Everybody hurts

Warning to those who prefer to only read my more light-hearted posts: this one is not for you.

*

I began this post on Thursday night, and wrote the following few paragraphs.

While I’m sitting here sipping wine and thinking about how nice it is to finally experience a warm, balmy evening this Spring, I’m aware that there is a family in Melbourne undergoing an agonising time, since the disappearance of their daughter/sister/wife last Saturday night. I won’t name her here, as I’m not a  social commentator and I’m not writing this to capitalise on this unfolding tragedy. In the spirit of this personal blog, I’m writing it because, like many so people, I feel affected by what has happened and is happening.

Many Melbournians feel personally affected by this case. One reason for this is because it seems likely she has been abducted, and if so, it appears that the attack was completely random, so we are aware that it could just as easily have been us, our friend, sister, girlfriend, wife, mother, or daughter. It’s also because social media allows the old adage of 6 degrees of separation to bring people closer – you realise that a person mentioned as “missing” in the news is not just a random face, but is a friend of someone you know.

It’s the CCTV footage from a shop in the street, which allowed us all to see her (or her legs at least) caught on camera on her way home, as she stopped to respond to a man now thought to be the person the police are after. That footage is chilling. It’s as if we are viewing her in a twilight zone, as if she has already stepped into some waiting room that separated her life, up to that point, and her death, which is seeming more and more like the inevitable conclusion to this story.

And it’s the setting from which she disappeared – an area, and situation, that we’ve all been in. The woman was last seen about 1.30am last Sunday morning, after leaving her friends at a bar, to walk approx 700m home, on a main street in Brunswick. Brunswick is  an inner suburb, with a lot of funky little clothes stores and groovy little bars, populated by that typically diverse inner city mix of arty students, creative types, and the Italian, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese and Macedonian people who own delicatessens, cafes and grocery stores in the area and have done so since they, or their parents, migrated in the 1950s.

The street on which she was last seen is a street that would be well lit, and even at 1.40am, there would be a few bars and pubs still open, a few people still wandering in either direction along the streets, and at least a few cars still driving by. Police have in fact released CCTV footage revealing the 6 people who walked by the same CCTV camera as the young woman, in a “matter of minutes”, so the area was far from desolate.

I see that since Monday, the wording in news updates has changed from police have not found her, to police have not found her body. I can’t imagine what this woman’s family are going through.

I imagine that if I was a family member, I might be trying to read every piece of information I could get my hands on, but simultaneously unable to register, or accept, what is implied by that choice of words. I imagine her family are in a state of numbness, and awful, desperate, hope, which acts as a barrier to really taking in anything they read or are told.

When I think about this incident – and I’ve thought of it at some time or other every day since I first heard about it –  I am reminded that there are even worse things than having a loved, and young, family member die suddenly, but peacefully, at home, the way my brother did just over a year ago. Even back then, I remember wondering how people cope with the extra pain and anguish caused by deaths due to violence.

I can’t begin to imagine  how many thousands of times worse it would  be to have a family member disappear suddenly, and be assumed dead, in circumstances that could only mean that their last conscious moments were spent in extreme distress, and probably pain, inflicted by another human being.

We are all horrified, shocked and saddened, as it seems less and less likely for this young woman, her husband, and her family, that there will be a happy – or at this stage, even just a not-completely- devastating – ending to this mystery.

But here’s the thing that many women are thinking: how many times did I do that when I was younger? How many times, in fact,  did I choose to walk home on streets that were not major roads with cars driving by,  were not well lit, not populated by bars, and where there was no-one else around? How many times will my daughter, when she’s older, make a judgement call about whether it’s safe for her to walk home at night by herself?

As it happened, I was out on the same Saturday night, on a similar, parallel street, in another inner Northern suburb – in a direct line about 4 main streets across from this one. I was out with girlfriends, too, until about 12.30am. Three of us left together and caught a taxi, the fourth stayed in the bar, with some friends. We didn’t grill her, to make sure she wouldn’t walk out alone. We assumed that she would make a judgement about her own safety, and that on a main street in inner Melbourne, you are generally pretty safe.

I think there are now many women out there, hoping that the eventual outcome of this mystery will not serve to cause us to fear for our personal safety when we’re out at night, and boost the public perception that women need to be fearful and cautious about doing anything alone. But I fear that it will.

*

Sunday: as it turns out, about the time I was writing this,  the police were making an arrest. By Friday they had  been led to the body of the woman in question.

This horrible outcome caused a swelling of communal shock and grief in Melbourne – for example, I went to the theatre on Friday night, to a play which contained a rape scene, and the director told me afterwards that he had asked the actors to tone it down, in acknowledgment of the emotions people across Melbourne were feeling. Today, reportedly “tens of thousands” of people marched peacefully in Brunswick to protest violence against women, and left messages of condolence for the family of the deceased woman.

In the end it is for the woman’s family that I feel most deeply, remembering the shock of having a loved one die suddenly (and without the added shock and horror of it having been a death caused by violence).

I know that what lies ahead for them is weeks, or months, of obsessively reliving every little moment leading up to her death, almost as if by thinking over every possible turning point, they could somehow change the trajectory of her life. If only she did not move to Australia from Ireland, did not buy a unit in Brunswick, did not go out for drinks that night, did not leave the bar alone, etc.  I know that they are still trying to cope with understanding, every time they hear her name, that it now refers to a person who was alive, up until last Saturday night.

And I recall how, after my brother died, I struggled to understand how it was possible that he could have died earlier that day, or even a whole day earlier (we don’t know for certain) without me being aware of it. I think we feel such a connection to those we love,  that this is part of the initial shock when they are taken suddenly, without warning: how could we have kept going about our normal business, with no premonition, or sense that something profoundly tragic has occurred in our lives? How much more terrible would this aspect be, going over and over the circumstances of your loved one’s death, and trying to understand that while she was being hassled, attacked, murdered, and dumped in a shallow grave, you were in a bar, in a taxi, or in bed, sleeping. That nothing had warned you. No sudden voice told you your loved one was in danger, was distressed, had died. No premonition woke you from your contented sleep.

My thoughts go out to them, as I wonder again, how are we humans supposed to deal with such pain?

www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/together-we-stand-20120929-26s8j.html

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