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A sweet 16th turned bitter with grief



How do you wish happy birthday to a girl who is no longer here? A sweet 16th turned bitter with grief?

Sad looking birthday cakeToday my niece would have turned 16. It would have been a milestone birthday, the teetering point between childhood and maturity. It would have been the next logical step on her journey — so brisk, so hasty is time these days — to an adulthood upon which her siblings and cousins were already alighting.

The youngest in a close-knit gang of ten children produced by my siblings and me, she was going to be the last to join them there; they would have waited for her, would have pulled her up into this new phase of life alongside them and helped her to navigate its often daunting paths.

But there was something more formidable facing her already, something none of us was aware of. So haunting and unbearable and obliterating was it, it would prompt her to end her life just three months and one day after her 15th birthday.

How do you help someone navigate a path that is utterly pointless to them, when the only thing you can see is a track lit by the sun? 

I can easily imagine my niece at 16. She would be a subtly transformed version of the 15-year-old she was when last we sang happy birthday to her. This time last year she was a teenager possessed of a rare innocence (no make-up, no pouts) coupled with a deep intellect (she excelled at school and was teaching herself Russian) and unusual pursuits (fencing was her forte; she'd become a champion and would be regularly interviewed on the local television news).

Today, on her 16th, she would still possess the softness in which she had always been swaddled, but her adult self — physically, cerebrally — would be emerging more urgently now from within the folds of childhood. Her posture would be perfect still, her hair flowing down her ramrod back. Her hugs, I've no doubt, would be as warm and enveloping, and she would trill as ever with mellifluous laughter. Her kisses, as my sister — her eternally brokenhearted mother — elucidated in the days after she left us, would continue to alight on our faces like butterflies.


"But this is my niece's sweet 16th, and though it will never be sweet, and she will never turn 16, I quarantine it as a time to halo this precious child in bright light."


But 15-year-old her would be tempered, perhaps, with that extra year of life, with the gradual sloughing off of childhood and the sharpening of character that comes with it. She might be defined more intensely by the introspection which had always been so vital to her temperament; the etherealness that gave one the impression she could see something the rest of us couldn't, that she could speak the language of animals.

How do you get through the day on which a precious girl would have turned 16?

The date doesn't creep up on you; it stains the months preceding it with a renewed sadness, and it's only when you wonder at the shadows falling across your household anew that the answer becomes apparent: it is July; a birthday that cannot be celebrated is approaching.

But this is my niece's sweet 16th, and though it will never be sweet, and she will never turn 16, I quarantine it as a time to halo this precious child in bright light. I weep as I order commemorative flowers; but the florist is so gentle, so positively angelic, it's as though my niece is speaking through her and flooding me, in turn, with bright, beautiful, healing light. 

We walk gently through the day, speak kindly to one another, acknowledge the significance of this moment and the deep sorrow that will always unite us. In our minds, we place a tiara of feathers on the head of our feather-loving girl, and feel our hearts swell with all the love she brought us.

Lifeline 13 11 14



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, suicide, grief, depression



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Existing comments

THANKYOU Catherine. In deepest deepest sympathy. May we all be comforted and protected .

Frances Kelly | 25 July 2018  

Thank you Catherine. This sensitive article eloquently exposed the sadness and grief I have long held for a student of mine who could not cope with the effects of the "Gulf War" in which he participated with the Australian Navy. He was extremely sensitive and aware of the world around him. On his return, he took his own life. He expressed his sensitivity in poetry that only his mother saw.

Jim Slingsby | 26 July 2018  

Thank you, Catherine, for sharing so generously from your place of deep grief. Beautiful words; each smudged by a tear. They bless us.

Richard | 26 July 2018  

Heartfelt and beautiful, Catherine. From William Shakespeare's sonnet 30: When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past.

Pam | 26 July 2018  

Thanks Catherine for sharing your heart-rendering story. My thoughts and prayers are with you and yours.

Grant Allen | 26 July 2018  

Catherine, I wept with you for this precious young woman, and for the many who cannot see the light they give us.

Elise | 26 July 2018  

Praying for all of you at this time and will continue to do so.

Lawrence | 27 July 2018  

Thank you Catherine. Go gently.

Anne Benjamin | 28 July 2018  

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