Loss Adjustment - Linda Collins
Imagine going in to wake your child for school to find an empty bed. Then imagine a sobbing security guard appears at your door. Can you, like me, feel the bewilderment, fear and dawning horror as a kind of physical pain? Can you bear it?
This is what happened to New Zealanders Linda Collins and her husband Malcolm McLeod on the morning of 14 April 2014, the morning they discovered their beloved only daughter, 17-year-old Victoria Skye Pringle McLeod, had committed suicide near their home in Singapore. Loss Adjustment is Collins’ clear-eyed memoir of navigating, and somehow accommodating, this tragic loss.
I let this book sit unopened for several weeks before I could bring myself to read it, knowing what anguish its pages might contain. Even once I picked it up, I had several false starts, unable to move past the opening paragraphs, in which Collins describes her innocent movements that morning, before the terrible discovery. I didn’t want to read on and make it real.
But it is real, of course, for Collins and for thousands of parents and families who have lost loved ones to suicide and we do them no favours by looking away. Collins is a generous narrator; she doesn’t shy away from the hardest moments nor does she wring them out for dramatic effect.
Her carefully crafted sentences convey pain and invite us to look right at it but they also provide moments of respite, gratitude, even humour. A few pages in, I felt myself relax into her story realising I was in safe hands. A mother’s hands. Yes, she seemed to be saying to me, this is hard, it’s terrible, but we can face it together. Of course, the tragedy is that she never got to say this to her daughter.
Collins and McLeod had no idea anything was amiss with Victoria, barring minor anxieties about exam results and fluctuating teenage friendships. All perfectly normal, they thought. But Victoria had been self-harming and experiencing suicidal impulses for at least three years before her death and assiduously hiding these feelings from her parents. It was all there in her detailed journals (quoted extensively) which Collins discovered and read, horror-struck, after Victoria’s death. Friends knew bits and pieces. A shockingly unprofessional guidance counsellor at Victoria’s private international school probably knew quite a lot. But no one did anything and Victoria died.
Collins agonises about what she could have done differently. Should she have disregarded Victoria’s privacy and read her diaries when she was still alive? Taken a closer interest in what was going on for Victoria at school? Paid less attention to the stressful rebuild of their earthquake-damaged house in Christchurch that she was trying to navigate from afar? When the futility of these questions exhausts her, Collins turns outwards: she confronts the school. She contacts Victoria’s friends. She researches what might have been cognitively affecting Victoria and how to support others in the same position. She even gets to experience a strange, heart-breaking moment of maternal pride when Victoria’s lucid writing – shared with researchers investigating teenage suicide and published in a book on the subject – is praised in the New Yorker. She was special and Collins was her mother. That is something.
In Loss Adjustment, Collins guides us gently through what happens after the worst happens, after everything is broken. This is not a story of repair. As Collins notes, “Without her, every waking hour of every day is overshadowed by her loss. It is something no amount of choice therapy, behavioural approaches and realigned mindsets can ‘fix’. You can only accept it, seek kindness in yourself and others, take yourself out of yourself with acts of generosity, be positive, take pleasure in small things, find gratitude within the pain, and make some sort of life around it.” This is a story of adjustment and Collins’ remarkable, generous, brave account shows that even in the face of terrible trauma, adjustment is possible. I think readers who have lost loved ones to suicide, or lived through other shocking traumas, will find it hugely reassuring.