IN DEPTH

Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice 2020: Jack Baker reflects on his journey through grief and a night that unites us all

NO LONGER ADRIFT: Jack Baker has traversed the countryside of Canada and the ravages of his grief in the nine years since his sister Mary died by suicide.
NO LONGER ADRIFT: Jack Baker has traversed the countryside of Canada and the ravages of his grief in the nine years since his sister Mary died by suicide.

Nearly eight years ago, 16 months after my sister, Mary, took her life, I wrote a piece for this newspaper for the It's time to talk about suicide campaign.

I was 24 at the time and working at The Border Mail as a journalist.

A lot has changed since then.

We now have a headspace centre on the Border and every year on the longest (and often coldest) night of the year, hundreds of people gather at Albury's QEII Square for the Winter Solstice - an event started by my mum and dad for suicide survivors.

March 15, 2021, will mark 10 years to the day since Mary left this world.

When I wrote the last piece I was still raw with grief.

I'd like to reflect a little on my journey since then.

I finished up at The Border Mail in 2013 after two years of service with a plan to go travelling.

I left this newspaper a little more aware of the inner workings of society and local sport, and with a new family.

I don't know if my colleagues knew it at the time, but for the bulk of those two years I was just trying to survive.

It wasn't uncommon for me to cry on the drive to work then try and gather it all together in the car park before walking into the office.

By the time I flew out to Canada I felt like I'd survived the worst of the storm.

I'd probably started to feel my old self again a few months earlier and a one-way ticket was going to be my outlet.

Canada gave me a chance to meet people who didn't know my story and to grow as a person outside the safety net of the home town I'd so desperately needed after Mary died.

AUSSIE ABROAD: Albury's Jack Baker with his Canadian-born partner Emilie Duguay.

AUSSIE ABROAD: Albury's Jack Baker with his Canadian-born partner Emilie Duguay.

My first job was a tour guide on the Jasper Tramway.

I had to give five-minute speeches to tourists as the gondola made its way up the mountain.

When I wasn't working I was hiking, climbing mountains, mountain bike riding and partying.

My grief was still never far away but for the first time in more than two years I felt like I was living life again and not just surviving.

But as anyone who's travelled knows, there's always that pull of home and I felt that keenly, particularly as the inaugural Winter Solstice came together.

The day of the event I was nervous despite being on the other side of the world.

I knew how much of herself Mum had put into making it happen and I wanted it to be a success for her.

I eagerly awaited The Border Mail article the next day.

Reading about the night and speaking to my parents afterwards I knew it had been a special occasion for those who attended.

I was overseas for the first four Winter Solstice events so I was full of anticipation for my first one in 2017.

I was in the unique position of being close to the event but not so close that I couldn't appreciate it for what it was.

MORE SOLSTICE NEWS:

Neither a cook in the kitchen nor a diner in the restaurant.

More like a server who sees what goes on behind the scenes but can still appreciate the delicious food.

Walking into QEII Square at dusk in 2017 I was overcome with emotion.

The fires, the tree with messages to loved ones, the music.

It had my mum's fingerprints all over it and made me think of my sister.

One of my cousins once told me that trauma is like a tree with an axe wound. The wound stays the same size and never completely heals but the tree continues to grow around it ... That's been my experience with grief.

Jack Baker

In the three events I've attended my favourite part is watching the speakers' faces when they get up on stage.

I'm certain none of them know what they're in for until they arrive in Albury and see the event first hand.

It really is impossible to describe.

But when you're there you know.

Joe Williams at Winter Solstice

One of my cousins once told me that trauma is like a tree with an axe wound.

The wound stays the same size and never completely heals but the tree continues to grow around it.

That's been my experience with grief.

Along the way I've had my struggles with life in general.

For relatively short periods in 2015 (living overseas) and in 2017 (living in Australia) I had months where feeling any happiness at all was a battle and I felt trapped in my own head.

On both occasions I spoke with a professional.

There is no magic wand when you're feeling this way but for me, talking to someone helped make sense of my feelings and how to cope.

Things like this can happen at any time to anyone.

Sometimes they can take over our lives.

Unfortunately Australia (and the world in general) is not equipped to help the majority of people who suffer from illnesses that can't be seen or measured.

I think this is changing but not fast enough.

If this virus has shown us anything it's that anything is possible if governments take the threat seriously.

TAKING CARE OF MAMIE: Jack Baker in coronavirus lockdown in a Montreal apartment with Mamie, 82, the grandmother of his partner Emilie's best friend. Pictures: SUPPLIED

TAKING CARE OF MAMIE: Jack Baker in coronavirus lockdown in a Montreal apartment with Mamie, 82, the grandmother of his partner Emilie's best friend. Pictures: SUPPLIED

Until very recently I was living in isolation in a Montreal apartment with my partner, Emilie, and her best friend's grandmother, who we call Mamie.

Emilie and I had lost our jobs a few days apart in mid-March when the virus was starting to shake things up in Canada and so the three of us spent nearly every minute of the following nine weeks together.

Mamie is 82 years old and, with Montreal being the epicentre of the virus in Canada, we took extra care to stay inside as much as possible.

For her, this time is uncertain as she doesn't know when, or even if, she'll get to see her beloved grandchildren again.

That's all she cares about.

Even though Mamie doesn't speak English I decided to show her the Solstice film in the early stages of confinement.

With the visual storytelling and my basic translations into French, we got through and when I looked over to her at the end she was crying.

That's the power of this event.

It's a yearly reminder that, for better or for worse, we're all in this thing called life together.

Yes, it's for suicide survivors, yes it's for people who have been touched, directly or indirectly, by mental illness and yes it serves a purpose to help break down barriers that have existed for years.

But the Albury-Wodonga Winter Solstice is also for anyone who is just going through life's ups and downs.

Each year the people who get up on the stage have a profile - that's necessary so that people will listen.

But I guarantee their stories could belong to any of the people in the crowd.

It was only after I decided to write this that I remembered something my dad said in the hours after my sister took her own life.

On that Tuesday morning ... he said, "Our lives have changed forever, nothing will be the same now" ... or words to that effect.

It may seem an obvious thing to say, but there was such clarity even in the midst of unbearable pain.

THE CRUELLEST HEARTACHE: The Baker family lost their beloved daughter and sister Mary to suicide when she was just 15 years old after a prolonged battle with an eating disorder.

THE CRUELLEST HEARTACHE: The Baker family lost their beloved daughter and sister Mary to suicide when she was just 15 years old after a prolonged battle with an eating disorder.

If we as a society are to help overcome the mental health pandemic, we have to continue having conversations like the one this newspaper started eight years ago.

This year I'll be watching the Winter Solstice on my computer in the Quebec countryside where I'll be living for the next few months with Emilie and Mamie's grandson (and Emilie's best friend) Paul.

Unlike in Australia, it will be one of the longest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

As always I'll be reminded of when I was younger and how every year in June when winter would take ahold Henri, Mary and I would come home from school feeling flat.

Nothing felt easy and time seemed to slow down.

And every year as June 21 would come and go, Mum would always tell us how the days were now getting longer and lighter.

And she was right.

  • Join the Winter Solstice via the Facebook page from 6pm, June 21.
  • If you or someone you know needs help, call LIfeline: 13 11 14.
This story Night that unites: Jack Baker reflects on journey through grief first appeared on The Border Mail.