Plumbing the depths of grief

In Loss Adjustment, Linda Collins (above) writes about the emotional aftermath of her daughter Victoria's suicide.
In Loss Adjustment, Linda Collins (above) writes about the emotional aftermath of her daughter Victoria's suicide. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM, MALCOLM MCLEOD
In Loss Adjustment, Linda Collins (left) writes about the emotional aftermath of her daughter Victoria's (right) suicide.
In Loss Adjustment, Linda Collins (left) writes about the emotional aftermath of her daughter Victoria's (right) suicide. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM, MALCOLM MCLEOD

In her first book, Linda Collins tries to come to grips with her daughter's suicide

As a copyeditor, Linda Collins spent most of her life editing other people's words, but hearing the voice of her late daughter put her on the path of writing for herself.

In 2014, her 17-year-old daughter Victoria McLeod bought the kaya waffle her mother loved from the mall, did the dishes with her father and laid out her clothes for school the next day. Then, while her parents slept, she went to a nearby apartment block and jumped off the 10th floor.

In her first book, Loss Adjustment, Collins tries to come to grips with her daughter's suicide and parse the journal entries she left behind on her laptop in the final months of her life.

"Losing somebody to suicide is not something you can fix, not something that can ever be healed," says The Straits Times political desk copyeditor, 60. "There are no drugs or surgery to mend it. You have to find a way of accommodating it."

In the light of World Suicide Prevention Day today, her publisher Ethos Books will donate $1 for every pre-order copy purchased ahead of the book's Sept 28 launch to Samaritans of Singapore to support mental health advocacy and suicide prevention.

It was during a Catholic retreat in 2016 that Collins heard what she thought was Victoria's voice, "esoteric as that may sound".

It was not the first time. Victoria, in these instances, often sounded strangely imperative. This time, her instructions were: "Mum, Google 'creative writing New Zealand'."

  • VIEW IT/ LOSS ADJUSTMENT: BOOK LAUNCH

  • WHERE: The Moon, 37 Mosque Street

    WHEN: Sept 28, 4pm

    ADMISSION: Free, register at bit.ly/2lYWGK6

    INFO: www.lossadjustment book.com

New Zealand was where Collins was born and entered journalism aged 16, first as a reporter and then a sub-editor at local newspapers. She moved to Singapore in 1993 with ST deputy picture editor Malcolm McLeod. Victoria, their only child, was born here.

The Google search led Collins to the creative writing master's programme at Victoria University of Wellington's International Institute of Modern Letters, where she wrote what would become Loss Adjustment over seven months while working part-time at ST.

She says of the 5,000 words she submitted for her application: "They came really easily, like it was my daughter telling me what to write. She was a better writer than me."

She interweaves her narrative with extracts from Victoria's journal, which has been studied in non-fiction books about teenage stress and suicide such as Guardian Australia senior editor Lucy Clark's Beautiful Failures (2016) and psychologist Jesse Bering's A Very Human Ending (2018).

  • HELPLINES

  • * Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

    * Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

    * Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222

    * Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

    * Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788

    * Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

Victoria wrote candidly about the stress and bullying she faced in school, her anxiety over her sexuality and her deliberation over her death. "I have had nothing bad happen to me except my own doing," reads one entry. "I have let this cowardice envelope me, and I can't shake it off. I will commit the worst thing you can ever do to someone who loves you: killing yourself. The scary thing is, I'm okay with that."

The first 20 pages of Loss Adjustment, which recount Victoria's death, make for painful reading. "It's a very difficult book for some people," admits Collins. "It's too raw. But I didn't want to flinch from that, whatever the repercussions are on me. It's something that wanted to be told."

After that, the book begins to circle in on itself. Chapters follow the grief process, but also other strands such as the McLeods' attempt to demand accountability from the international school Victoria attended and the destruction of their Christchurch house in an earthquake, whence comes the book's title. Loss adjustment is an actuarial term for when an insurance company decides how much to pay a person whose property is damaged or lost.

"It's mimetic, deliberately so," says Collins of her book's structure. She drew on other writers who have chronicled the loss of a loved one, such as Joan Didion and Decca Aitkenhead.

"I wrote this book bearing in mind the grief-stricken. I wanted to give them a handhold.

"The book can be read in any order you like. If you can't bear the first 80 pages, you can flip to the end and back again. There'll be something there that you need."

She also hopes it can be a warning for those with children or other loved ones in the same situation as Victoria, while they still have the chance to do something about it.

"Make sure you have that conversation. They'll try to fob you off, but you have to find out how they're feeling.

"Don't be interrogative. Try to take a holistic approach that involves you as a family. See a counsellor. If that counsellor isn't working for you, find another one.

"There's a lot of help out there, but it's asking for help that's the difficult part."

She was sad when she finished the book. "Writing it made Victoria come alive for me again. When it ended, there wasn't that pressing need for her to be in my thoughts 24 hours a day."

There are also days she wishes she never wrote it all, because it has meant exposing the most fragile part of her life to public scrutiny.

Yet she believes the reality of grief should be written about.

"I think in this society, there is a lot of pressure to put that away and function as an economic unit. But meanwhile, grief doesn't go away inside you."

She plans to turn to fiction next with a novel about two women, one in her 50s and the other in her 90s. She has also written poetry and will have a poem published, alongside one by Victoria, in Canadian anthology Voicing Suicide next year.

Writing the book was not healing for her, whatever people might assume.

"But I felt that I honoured Victoria. One of the things I learnt after she died... was that she suffered selective mutism. She suffered so much anxiety that she couldn't speak - she was one of those kids in class who, if asked a question by the teacher, wouldn't be able to respond even if she knew the answer.

"Whatever I didn't do to help her live, at least I've done this for her - let her voice be heard in the world."

  • Loss Adjustment ($21 before GST) will be released on Sept 28. Pre-orders are available from Times, BooksActually, Wardah Books, Littered With Books, Booktique, City Book Room and www.ethosbooks.com.sg.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2019, with the headline 'Plumbing the depths of grief'. Print Edition | Subscribe