Real stories, from real people

When my partner died, I couldn’t ask for help.

 I’m sharing my story in the hope others will reach out.

By Jock Cheetham, Journalist and Academic.

It began, as it often does, with two people falling in love. We met across our keyboards, typing away as subeditors at the Sydney Morning Herald. Neroli and I dated, moved in together, bought a house. We shared pleasures; eating out, films, travel. Politics, chatting, laughing. We had friends, but we were happy with each other’s company.

Neroli left journalism and got a PhD examining multiculturalism. Her speciality became cultural diversity in regional areas. When I left journalism to teach in Bathurst three years ago, an attraction for Neroli was the opportunity to develop a multicultural festival.

Within weeks of moving, Neroli fell ill. Her bone condition, osteopetrosis, was worsening. It had meant many broken bones. This time it was not to be so simple.

Neroli endured one of the most torturous illnesses imaginable – drawn-out, painful and upsetting. Her jaw bone died and became infected – days, weeks, months in hospital. She lost her sight; no support for months. She lost her sense of smell; the pleasure of eating, gone.

I was left with memories of hospital, of desperation and of seeing Neroli lying motionless in that institutional bed. Neroli’s only comfort, and mine, was that her mother and I had been with her constantly through the years of agony.

I returned to Bathurst without Neroli. My friends were in Sydney and abroad. I was alone. Looking back, I’m surprised by the near total lack of contact anyone made with me. Friends and family left me alone; a function of distance perhaps, geographically and created by my own personality and the strong persona I had projected and continued to project, maybe. I don’t know.

I began work on Neroli’s legacy; ideas percolating and developing. But I felt a sense of pointlessness. I fell into despair. I had a choice between life and death.

Nearly two years isn’t enough time to say: “You get through it.” Trauma’s impact is profound; post-traumatic stress … Things can be OK; then not OK. Life’s trials quickly become shuddering, shattering shocks to the body.

I continued exercising; I sought counselling; I worked (on Neroli’s festival and my day job). I met Miao, and in getting to know her, I chose life. That act of reaching out was one of the few I was able to make. Miao reached back.

I launched the Bathurst Multicultural Storytelling Festival last year, one of Neroli’s ambitions. I was alive to run around Bathurst, listening to podcasts, one of which discussed how men can’t share, suffer alone, and too often take their own lives.

People, if they aren’t looking, won’t notice the suffering. Just recently, I read about a man who lost his 17-year-old stepbrother. He said, through tears: “He did certainly cry out for help at certain points, and only with the benefit of hindsight do you understand those moments for what they were.”

I didn’t seem able to reach out, to express vulnerability, to ask for help. In talking with a psychotherapist, I thought about others in similar situations. I decided to act. I was not alone as a man struggling to communicate his pain. I could advocate, somehow. I joined a men’s group and shared a version of this story. I shared a version at an open mic night. And at this year’s This Is My Brave Australia festival, I told Neroli’s story, our story and some of my own.

I’m sharing in the hope others will open up. I’m inviting everyone to reach out to people in pain, to the grieving, and make the first moves. Because know this. As hard as it is to reach out to someone who is suffering, it is much harder for that suffering person to reach out to you. Mental health issues or trauma or deep pain are destabilising and have a kind of freezing effect.

So take the opportunity to reach out. Look for cues as people open up a little and even just hint at asking for help. Take up those cues and respond. Don’t be afraid. Get out of your do-nothing comfort zone.

Jock’s story was published in The Guardian in October 2020 and he also shared his experience at This Is My Brave Australia in Bathurst. Jock kindly gave Gather My Crew permission to post his story in the hope it would help others.

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief and loss, our Grief page contains some helpful tips.

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