The first recollection of the day I found my dad’s dead body.

Brendan McDonnell.comMy dad circa 1983. Age 19 or 20. His powerful self, the way I remember him in my mind.

This is something I hold very close so I’d like to provide some context and clarify a few things. Only 3 people have read it until now. It isn’t eloquently written or by any means a masterpiece of modern literature, but I think it is relatively new information. It is the start of a boy’s process of overcoming his father’s suicide. It is the first ever recollection of the day I found my dad’s dead body exactly as it was written in my journal word for word. I am not sharing this to victimise myself or make anyone sad. I am not sad. I am happy. The point is, if I never had have recalled the day I found my dad’s dead body I wouldn’t be happy.

It is a fact that everyone deals with experiences differently. Despite this, I think that naturally as human beings, no matter how ‘tough’ we think we are, we focus our energy away from hurtful experiences (where possible) in order to survive. In order to survive the grief of her life partner taking his own life, my mother needed to go away. She needed space. So, I was left alone. I crawled into a shell and emotionally shut myself off from the rest of the world. I remained in that shell from November 18th, 2007 until May 22nd, 2012, the day of my first ever recollection.

I was young and alone after my dad’s death, but for some reason I never really ran off course. This is probably because I had an older brother who was a very strong and proud McDonnell male who, during this time, remained very composed. Also, I was lucky enough to be blessed with a mother and father who both possessed incredibly strong sets of values. These values were instilled in me from a very young age and even though my father decided to kill himself, his teachings remain true in me. These teachings are what allowed me to make the choices to focus my energy in positive directions during this chapter of my life. One of these choices was to begin practice in martial arts.

Brendan McDonnellMy beautiful family, circa 1998. Me looking badass rocking a Canadian tuxedo front and centre.

Toward the end of my initial grieving process, when I was almost 16, I discovered the art of Muay Thai or Thai boxing. Muay Thai gave me a means to express myself and in a sense, a place to hide from what was happening in my life. This is where I found self-discipline and later became a fighter. The self-discipline I gained in the gym then directly translated into high school and university studies where I was very successful. I can say with no uncertainty that Muay Thai has played a huge role in my life and without it I wouldn’t be living on the other side of the world sharing my story now.

Moving forward… Upon completion of the FIRST semester of the THIRD year of my FIRST university degree (Bachelor of Design Studies Majoring in Architectural and Landscape Studies at the University of Adelaide) I became depressed. Not clinically depressed, but more depressed than I’d ever felt. It was almost 5 years since my dad’s death and I was 20 years old. I was living in a share-house with friends in the Adelaide CBD and I would sit in my bedroom alone and confused looking at the trophies and certificates I’d accumulated on the walls and cry. As far as I could comprehend at that point I had achieved everything I sought to achieve and when university was coming to a close I had nothing more to focus my energy on. This was when I really started questioning “why am I doing this?” and “is there anything more than this?”

I am the youngest of three brothers and I was the person to discover my dad’s dead body. Naturally, on the surface this caused his death to affect me the most. I had a relatively lengthy battle with intrusive imagery and my father left a suicide letter personally addressed to me. He knew that because I was the youngest his absence would affect me the most. But, I doubt he would have considered me discovering his body, so the letter was like the icing on the cake for me when it was found under his bed a few days after his death. That’s a different story that I will tell very soon.

 

Not long after the death I was forced to see a psychologist with my two older brothers. Like I said, at this stage I was in a shell. During the sessions we attended I remained in utter silence. The psychologist knew my circumstances and could see the death was profoundly affecting me. As she would later tell me, she also knew that one day I may return to her.

As it turned out my return to that very same office would be less than 5 years later, on May 21st, 2012. This is interesting because from what I understand, the bereavement through suicide process can be quite lengthy under my circumstances. In short, I became very angry, I would profusely swear at inanimate objects daily and I wasn’t sure why. I needed answers so I sought help. I went back to the psychologist and she told me to start writing. The next day I sat down in my back garden and started. I haven’t stopped ever since.

So, here it is, exactly as it was written in my A4 note pad. The first ever recollection of the day I found my dad’s dead body.

 

Brendan McDonnellThe A4 note pad where it all began.

May 22nd, 2012. Early morning. Feeling fresh. Sitting on the couch in the back garden of our share-house at Hamilton Place, Adelaide City.

November 2007. The 17th of November.

