Grief is an Extension of Love
A journalist writes, unflinchingly and tenderly, about living with her daughter's suicide
By Stephanie Ye
Years ago, I was colleagues with Linda Collins at The Straits Times, though I did not know her well. I remember a strict copyeditor of the old school, unsparing of flabby prose and your feelings, a skilled wielder of the written word. Her partner Malcolm McLeod was also from New Zealand and working in the newsroom as a senior editor on the picture desk. In April 2014, after I had left the paper, I was sad when I heard that their only child, Victoria, had killed herself by jumping from a block in the condominium complex where the family lived. She was seventeen.
Five years on, Collins has put into words her experience of living with her daughter's death. In the opening pages of Loss Adjustment, she wakes from a dream about her daughter, steps briefly into normal life (makes toast, prepares coffee), then is plunged, permanently, into a nightmare. No one can believe the unbelievable, and so it is blunt denial she feels when the condo security guard appears, crying, and asks the parents to follow him: "We don't want to go. We cling to what should be. The school bus will be here soon."
The immediate aftermath of Victoria's death was a haze of horror, shock, grief and prescription sedatives, but Collins registered enough to recollect details that convey the utter hostility of the new country she finds herself inhabiting. When the police discover Victoria's slippers and phone on the floor from which she must have jumped, Collins notes that the inspector smiles: "I realise dimly that in their eyes we are no longer murderers." Later, going to the morgue to identify Victoria's body: "It is an upturned bird, with its claws tightly bent, dead on the floor of a cage."
This dislocation from normal life is, for Collins, heightened by their situation as foreigners in Singapore, the strangeness of local mourning rituals echoing the unfamiliarity of bereavement. She conveys how the Singapore-style wake at funeral parlour Singapore Casket, with visitors eating and drinking right next to the open coffin, is at once grotesque yet strangely comforting, "a de facto apartment living-room". She writes with dark humour of the cremation being at Mandai Crematorium Hall 3: "Three is a good number, I think: better than being in hall four, which is regarded by the Chinese as inauspicious, as it sounds like the word for death in Mandarin. But what am I thinking? She is dead." When they go to collect her ashes and are instead confronted with chunks of their daughter's bones: "We should have ticked 'Grinding' in the cremation package list."
Amidst the darkness, she takes comfort in human kindness: from the colleagues who rally round to handle funeral arrangements (I was pleased to read how various people I knew had conducted themselves so thoughtfully and compassionately), to the practical British ladies of Collins' tennis group, who inundate the household with a tsunami of lasagnas and soups.
But it is after the busyness of dealing with death, when the visitors have gone away and the last baked-pasta dish has been eaten, that the real work starts: that of continuing to live. Here, Collins's home country provides a metaphor. The family had a house in Christchurch that was completely destroyed in the 2011 earthquake; in the years before Victoria's death, and in the years afterwards, a good chunk of Collins' time was spent trying to recoup this loss: "I wanted the insurer to honour my policy, and either build me a replacement house, or compensate me financially. The insurance term is 'adjusting for the loss'."
The insurer agrees to build a replacement house, but of course they and the builders try to get away with doing the bare minimum with the cheapest possible materials. The house would eventually be completed only three years after Victoria died; it would be a shoddy substitute, a grimly appropriate symbol of the life Collins finds herself left with after her daughter's suicide.
When the grieving mother does find a path forward, it is made not of bricks, but of words. She discovers a trove of Victoria's writings, stashed on her laptop and in paper diaries hidden under her bed. In these journal entries and poems, Victoria tells her story; in this way, Collins meets her daughter againó indeed, she discovers sides of her daughter she had not known existed.
The memoir opens with a quote from the journal Victoria had kept on her laptop, written less than a month before her suicide: "I will commit the worst thing you can ever do to someone who loves you: killing yourself. The scary thing is, I'm okay with that."
Intelligent, observant and self-aware, Victoria takes her mother on a journey through not teenage angst but, instead a deep, dark depression, an unrelenting state fed, in various degrees, by Victoria's developmental disorders (she had ADHD), struggles with relationships and sexuality, and a toxic social environment at her school that was all but ignored by those in authority.
In investigating her daughter's life, Collins takes stock of her own. She, too, has felt alienation: as a non-Singaporean in Singapore, as an expat excluded from the expat club, with their cushy salaries and high-society ways. She reflects on breakdowns in communication, in patterns of destructiveness in her family history. Usually a no-nonsense person, she muses on hauntings and about hearing her daughter's voice in her head. A lapsed Catholic, she explores different faiths. She goes for counselling. She replays conversations with Victoria that now seem heavy with foreshadowing and wonders why she did not see, whether she could ever have seen.
Victoria's thoughts eventually led the teenager to bring her life to an end; but for her mother, there is no end in sight. After an email correspondent refers to Collins's "current mental health", she reflects: "Grief can't be cured, though it can be diverted, for a while. It is not an illness. Grief is an extension of love, and if you loved your child, you can't stop loving them and therefore you can't stop grieving."
This is not a book with an inspirational, redemptive conclusion, though Collins does declare a life purpose: she wants to ensure that Victoria's voice is heard. "I put my grief to positive use by letting Victoria's journal writing make its way in the world so that she might help others," she writes, and indeed, in the years since her death, Victoria's writings and life story have appeared in various publications about suicide, including a well-reviewed book that, her mother proudly notes, resulted in snippets of Victoria's journals being quoted in an article in The New Yorker.
Collins is putting her own experience on the record, describing what it is like to be a permanent resident of a country no one ever wants to visit. She is a reluctant but determined correspondent; without wanting to come off as glib, perhaps it is the journalist in her which feels that since she has to live through this anyway, she might as well get some decent stories out of it.
At a gathering at their home after Victoria's funeral, Collins observes a picture-desk colleague taking photographs: "Taking photos is a reflexive act for these people; it's not someone avoiding the reality of grief by hiding behind a lens, but documenting it in order that we perhaps might make some sense of it."
Collins is a writer, and so she writes.QLRS Vol. 18. No. 4 Oct 2019