Sascha’s musings on her sister, for World Suicide Prevention Day


Like family members everywhere, SASCHA COSTIGAN lives with suicide awareness and needs no reminders. But World Suicide Prevention Day, held last Friday September 10 in Australia, is an opportunity to share this awareness with others.

World Suicide Prevention Day – an important day to acknowledge all those who have lost their lives or attempted to.  Suicide is insidious in every way and endemic in modern society.  It is more prevalent in our own country, particularly in First Australian communities, which is absolutely abhorrent. 

I read today that nine Australians take their lives every single day.  And for each life, around 135 people are directly affected. These include family, friends, work colleagues and first responders.  That’s almost half a million Australians per year. The ripple effect.

Just a day after RUOK? Day, and days before the 14th anniversary of my beautiful little sister Mairead’s death, I sit here contemplating how we, as individuals and as a community can change the increasing numbers of suicide and the impactful ripple effect this has.

Mairead was under the influence of Stilnox (Imovane, Stilnoct, Ambien – the Z-Class drugs), a sleeping medication which a doctor had prescribed to her over some months while she was struggling to sleep while completing her PhD. While she was considered to be in a sleepwalking state when she died, I still struggle with the fact that although it wasn’t suicide, she did kill herself. 

Stilnox is known to keep the motion part of the brain active, making it a dangerous alternative for relief from wakefulness. Many of the strange and dangerous activities of those who have taken Z class drugs have been widely recorded – sleep-driving, homicide, sleep-sex and other bizarre behaviours.

Mairead, left, with Siobhan and Sascha

Mairead was not herself that day.  I saw her three times.  She struggled to remember the way to the train station from my workplace which she had walked hundreds of times prior.  I was concerned and I sent her down to Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden in Lavender Bay, as I always found it a healing place.

The irony of sending her to a place that was created out of Wendy’s grief over the loss of her husband Brett and daughter.  When I go there now I don’t find it so healing.

The first image you see as you walk into the main part of the garden is the Harbour Bridge and I often wonder whether on some level that remained in the subconscious of her confused and deteriorating mind.  And that I am responsible for that.  And I say this in a way that this is the eternal guilt we all feel in one way or another.  We all have something when it comes to losing a family member or friend in this way.  It is the ripple effect.

It is difficult for me to not dissect that final day and final night of Mairead’s life.  It was a long walk from my parent’s house to the cycleway of the Harbour Bridge.  Probably about 15-20 minutes.  It was a cold night for September and she was walking in her pyjamas, barefoot in a very disoriented way.  It was a peak time for dinner at the restaurants in Milson’s Point which she walked past that Thursday evening.  There were others walking past her to and from their nightly activities. 

She walked along the cycleway of the Bridge, rather than the walkway on the other side, and several cyclists rode past her.  None stopped to query why she was there.  The security who were on bridge watch that night were on the Rocks side of the bridge so when they saw her on the CCTV footage, walking along the cycleway, which automatically rings alarm bells, it was impossible for them to get to her before she climbed the wall and fell onto the street 20 metres below. 

They mentioned that there are 1-3 ‘jumpers’ a week on the Harbour Bridge.  This is shocking to me.  It should be shocking to all. Mostly they get to them in time. Sometimes they don’t. 

I am grateful that the first woman by my sister’s side was a beautiful woman, who was also a nurse, called Ruth. There wasn’t anything she could do but be with her until the paramedics arrived.  I walked to the road the next day with my family and there was a stain across the road of such volume it was overwhelming.  Firemen had used power hoses but the stain took weeks to completely disappear. And it was representative of so much. The stain on the road.  The stain on our lives.  The human stain. 

Michael holding Mairead with Margaret on the right, Siobhan and Sascha at the front
Michael holding Mairead with Margaret on the right, Siobhan and Sascha at the front

It stays inside me always.  And sometimes it seeps outside me.  Time does not heal any of this.  We build coping mechanisms and become different to who and what we were.  There are moments where it is as fresh and raw as that moment almost fourteen years ago.  And those moments are completely unpredictable.  Loss touches all of us, so is not unique.  Loss in this way has different dimensions. 

Flowers also grew in volume over the weeks, at the pole next to the road.  At the time it was beautiful and comforting. But even today my body slightly convulses every time I see flowers by a roadside and I fight the urge to vomit.  Just knowing what they mean and what lies ahead for others.  Even with all the love and support and amazing beautiful people holding me up for so long, it is still so isolating.

I also sit, and I wonder, what if one person that night had stopped her and asked if she was okay?  What if one person noticed and thought it strange and disturbing that this young woman was dressed in sleeping attire and no shoes, looking so disoriented?  And if that person who noticed, and then acted on it, would it have made a difference to the outcome?  I sincerely believe so.  What we see as such a small gesture of care, can be so significant in another’s life.  

Sometimes I fantasise about life if she was here – what an amazing Aunty she would have been to her nephews and niece –  Luca, Micah, Remy, Harper and Nico.  Would she have had children?  What would she be doing right now?  What would she look like?  What adventures would we be having together?   So many memories in the last 14 years which also hold one empty space.

Michael, Mairead, Sascha, Margaret and Siobhan
Michael, Mairead, Sascha, Margaret and Siobhan

I am not writing this for empathy or support as I have so much always, with the incredible people in my life.  It is more about attention to a day like today, a week like this week, a life like this life. 

It is important to bring awareness to such a significant issue that is often too overwhelming and difficult to talk about.  Conversations and care do have significant impact.  Too many lives are lost unnecessarily.  It is easy to become desensitised to figures and data and what we feel we can or cannot do.  It is easy to become plugged in whilst disconnecting from life around us. 

There is no worse feeling than that feeling of ‘if only’.  Yet there has to be hope that the horrific statistics can be diminished through heightened love and attention to all of our human family.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue shares stories of people who made it through.

Osher Gunsberg is the handsome guy in charge of the rose ceremony on The Bachelor Australia.

But he shares the other side of his life in Osher Gunsberg: A Matter of Life and Death on SBS and SBS on Demand’s Australia Uncovered on September 19, at 8.80pm (AEST)

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