I vaguely remember receiving a telephone call from my brother while I was on the Somerton Park/ Brighton Esplanade with my mates. He said “come home and see dad; spend some time with him…” or something like that. I was hesitant because at the time I had lost my bond with my father. He’d been in and out of the Margaret-Tobin Centre and Glenside Mental Hospital battling depression. As a fifteen-year-old boy I didn’t understand that his mind was sick and disease was consuming it.

I decided to go home after my brother persuaded me over the phone. When I returned home I vaguely remember dad laying on the couch in the living room, blankly staring at the television screen. He did this a lot during the periods where his sickness was bad.

Dad and I ended up going to Brighton beach together in his maroon Toyota Camry. He was very pale and a lot thinner than the image I had of him in my mind. He was always this large, powerful figure to me. The wrinkles on his face seemed to stick out more than usual too. It was a hot day in November so we decided to go for a swim, just left of the Brighton Jetty. I ran and dived into the brisk water. Dad walked ever so slowly out into the water, the same blank look on his face. It was as if he could not feel the cold water on his white, tattooed skin. Nothing would have fazed him in that moment.

The morale slowly built as dad and I stood in the water, chest deep, looking back at the esplanade. We spoke a little, I can’t remember what it was about, but it made him and I feel better. It was as if we were re-establishing the close bond we used to have.

After a short period we walked back up the beach to the Camry and dried ourselves with towels. The bitumen of the road was hot and burning my bare feet. Again, this didn’t faze dad. In the car it was stuffy and it had a used-car-dealership/ cigarette smell.

We only had to drive around 2 kilometres back to our home in North Brighton. Again vaguely, I remember getting home and sitting in the living room with my dad for a little while and things feeling better than usual. At least we were speaking a little. I felt a sense of affection and care for dad again, like in the past. Obviously, I had no idea what he was thinking at the time though.

After a while I became bored and thought I’d go for a ride to my mate Henry’s. It was strange though because I didn’t want to leave dad lying the on the couch. Not like any other recent time. There was something telling me to stay and spend more time with him. I went and got my bicycle helmet and went back into the living room. I can’t remember my exact words, but I said to my dad “I’m off to Henry’s are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” or “Should I head to Henry’s or do you want me to stay?” From what I perceived at the time, he seemed to be ok and he told me to go. I left but was hesitant for some reason. Riding to Henry’s I thought about Dad for a minute then everything went back to normal in my mind.

 

Little did I know that those would be the last words I’d speak to my father. I got to Henry’s and we decided to watch 300 the movie. Just before the end, for some reason we both got up and decided to ride back to my place. We took a bit of a strange route back to my place, winding through the backstreets rather than taking the most direct route. Being November, the Jacaranda flowers were in bloom on a street close to my house. The scent of the flowers was strong and the foliage created a bit of a canopy over part of the street. The sunlight shining in between was perforated.

Brendan McDonnellJacaranda street trees in bloom perforating the sky.

We got off our bikes in the front yard of my home, our shoes making a crunching noise as we walked over the blue gravel that covered almost the entirety of my front yard. We walked up to the big black gate that opened into the carport and back yard. From the gate there is a direct view of the big heritage cream coloured shed my Dad built. The shed door was partially open. I could see something strange inside. As I walked down the carport into the backyard I took more glances before I began to decipher in my mind what I could see. As I got to the shed door I came to terms with what I could see…

 

I could see my father, two metres in front of me, hanging from the 10-foot high rafters of the steel-framed shed. There was an orange electrical chord around his neck as his noose. His eyes were shut, his head was slanted to the side leaning on his right shoulder and there was a small step-ladder just below him. He was whiter than ever, cold, expressionless, limp, his head hanging to the side. I let out a high-pitched scream, threw my bicycle onto the ground, and slammed the shed door as hard as I could.

This image haunted me for a very long time.

 

Brendan McDonnellThe the blue gravel, big black gates and the view down the carport into the shed.

At the time, Henry was 1 metre behind me and also caught a glimpse of my father. I’m not sure how he interpreted it but straight away he began trying to help me. I was screaming uncontrollable. We left the bikes and the closed shed and ran inside and then to the front yard. No one was home. My brother Matthew was at Clayton Bay which is an hour or so away, my other brother Gavin was out somewhere close and god only knows where my mother Debbie was.

