How do you pick up the pieces of a shattered family? Though she tries every day to be strong for those left behind, Teena Conway tells ASHLEY ARGOON you can never be the same after losing a child to suicide.
EVERY year, Teena Conway writes a card for her son, Zac, on his birthday.
She buys him a cake, her family sings Happy Birthday and his brothers blow out the candles.
But there will be no more celebrations with his family because two years ago the 15-year-old took his own life.
“Even though he’s not physically here, he’s still part of the family,” Teena says.
A cheeky boy with a cheeky grin, Zac was the life of the party, always trying to make everyone laugh.
On the balcony of their home, he would moonwalk and shuffle, dancing to his favourite Chris Brown and Usher tracks, trying to elicit a smile from the person inside.
He was a “freak” at gymnastics, and could do a backflip off anything.
A talented athlete, he won best and fairest in his last season of footy in the under-13s with Lavington Panthers and he represented Murray High School in state sprinting competitions.
He would slide down the stairs on mattresses with his little brothers when their mother wasn’t home.
But when he was 13, Zac started to change.
He lost interest in sports and in his friends.
Instead, he would stay in bed and sleep. He wouldn’t leave the house.
“I didn’t really understand it,” Teena says.
“I put it down to problems with a girlfriend and just teenage growing up.”
Although she didn’t know what was happening with Zac, Teena did ask for help.
She went to a doctor, who said Zac was going through typical teenage hormones, that he would snap out of it.
She called a psychologist but the only available appointment was in a year’s time.
She sought out programs and got Zac to talk to a mental health service on the phone, but he hung up.
The counsellor said she would call back.
It was a Tuesday.
A representative of the service called back on Friday.
Zac took his life the previous day.
IT was April 8, 2010.It was school holidays and Zac was helping with chores.
Folding clothes, he made jokes and laughed as he took Teena’s underwear off the line.
He played video games with his younger brothers.
Trent Birch remembers looking in the rumpus room to see them all together, playing the Xbox, having fun.
Outside for a cigarette, Trent and Zac had a brief chat before Trent went to his room to watch a movie.
It would be the last time he saw his younger brother alive.
TODD Birch was working in Weethalle as a civil engineer when Trent got the news to him that Zac had died.
As he came back into mobile range on his way home to Albury, there were 13 missed calls from Zac the night before.
In the voice messages and texts, Zac said he was struggling, that he couldn’t do it, that he wanted Todd to call him.
“To know he tried to contact me and couldn’t get on to me, it’s a kick in the guts,” Todd says.
“I always think, if he had been able to talk to me, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
The death of a younger brother and best friend has left an indescribable absence.
Todd remembers the pair would often go for drives together, Zac sitting in the front seat skipping through all the songs he didn’t like.
Todd recently bought a new stereo, which often skips songs on its own.
“It feels like Zac doesn’t like it, that he’s changing the song,” Todd says.
Four years before he died, Zac bought Todd an air freshener for his car — a fake $100 note — because he thought it would look funny hanging from his rear-vision mirror.
It is still there.
Once, in a desperate bid for reassurance, Todd emailed a psychic in the United States and asked her if his brother was still with him, still around in some way.
She wrote: “I can see something dangling from your rear-vision mirror.”
It’s a comfort, of sorts.
BUT there is no real comfort for a family who have become “shadows of our former selves”, says Trent, 20.
“I find it really hard all the time,” he says.
“I’m probably about 50 times more withdrawn; I don’t talk, I hardly eat, I haven’t eaten properly in about a year.
“I used to be a bit of a drinker, a party person, but now I have, maybe, a drink a month.
“I care way too much for everything, even the little things seem to get to me really quickly and it’s affected me way more than I like as well.
“I started seeing a psychiatrist (to help me).”
Frighteningly, Trent admits he, too, has had suicidal thoughts.
“Everything just piles up and up and up and you bottle it up and then it comes out and you don’t know what to do,” he says.
“Most of the time it’s just anger, sadness.
“It’ll never get easier.”
Although there are times when he wishes his own pain was over, Trent has no wish for his family to suffer further.
