Loss Adjustment by Linda Collins (Awa Press, 2020), 300pp., $40
‘I will commit the worst thing you can ever do to someone who loves you,’ writes 17-year-old Victoria. ‘Killing yourself. The scary thing is, I’m okay with that.’
Fifteen days later, and six pages into Loss Adjustment, that okay-ness shatters what should have been just another school day, when New Zealand journalist Linda Collins and her partner, photographer Malcolm McLeod, are driven the short distance from their Singapore apartment to find their daughter lying broken and lifeless on a concrete-tiled path.
Their world stops; their lives slam into a wall of confusion, despair, irresolvable grief.
The loss of a friend or colleague to suicide is a process of shock, sadness, questioning and relentless conjecturing—a gyre of emotion spiralling around the dark and unimaginable pain of the family. We stand back, unable to find words, unable to stand in their place, unable to imagine the unfathomable pit of grief into which they have been thrown.
In this absorbing, honest and important account of her daughter’s suicide, Collins takes us into that place as a distraught mother but also as a journalist. She does her research, poring over her daughter’s journals, trawling through school notes and psychological assessments. She enrols in a year-long diploma in learning disorders; she talks to counsellors, psychologists, her daughter’s school friends. She joins a bereavement support group, she visits a Tarot card reader. She explores Islam, she attends a Methodist church, then an Anglican church, then a Catholic church.
She follows the voice in her head telling her to go to the tenth-floor ledge of the condominium building from which, on 14 April 2014, Victoria took her last, fatal step.
Etched into the concrete is a heart with the words ‘Bye Mum’. She peers down at the tiles below: ‘I still don’t understand. But at least I have tried to fall with her.’
Then she writes.
Loss Adjustment is a chronological account of half a decade of impossible adjustment. It begins with numb disbelief, confusion, the rituals and requirements of a traditional Chinese-style wake—Singaporeans, we are told, are ‘old hands at this death business’—and the kindness of neighbours and work colleagues.
It follows Collins’ frantic search for answers as to why the tenth-floor ledge became such an ineluctable lure for her sparkling, caring, creative daughter. These become clearer following her discovery of Victoria’s journals, and later her laptop. Diary entries, poems, a short story, even a school video project reveal a slow-building tsunami of self-doubt. She is fearful of academic failure: ‘I know that when I see those grades bold and black on a piece of paper,’ she writes, ‘I will either jump for joy, or jump off the top floor of this condo.’ She is confused about her sexual orientation (this in a country with little tolerance for same-sex relationships), she is tormented by her own shyness and the unrelenting bullying of her schoolmates. She was not, we are told, one of the cool kids.
But Victoria struggles in silence. She cuts herself (just scratches from the cat, she assures her parents), she keeps a low profile. As she notes in her diary, ‘I just wanted the shit in my head to stop.’
For Collins, it is a wounding process of self-censure. Were she and her partner Malcolm neglectful? How did they not see the signs? Were they jinxed? ‘To realise that your own flesh and blood suffered this way and had such dark thoughts is almost unbearable. How could we have been so blind? Why did Victoria not tell us?’
But the diary entries, the stories, the insights of close friends who still keep her memory alive all help break the lacerating cycle of self-blame.
What made not dying a seemingly impossible option? Victoria’s academic struggles and, to a certain extent, her social awkwardness, suggest ADHD, dyspraxia, perhaps OCD. ‘There is no doubt, with the benefit of hindsight, that my daughter was deeply disturbed and needed medical intervention.’
The lack of appropriate intervention at her daughter’s school, an unnamed private school catering to international students, is reprehensible. The case notes from Victoria’s counselling sessions are incomplete; a psychological assessment showing signs of ADHD was not passed on to new teachers; allegations of bullying were left unaddressed. Surprised at the resounding silence from the school community following Victoria’s death, Collins discovers parents and students were told she and Malcolm wanted to be left alone in their grief. This was untrue.
They meet the school counsellor, ‘Mrs C.’. She is fearful and defensive. ‘It hits us that we are in the presence of corporate functionaries,’ writes Collins.
Collins finds an uncomfortable parallel with the insurance battles she and Malcolm have had to work through to receive a fair payout for their earthquake-wrecked house in Christchurch. ‘Just as our insurance company has succeeded in reducing its damage limitation with our house, the school has succeeded in controlling any negative fallout from Victoria’s death.’
The resulting book could be harrowing, it could be angry and emotive—all of which would make complete sense—but only in one short paragraph does Collins give voice to her fury. In place of the quietly grieving figure at her daughter’s funeral, she imagines herself as a ‘maniacal mother springing out of a grief box’, accusing the ‘perfect bullies’ from her daughter’s school of murder, throwing herself shrieking and howling on the coffin.
We understand her rage. But that is not this book.
It could be instructive, an advisory text for other grieving families. But again, while there is a list of support agencies at the end, that is not this book.
Instead, Loss Adjustment is the singular and compelling story of a mother trying to acclimatise to the fact that her smart and thoughtful daughter, who loved her parents and knew she was loved by them, chose to step off this life.
‘Without her,’ writes Collins, ‘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.’
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance journalist and writer in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury. She was books and culture editor for the NZ Listener and a judge (fiction) in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She was awarded MPA Journalist of the Year in 2020 and was runner up as Reviewer of the Year in this year’s Voyager Media Awards.