Launch of Loss Adjustment, Part 1: Linda's journey of loss, and giving voice to Victoria

For the launch of Loss Adjustment, Linda Collins and Akshita Nanda had an intimate conversation at The Moon about her debut book on losing her daughter to suicide.

This feature covering the launch will be split into two parts—the first will discuss the message Linda wants to convey through Loss Adjustment, looking at the lasting aftermath of loss, and the urgency of paying attention to issues of mental health and suicide prevention. The second feature will focus on the process of writing Loss Adjustment; the craft and technique behind the concept of the book, and Linda’s future writing projects.

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(Below is a truncated transcript of the launch event; you can find the full transcript linked here and audio recording below.)

 

On Linda finding her voice, and giving a voice to Victoria

Akshita: As we all know, and all of you who are here in this room know that Linda wrote Loss Adjustment, adjusting to some very, very traumatic losses in her own life. One of the reasons we are having this event today, which was by invite only and limited to this lovely space over here, is because it’s also a memorial; it’s remembering of Victoria, which is the reason this book was written. Could you talk about that?

Linda: It sort of goes back to the voice thing, and I found a voice with this. And one of the good things about that, is that Victoria didn’t have a voice This is something to look out for if you’ve got troubled ones at home or if you may have been experiencing this yourself. Victoria was full of laughter and really chatty and quite witty, we often have a laugh. But I didn’t know at school she couldn’t speak up, she was paralysed by fear. I only found that out when we insisted on getting the school counsellor’s notes, we didn’t even know she was seeing the counsellor. So after she died, we put pressure on the school and eventually they gave us these notes and it was very heart-breaking to read that Victoria actually plucked up the courage, one teacher was picking on her and she couldn’t reply and picked on her more and more, and that just drove her more into this. She actually plucked up the courage to complain to the school but the teacher made a joke of it in class to the other kids.

And then we found her diaries—I keep forgetting the extent—7 or 8 months after she died, the police handed us back Victoria’s laptop. I think you’ll read it in the book. Answering Akshita’s question: we were told by the police there was nothing of interest in this laptop. But I felt it was. So Malcolm, my husband, he managed to get it open for me and there was this gift to us. All these months later of Victoria’s journals which comprised the last four months of her life until two weeks before she died. And she had a very confident voice, wanted to get out there, also hear about what she was going through.

On the subject of her shyness which crippled her, which she recognised as social anxiety—she read up on that quite a bit. She expressed in the diary that she wanted some research to be done into social anxiety. A charity, one that raises awareness about social anxiety—because God it needs to be. I don’t want other kids who feel like freaks that way not to be aware of it. So that teachers don't always assume that the kid at the back of the class, never raises their hand, isn’t just shy— when they’re really paralysed by fear and hopelessness, that they believe no one could ever understand.

This book is giving her that voice, and sometimes I feel like I never wrote it, that I was just a conduit. So some of the chapters, they just flow through my hands and it was her telling me what to write. It seems illogical but that’s what it felt like. Today is kind of mixed feelings for me because now I’ve let that book out into the world and it’s in your hands, hands of strangers, and I just ask you to be tender with that. Of course I can’t control what happens but she’s out in the world that way, and she’s got that voice.

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On Linda’s relationship with Victoria after her death

Audience member: Now that the book is done and published, do you feel that, is it a complete representation of how you view Victoria, or do you feel that there are the bits that are not quite in there?

Linda: Yes, there’s a lot more to know about Victoria, and I’ve come to know how little I knew of her. And one of the things I’m really sad about, apart from not knowing the extent of her suffering, was I didn’t realise what a writer she was. I knew that she loved writing, and reading, but when she when she was typing on her laptop and stuff, I go in there and say, “What are you doing, typing there?” and she’d say, “Oh mum, homework” and I go “Oh, that’s good. Won’t bother you.” But she was writing in her journal, and also short stories and poems. That was a way of expressing herself. So there are many things that I’m still learning about Victoria. And in fact one of the things—look, if any of you are bereaved, one of the things that I’ve learnt is that, when someone dies, that doesn’t stop your relationship with them. In fact, as the years go by, your relationship keeps evolving. I just leave you that thought there.

