Grieving a son who took his own life


LIFE stood still for Jeanette Hartley in the aftermath of her son’s suicide.

It was like someone had hit an internal pause button and she was frozen while life continued on around her.

Her body didn’t work, neither did her brain.

Adam, one of Jeanette’s four children, was 17 when he took his own life in Bendigo in 2002. It was something she didn’t see coming.

“At high school Adam was a troubled young man,” she said.

“Traditional school didn’t suit him. But (just before his death) he had a job and was as happy as Larry.

“It (Adam’s suicide) wasn’t foreseeable at the time.”

Mother’s guilt was something Jeanette struggled with. She doubted her parenting ability. She wondered if people looked at her differently, thought about her differently, even treated her differently.

“At the time, as a mother I thought ‘I should fix things, but I can’t fix Adam’,”she said.

“To lose that touch of Adam, that was one of the hardest things to deal with.

“I certainly felt like I was (being treated differently) but I’m not sure if I was.

“Everyone was asking why, which is the obvious question to ask... but it can happen to any family.”

Resilience is a character trait that runs deep in Jeanette, so is the desire to help people.

The Wangaratta-based teacher has worked with troubled kids for years, first in Bendigo through Continuing Education then through Bendigo TAFE and now at an alternative education school called Borinya.

Jeanette never sought out someone or something to blame. She never blamed Adam for what happened. She never hated.

Instead, Jeanette sought help at the Bendigo Suicide Support group to begin with, but it was in the great outdoors, hiking in particular, where she found true solace.

It was on a trip with colleagues and kids from BRIT that Jeanette experienced a breakthrough in her search to cope after Adam’s death.

“We went on a white water trip down the Snowy River. It gave me such a sense of ‘oh I can do stuff’. I came out of that trip thinking, ‘I can make it’,” she said.

This year marks 10 years of life without Adam for the Hartley family, which includes siblings Brett, Raquel, Rebeka and dad Mark.

Tattoos dot Jeanette’s body in memory of her son. Most take on a round shape, reminding her about the circle of life; reminding her that while Adam may not be physically here, the memory of him always will be.

“I like to think of him as still being around... there are instances where I think, ‘oh Adam would like that’,” she said.

“There’s that sense of him still, like I can hear his laugh or feel him give me a pat on the back.”

Laugher bubbles through Jeanette’s voice as she recounts memories of Adam.

His laugh is one of the things she misses most. Its “cheekiness and rebelliousness” is one of her favourite memories.

This is the first time since Adam’s death that she has spoken publicly about what she went through.

In her own way, this is how Jeanette is marking Adam’s 10 year anniversary. She hopes it might help others and reduce the stigma that surrounds suicide.

“A child dying is so scary to a parent’s personality,” she said.

“You just need so much support.

“Finding that something that gives you peace is important. For me, it’s hiking.”

Life is full for Jeanette and while there will always be a spot where Adam used to be, she takes comfort in friends and family, in particular Brett, Raquel, Rebeka and her new grandson Nate.

“We will tell him of his uncle Adam,” she said

“It (Nate’s birth) is so exciting. There’s so much joy, it’s like my heart is singing.”

If you have been bereaved by suicide call the Salvation Army Hope for Life on 1300 467 354 or visit the Support After Suicide website at