SINCE Zac’s death the family business has dissolved, they have moved house twice and Teena’s marriage has ended.
“There is no such thing as normal for us any more, not our normal,” Teena says.
She takes anti-depressants through the day and sleeping pills at night.
“I never ever thought there would be a day where I would have to take pills to function but I envisage I will (have to) until I die,” she says.
“My nine-year-old often says, ‘Mum, I wish Zac was here’, he doesn’t understand ...”
“The 10-year-old, he’s just blown away, he’s so angry he lashes out at whatever and whoever.
“The 24-year-old, his engagement and relationship of six years is over, it’s finished.
“He’s come back home to live for support and to be with family, he found it hard to be committed.”
Teena tries to stay strong on the outside for her family.
Inside it’s a different story.
“A lot of people say that I am strong, but they only see what I present to them,” she says.
“They don’t see what’s in here, and what’s in here (pointing to her heart and her head) because from when he died to now and (probably) until I die, he comes into everything, every equation, everything you go to do.
“I still think he’s here, whether that’s my coping mechanism I don’t know.”
TRENT still feels Zac’s presence.
His little brother was that person who was always there for him, whether for a chat or just to sit beside.
“I can’t remember much, I try to block most of it out just because it’s hard to deal with,” Trent says.
“But the stuff that always gets through is how he’s always been there for me and I feel like he’s still there all the time.
“He’d drop everything for me and I would have done the same for him.”
Draped around Trent’s neck is a necklace holding Zac’s ashes.
Every member of the family has one just like it.
“I don’t even take it off when I’m supposed to and I never will,” Trent vows.
He has a photo of Zac tucked in his wallet, which he carries everywhere he goes.
Teena carries Zac around with her as well.
She had a portrait of her son tattooed on her back, tribute poems inked up her arm and leg, and his name, birth and death date etched on her wrist.
The walls of their North Albury home are covered with photos of him.
“It’s true what they say, after someone dies you seem to want more things around of them,” she says.
“He’s not gone, he’s just not physically here.
“I know he’s still with me and he always will be.”
Having friends of Zac’s still drop around has also helped.
Todd says without their support, “I would have lost it a long time ago”.
“It’s great to know even though Zac’s gone his friends still wish to be here for our family,” he says.
“I just want to say thank you to his mates who have stuck by us.”
EVERY hour, every day, Teena asks herself “Why?”
“It’s the one question that I know I will never get the answers to and it’s the one question we all have our own thoughts on why it’s happened,” she says.
“But there is only one person who will ever know and he can’t tell us.”
Teena wishes she could have told her son that he had so much to live for, that so many people loved him and wanted him around.
She says she would do anything to go back in time and stop it from happening.
“He loved us, I know he loved us and I know he wouldn’t have wanted to do it,” Teena says.
“But at that time, they’re just in so much pain.”
Teena believes if Zac had died another way, it would be different.
“You think, I should have seen this or I should have seen that and I could have prevented it, I could have stopped it,” Teena says.
“Looking in my boys’ eyes and seeing their pain just makes me think was there more I could have done to prevent it?
“Any loss of a young life or any life is a tragedy but to know that they’ve actually taken their own life, you blame yourself.”
WHAT Teena doesn’t want to see is another family go through this anguish.
Since Zac died, several of his friends have told her they had contemplated suicide.
But they also said that after witnessing the family’s pain, they did not take that step.
It’s clear to Teena the Border is in need of more youth services.
She believes a headspace centre is vital.
“There’s not enough services,” she says.
For now, Teena hopes that telling her family’s story might help save just one life.
It is for this reason she joined the Albury-Wodonga Regional Suicide Prevention Network.
She wants to help others at risk or suffering the grief of losing a loved one to suicide.
“If everyone did something, reached out to someone they knew was suffering and let them know they were not alone, then maybe other families wouldn’t have to go through what we did and we could all work together to keep our young people safe,” she says.
“People have got to be able to talk about it so they know there is someone out there willing to help, willing to get them to where they need to be safe.
“No one wants to talk about it, and that’s the biggest problem.”