(…)

Linda: (…) While [Victoria’s] diaries were sort of heart-breaking in a lot of places or revelatory or comforting, also I got to know my own daughter a lot better. Teenagers hide a lot of themselves from you today; I don’t know how many of you are parents here, or how many of you are older people coming out of a turbulent youth. But there’s a lot that’s hidden. Our daughter had this very dark side to her that I came to know in the journal. But also she had a really great take on herself that was funny at times. So this is an example of that voice. This is her describing herself:

“I am a Potterhead. My favourite movies are Harry Potter, Loving Annabelle, Inception, The Lord Of The Rings, The Fall and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. My favourite desserts are chocolate souffle or pumpkin pie. I always eat food clockwise around the plate. Starting with what I like the least and ending with what I like the most. I hate talking to people, except my relatives on the phone.”

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On the stigma of losing a family member to suicide

Audience member: Suicide, you know, has always been regarded as a stigma. And what defines stigma is a mark of disgrace. I would like to know, as someone who is well-known in media, and you mentioned that this book is literally going out to the world, how did you get past that?

Linda: I don’t think I ever have, and throwing the floor open to questions makes me flinch. Sometimes they say, ‘don’t you blame yourself’, or ask difficult questions or ‘what shame do you feel?’ Stigma is shame.

I always blame myself and I do feel a lot of shame, but I won’t let society make me feel ashamed. I gather that in Singapore, until fairly recently, there’s been a lot of shame about suicide. Mothers who’ve lost their kids this way, family who don’t want to talk about it or they cut them off.  In fact, my own family cut me off. So, I lost not only my daughter, but my family. They can’t handle it, or they feel it’s a bad thing. Last year even with good friends in New Zealand, their daughters were pregnant, but they didn’t want me to meet them, because I might bring them some bad luck, you know. And I think sometimes it’s the case here too.

So, you’re this thing that no one wants to be. Every parent dreads losing their child and there you are. You had that bad thing happen to you and you might bring that bad vibe or bad things along. So, people find it easier not to engage you, or even easier to dismiss you. They just think of something bad about you and pin it on you—their daughter died, because the mother worked too hard or was always at work or whatever. But I can’t let that drag me down. I can’t let that affect me. I mean everyone tries in their own ways to deal with it. There’s certainly the pressure of shame.

But I don’t feel ashamed because my daughter was a wonderful person and I was proud of her and proud of everyday she lived, and I don’t think she would want me to feel the shame.

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The physical and mental impact of grief

Linda: (…) You don’t need to put your hands up but do if you want to, but is there anyone here grief-stricken, or has suffered trauma?—So what it does to you—it affects you cognitively. And you lose some quick-thinking ability. You get some of it back but you have short attention span and one of the things is, with me, I still find it hard to read fiction. I can’t sit and read a book—fictional book—because, A) I can’t concentrate much, and B) particularly with fiction, it’s fake death. And you only want reality, you don’t want made up things because you’ve seen how cruel life is and how things can change very quickly. How there’s not much comfort in fake stories for you.

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How to help our loved ones who are depressed or grieving?

Audience member: Hi, I would I like to know how—I mean I cannot imagine having to go through the loss of a loved one, but I do have friends that go through that. So how will we best be there for them, or support them?

Linda: Yes, that’s a very good question Thank you very much. What can you do? I think it’s important to be there for them but also sometimes to ask the hard question—“Are you okay?” and they’ll fob you out quite often, but “No, are you really ok?”. And I would say the biggest danger of all, is when you’ve got a depressed friend, is when they start smiling because I hear time and time again that’s when they made up their mind to go. They feel relieved. So, whether someone is obviously down at heart or smiling, try and look behind their face—look at the body language, what are they really saying with their bodies.

When I looked at Victoria’s photos before she died, I never stood back and look at her as she was then. I thought ‘My beautiful daughter’—but actually she was hunched over, she lost a ton of weight. She looked miserable in the photos, but I never stood and looked. I think also as friends, you might have to seek help externally. So, Victoria told her counsellor not to tell her parents anything. But someone needs help, sometimes they need intervention. Sometimes drugs and a spell in the psych ward is going to save them, because they are hell bent on killing themselves. It is very difficult for you as a friend but keep an eye out there and make sure to include them in things. Even if they’re really rude to you or just not great fun to be around—include them. It’s when they get excluded and isolated that it’s particular worry. So those are just some practical things. I’m no expert. There are articles you can look up. That would be my advice.

