships are supportive.

What isn’t normally part of being a seafarer is watching your shipmates kill themselves, as one of my crew did on their previous ship. Watching your shipmates die of injuries or illness because governments refuse to fulfil their obligations under international law, as too many seafarers have. Carrying dead crew around for weeks because governments won’t allow you to disembark the body. I’m the lucky one: I didn’t have to deal with that. Far too many seafarers do.

They found my brother’s body on the 4th of August 2020. I didn’t find him. I didn’t have to deal with his body. I didn’t have to clean out his room. I didn’t have to tell his mother. I was in a supportive community on a good ship with internet access, so I could watch the funeral online. Logic tells me that I’m the lucky one. My emotions disagree.

The police emailed me a photo of his final letter to me. He wrote, “Just know I’m not hurting myself any more. I’m at peace now. It’s time to let me go. Take care, and peace.” Logically, it’s good advice; emotionally, it’s a work in progress.

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