I was screaming “Why! Why!”“No!” and swearing uncontrollably. I could not stop pacing around. Henry and I were both holding our heads; our eyes were puffed up red, tears flowing, screaming and pacing around like people in mental asylums in the movies. I ran out onto the road like an insane man and threw the sunglasses that I had sitting on my head as hard as I could into the bitumen. Henry followed me and then went and sat in the gutter. I was angry and sad and confused, screaming and crying. I didn’t know what to do. I was distraught. I began talking to my Dad, “No dad!”, “Why dad!”, “This can’t happen!” I was in the middle of the road oblivious to the world, in shock, like I was crazy. But mind you I was a small, pubescent child.

A car came around the corner toward where I was standing in its way. The people inside the car were old. They could see that we both were incredibly distressed and drove very slowly, looking at us. Unsure what was going on or how to help the two of us. I cursed at them and they drove away.

After a while I began to find my bearings. I called triple zero. I was unable to communicate with the lady on the line I was too distraught. I screamed into the phone, “Just send someone, my dads hanging from the shed!” then hung up. Then I tried calling my mother. I can’t even begin to explain the sadness and anger that was culminating within me. Debbie didn’t answer here phone and after multiple call I gave up on her. At this point my relationship with my mother was already weak. She was out nearly ever day and night trying to escape the clutches of mental illness that were consuming not only her partner but her oldest son too. I had developed a huge amount of resent toward her already.

I didn’t know whom to call. I was so alone. My brother Matthew was far away and calling him would have created problems so I didn’t call him. I did not even think about calling my eldest brother Gavin, at that point I had also developed a huge amount of resent, bitterness and near hatred toward him. He represented everything I never wanted to be.

I called Michaela. She is the mother of one of my closest friends at the time. I would spend most nights at their house and she had become like a second mother to me. Of course, she answered my call and straight away told me she was on her way.

 

Time was going by very slowly. Henry and I were still out the front like lost souls floating around in space. Not long passed and two of my uncles Luke and Nathaniel arrived at my house for a random visit. They are youngest, twin-brothers of my father. They arrived not knowing anything had happened. They got out of their van only to find Henry and I out on the road in a state of hysteria. I can’t remember saying anything to them, but as soon as they saw me I could see that they may have known what had happened. They ran straight inside. One minute later I heard the scream of my uncle Nathaniel. It was like he was being murdered. The loudest, most disturbing sound I have ever come from the vocal cords of a human being.

‘End of Entry’

Continuation of the day I found my dad’s dead body. Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 at 4:45pm. 17 Hamilton Place, Adelaide City.

Exactly as it was written.

After my twin Uncles Luke and Nathaniel arrived and discovered what had happened in the shed that day, I think they were the ones to take dad’s body down from where it hung. It wasn’t dad though, it was only his shell. One after the other, family and friends arrived at my home on Cecelia Street, North Brighton until the entire street was filled with cars. Michaela, my good mate’s mother, came next in her white VL commodore. She hugged me and I clearly remember her saying to me repeatedly “I wish I could take your pain away Bren, but I can’t mate.” She is a very compassionate and caring woman and I thanked her for everything she did for me during this period the only way I knew how, in the form of ‘Lindt chocolate balls’. Henry’s mother arrived too, took him in her arms and consoled him. I’d never seen him hug or show any form of affection towards his mother until that moment.

I remained in the sad, angry, confused, distraught state long after finding dad’s body. Time continued to pass by, but it felt like I was in slow motion inside my head. I continued pacing around, only sitting in the gutter for a few seconds irregularly, the people arriving at my home came to me trying to hug and attempt to comfort me. I acknowledged none of them. I couldn’t.

It was still afternoon and the sun was hot. I walked to the park at the end of my street and began walking around the perimeter continuously. The grass was all dry, dead and yellow. I couldn’t see straight, tears filled my eyes. I wasn’t looking at anything but the ground in front of me. I was completely trapped inside my mind. I continued walking around the park, murmuring things to myself for what felt like hours (it wasn’t long). I remember my old Grandfather walking with me for a short time, but he just felt like a stranger walking next to me. People being near me made absolutely no difference. To me at the time they weren’t even there. It was just me alone inside my young, immature, underdeveloped mind trying to combat and understand the demons which had just forced themselves inside.

Brendan McDonnellThe view to the park from the road in front of my house.

