‘My world shattered’: I was only a child when my mother took her life

Sep 18, 2019
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Sue's mother struggled with mental health issues before taking her life. Source: Getty Images

November 5, 1965 — Guy Fawkes Night — was the last celebration my family had as part of the country of my birth. I remember family and friends gathering around the bonfire that had been built by the local children across from the North Star Pub. It was cold. We were in Lancashire, the north of England, and despite that cold no one seemed to feel the chill.

There was treacle toffee, warm mugs of cocoa, a huge fire and the most colourful fireworks. Catherine wheels, rockets, penny bungers … It was a wonderful night. I was 11 years old, my sister was 9, and together with Mum and Dad, in two days’ time we would be heading off on the biggest adventure of our short lives. We were emigrating to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia! (My gran would join us in a couple of weeks.)

It was Dad who ‘sowed the seed’ about emigrating. He had a friend who had done so about 18 months’ earlier.

The excitement had been building. We had to catch the train from Manchester to London, and on arrival we took a London cab to the airport. Before we knew it, we were ‘up, up and away’ on a Qantas jet bound for Brisbane. Our first refuelling was in Tehran, where we were literally herded into a fenced compound by armed soldiers while the airplane was refuelled. It was so hot.

We then stopped in Manila, Philippines, before finally arriving in Brisbane. I have no recollection as to how many of the passengers were emigrating. It was a Qantas commercial flight so there must have been many ‘paying passengers’ on board.

As we left the plane, it felt like we had just opened the door to an oven! The heat and humidity were something none of the family had ever experienced before. (The closest we had got to hot weather was our annual caravanning holiday in Cornwall.) After going through the formalities, we were met by an immigration official who led us onto a bus, from where we were transported to a hostel on the outskirts of the city. The hostel was an old army barracks with very basic sleeping arrangements. Meals were taken in the canteen. I can still remember the soggy Cornflakes and milk for breakfast, lukewarm cups of tea and cold toast.

Two days later, Mum and Dad had to visit the bank — an hour’s ride on the train to the city. As we left the hostel, my sister and I walking behind them, Dad’s white shirt was covered in flies!

Less than two weeks later, Mum and Dad had rented a house for us all to move into and await the arrival of Gran! She couldn’t be a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ so Mum and Dad paid for her fare and we were all awaiting her arrival. (Mum had said to Dad that she wouldn’t emigrate to Australia unless Gran was willing to come with us).

Starting afresh in a new country isn’t without its challenges. Not so much for me and my kid sister, but certainly for my Mum, Dad and Gran. We moved into our rental property in Chermside, Brisbane. It was a three-bedroom house but the toilet was in the backyard. Mum took one look at it and announced to my dad, “Use it if you like, but the girls and I will not. I will find an alternative.”

The ‘alternative’ was a bucket, lined with newspaper, and located in the bathroom. Each morning, either Mum or Gran would dispose of its contents into the outside toilet. Truth be known, Dad probably enjoyed his moments of solitude, away from a household of four females.

My sister and I started school at the local primary school. It was different, in terms of curriculum. Some things we were advanced in, some we were not but it wasn’t difficult. Our school chums were really accepting of us girls with broad Lancashire accents. There was no bullying, and for the year that we were there, we both did well in our studies.

My parents had purchased a newly built home on the northern outskirts of Brisbane. It was located in a new residential development where, when we moved in, cows grazed at the bottom of the street. Dad, Gran, my sister and I adapted to our new and different surrounds with gusto, but Mum was finding the isolation more difficult. She got her driver’s licence and a job as a nurse’s aid.

By early-1967 it became clear that Mum’s mental health was deteriorating. At the time, getting help was difficult. My father eventually called emergency services to commit Mum to a mental health facility. I remember visiting every Sunday and Mum would sob and plead with my dad to take her home.

When she did come home it was with an arsenal of pills to ‘bring her up’ and pills to ‘bring her down’. They didn’t seem to help though and she continued to struggle. I’ll never forget how my house proud mother wept in the hallway as she tried to find the energy to sweep it.

By the time my sister and I reached high school we’d made great friends and would even go to the movies with our boyfriends. However, I felt it was around this time my mother became quite dependent on me. She would call me regularly. I remember when she summoned me home from my friend’s house — I was 14 at the time — because she’d broken her toe while sweeping (she’d kicked it on a wall) and needed me there.

May 14, 1969 was the last time I saw my mother alive. It was her 40th birthday.

My sister and I had gone to school and my father had gone to work. My gran was having a day at the races. I’d told my mother that I’d call in at home during my lunch break, but that opportunity never came. It was after 3pm before I could get home.

My boyfriend had his driver’s licence and was waiting for me in the car out the front of my house while I raced inside to change out of my school uniform. I was going to his house to listen to records.

When I called out to my mother there was no answer. Then I found her. My mother had taken her own life.

My initial thought was that I couldn’t let my younger sister see her like this. I grabbed my boyfriend and we went to find my sister. We caught up with her walking home from school. Then, we went to find my father at work.

Dad raced through the doors of our house and upstairs to where my mother was. He dissolved into tears. It was the worst day of our lives.

If you or anyone you know needs help: Lifeline — 13 11 14; MensLine Australia — 1300 789 978; BeyondBlue — 1300 224 636; Suicide Call Back Service — 1300 659 467; Headspace — 1800 650 890; Kids Helpline — 1800 551 800

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