Akshita: And she’s provided a very nice list of resources at the back of the book. And I think those will kind of be around at all the events you’re speaking at? (Linda: Yes.)

Kah Gay (Publisher): Actually, I think the gentleman is also thinking, how can people be there for you or people in your position.

Audience: Like friends, like helping friends who are grieving.

Linda: Ah, helping friends who are grieving—see brain didn’t follow through so they will get things wrong. Poor Akshita, we make appointments and things, or she tells me really important information and I completely forget it.

Akshita: No no, that’s because I’m very easy to overlook. (laughs)

Linda: So, it’s not because we’re not thinking about it, we can’t… this stuff just gets… see how I’m stammering? Stuff just gets jammed up and won’t function well.

Um, not overload us with stuff. Always feel free to give us food. Food’s got so much love involved in it. Asking someone out to dinner or to take tea means a great deal. I think those little comments would be it.

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Loss Adjustment’s clarion call

Audience: Do you feel that the book is kind of like your clarion call, or do you have a message of the book, towards families, parents, and kids, about mental health?

Linda: Well, there are some mums here, sadly, who are grieving the loss of their children, from a group called Mums United. And they are very supportive and blessed. It’s sad in Singapore that the statistics for suicide are rising; 397 deaths last year, according to the Samaritans, and of those deaths, 94 were people aged 10 to 19, and in fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for Singaporeans aged 10 to 19. The leading cause of death. And Singapore goes to all this effort to get people to find partners, there’s a baby shortage, you know, each child is so precious, and yet, we have these children, they grow up and they take their own lives. So something is terribly wrong, not just with society in terms of giving young people a future, but you know, societies in general—my own country has the highest rate of teen suicide in the developed world.

So, mums have got together, and we’ve not learnt a lot here, but the other mothers are Singaporean—one thing that strikes me is, A) how each of the kids was a very kind person, kind and sensitive, and gentle with animals. So it seemed life had been a little bit harder for these nice, sensitive kids. And the second thing is, when you lose your loved one, sometimes, you know, they very easily they could’ve been saved, if there was a bit of procedure in place in the schools or with counsellors or psychiatrists. And coming together, we’ve realised this common thread of—oh it’s a strong word—negligence. And what happens is that the organisations and institutions just wanted us mums to go away. To shut up—grieving, probably mentally disturbed—go away, don’t rock the boat. But we’ve realised that this has happened so often; there is something wrong, and it needs to be addressed.

So, when you ask for any call or message—I don’t want to be presumptuous and speak on behalf of the mother’s group, but we feel that this is a national emergency. And that we’ve got to save these kids, we’ve got to give them hope for the future; they’re precious. We’ve got to—not just to encourage them, we’ve got to reach, and give them really clear places they can reach out. And also we’ve got to be more aware of what they’re seeing on social media. One or two mothers have shared how their child googled ‘how to kill yourself’ and followed the techniques online.

I don’t have the answers at all. But I’m just showing you the problems we’ve got, the urgency of this issue, and that if any of you in any way feel you can help them, then please help, there are many ways to help. As I say, look at your inner voice, and what skills you have, but that’s my message.
(…)

Also just quickly on men, with the suicide prevention, I think it can be more gender-based—ways of looking at prevention, because I think men in particular keep things bottled out, and you got this great burden on you to be providers of the family, to keep it all together. And that’s just another thing on you and it can become a lot of big pressure. So, if there was a way for men here to know its ok to say I need some help, just sending a vibe out to anyone who might need help that way.

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Linda Collins has an MA in Creative Writing. Journals in which her work appears include Cordite Review and The Fib Review. With her late daughter, Victoria McLeod, she has poetry forthcoming in Voicing Suicide (Ekstasis Editions, Canada). Her memoir, Loss Adjustment, is published by Ethos Books Singapore. She copyedits for The Straits Times.

Akshita Nanda is the author of Beauty Queens of Bishan (Penguin Random House Southeast Asia, 2019) and Nimita’s Place (shortlisted for the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and adapted for the stage by TheatreWorks, 2019). A journalist at The Straits Times since 2007, she is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

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