My brother Matthew arrived from Clayton Bay in record time, speeding with his mates crammed in a mustard coloured Datsun 1600 Coupe. I believe my mother had told him something had happened but hadn’t gone into detail over the phone. When he came home he came up the street to the park and grabbed me, held me tight in his arms and didn’t let go. I didn’t hug him back but his presence was the only one that I wanted. I acknowledged him and didn’t feel so alone for a minute. He was who I looked up to and wanted to be like when dad was sick. He was like my father figure and best friend. I remember him saying to me in tears while he was holding me tight “I’m sorry it had to be you.” Implying he wished it wasn’t me to discover dad’s dead body. He then had to go see the body for himself, so he left me there for a moment. My whole world had stopped and everything had changed.

 

Matthew, my Aunt Amanda and I gathered around a bench at the park and a female police officer came over to gather a police report from me. She was the mother of a boy in my year at school. So she attempted to level with me but was unsuccessful. I began telling her the days events, just like this writing, only far less eloquently and gasping for air as I spoke. It was hard and I only got up to saying, “I found him hanging” before my brother cut off the cop and told her to go away. Other than this journal, that short interview on the day was the only recollection I’ve made.

I cried until I could cry no more. I must have cried for hours continuously. Shortly after, I returned to my house. Still very sad, only with a little more of my bearings. This is the moment I believe I became withdrawn completely. The moment when the roller door into my mind shut. I sat expressionless against the plastered front wall of the house on the concrete floor looking at nothing.

At the time, my brother Gavin was insane, suffering from Bipolar disorder and drug-induced psychosis. He sped straight into the front yard almost crashing into us all. Seeing his father’s dead body sent him into a spin. He became possessed almost, talking gibberish broken Portuguese-English, screaming. Out of confusion he punched the window of his car and cut his hand on the glass. I felt like murdering him right then and there, holding him down and punching and choking him. I did not understand what was happening in his mind. Resent and hatred toward him influenced my thoughts.

Matthew and I both felt a little angry that the police would be so inconsiderate of me to conduct an interview right then and there in that situation. Still sitting out the front against the wall in silence, I the saw another cop walk out of the front door of my home. Blatantly, in his hand was the electrical chord my father had used to kill himself. Seeing this was unbearable. I felt a sense of hate toward the inconsiderate police officers that day.

Afterwards, people kept coming up to me asking if I wanted to go out to the backyard and see the body one more time on the ground this time. I said no to them all. Some parts of me were telling me to but I couldn’t. My father’s sister, Aunt Cecelia was especially comforting to me around this time and urged me to see the body once more. I did not.

I only saw the paramedics wheel out the body in a black bag on top of a trolley through the gates I had entered earlier that day. At that moment I realised I was not going to see my father again…

‘End of Entry’.

Brendan McDonnellMy 16th birthday (2008) 84 days after I found my dad’s body.

This is something I have wanted to share for a long time. Writing this was the first real step I took to overcome my experience. I reiterate here that I am not trying to victimise myself. I’m trying to show people that we cannot overcome bad experiences or negative behaviours by simple suppressing them. If there is a fear, we must directly confront that fear if the fear is to ever lose its power over you.

Nobody wants to re-live the experience that is discovering their father’s dead body hanging from the roof of their family shed. This is the fear I had and have overcome. I watched the person I respected most on this earth become consumed and overcome by the misery of mental illness and then looked at his lifeless body after he killed himself. This is not a nice experience but it was the card I was dealt. It was not simply going to vanish if I avoided it for long enough.

So, on all levels, avoidance of our problems does not make them go away. You can only avoid your problems for so long before they inevitably have negative effects on you and those around you. Re-visiting, challenging, and analysing experiences should allow you to look from different angles and adopt a wider perspective. You can then begin to resolve and remove the emotions tied to those experiences in order to appreciate them for what they really are and then give them meaning in your life.

Sharing this story helps develop honesty within myself and in turn self-confidence. The two are closely linked. The more honest I am and the more I share my life, the more open I become and the less fear I have. This is self-confidence to me. I want to share my life and help others. The only way I can do so is by honestly and objectively addressing my own problems head on and then sharing them like I’m doing here!

One of the main reasons I’ve withheld this for so long is because I want people to gain something from it. I want you to take something away with you after you finish reading. Honestly, I’ve been afraid of failing to do this by presenting it the wrong way. Recently I’ve realised a few things though.

Don’t quote me on this, but I think that a secret to many successes within the realms of social media is the ability to create tangible comparisons in audience’s minds. In other words the ‘successful person’ presents something; a story, an experience, a lifestyle, their body and the audience make a comparison to their own story, experiences, lifestyle or body. The ‘successful person’ sets example for change and in turn facilitates growth in their audience.

“If he or she can do it, I can too”… “My goal is to be like him or her”.

For example, there are literally millions of people becoming hugely successful by setting example for change through sharing their bodies on social media fitness pages. They create change in their bodies and share these changes via social media. Their audience then make comparisons to their own bodies and in turn growth is facilitated. Obviously, the people who show the biggest changes or show the comparisons most evidently are the most successful.

I’m no longer afraid. All I’m doing here is simply presenting my experience. I have had to change myself a lot in order to overcome it. I hope that I enabled you to make a comparison between my experience and your own, better or worse. If I can find the power to change myself and overcome this, you can too.

If not for comparisons, why else do we find things ‘interesting’?

And why else did you read this four and a half thousand word piece of text I wrote?

I know that my motivation in sharing all of this is sincere. It is on the basis of helping myself and in turn others. It helps me do what I love to do which is facilitating growth through sharing lived experience in different forms. Like I said, I have questioned for a long time how to present it and I’ve been afraid of failing. I’ve been afraid of both failing to present it in a way that the reader can easily gain something as well as failing to reach a wide audience.

I decided to present my experience in its rawest form; exactly as it was written for the first time. For in the end it doesn’t matter. No matter what, this is a success. What I am sharing is something that is not readily available to people in similar situations. It is first hand, lived experience. It is self expression and it helps me share my life with the people I love and hopefully shows them a way to express themselves too.

Even if I was to fail, I know my motivation is good, sincere and based simply on compassion and respect for the people I care about.

The more honest you are the more self confident you will become.

And that’s all that matters.

So read on fuckers and help me help you!

Brendan McDonnellAn ironically graffiti’d ramp where I regularly run in my new island home of Malta.

 

56 Comments. Leave a comment

Comments

  1. Christopher (Bilco)
    June 08, 2015

    Hey brother

    Whenever I feel down and out I remember something that I once read in a book..

    “You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here” – Alan Watts

    Thanks for the inspiring read. Keep writing and getting your message out bro.

    Peace

  2. Matilda Bawden
    June 09, 2015

    I’m a social worker and I have to share this with my clients! It’s powerful, honest but definitely not morbidly depressing or a “victimising” read by any means.

    Congratulations on the personal journey of growth you have undergone and triumphed. If only more people had your strength of character.

    Bless you for sharing such a personal story!

  3. Moira
    June 09, 2015

    What an incredibly powerful story. So sorry for your loss and am proud of the way you have overcome your grief and have made a new life for yourself in Malta. Your father would be very proud of you too. Thank you for sharing your story God Bless you

  4. Mauro
    June 15, 2015

    Thanks for sharing Brendan – although I have not been through the same experience, or anything similar, I found it to be a very inspirational story. Well done – keep writing and sharing.

  5. Gary ABELA
    June 19, 2015

    Brendan thank you for sharing this..so eloquently put. My mother recently committed suicide in Malta and whilst I didn’t find her myself, I have found it hard to explain how I feel. I have focused my energy on trying to help others understand why she did what she did and truly understand depression. Too often it is a word that is thrown around without any thought of what it really is and how serious it can be. I have begun working with the Richmond Foundation in malta who I know would be delighted to work with you. Keep doing what you are doing!

  6. Gemma
    June 21, 2015

    Hi Brendan,

    What an inspiring blog you have started. I came across it through the FTW website and I’m so glad I did. You’ve articulated the complexities of ‘coping’ with suicide in a creative way. In solidarity with many people who have commented her, I share in part with your loss as my brother committed suicide in October last year and my mother found his body in his wardrobe, and I too saw him within the following days at a viewing. The way you talk about coming home a different way, the sound of the gravel, and trying to remember the last thing you said is such an accurate depiction of that immediate time after losing a loved one – like it’s a movie or something. By the end of the year I’ll be an accredited social worker and I can’t tell you enough that THIS kind of stuff is far more worth while in conveying bereavement processes than any textbook is! Keep up the good work mate, all the best. Gemma

    • Matthew
      September 10, 2015

      This comment is awesome. Especially that last part.

  7. marina minervini
    January 13, 2016

    Thoughts of continued Courage, determination & healing 2 you 💜

  8. Debbie
    June 03, 2016

    Wow how can u express yourself I want to I take my hat of to you. I never spoke to my dad for 20 years my aunty run up my dad was alone for 18 days on his own I will never forget the smell of death my name is Debbie it was a pleasure reading ur story. Thank you

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