The detective and the priest: Leigh Sales’ tales of love, loss and hope

This story originally appeared here, on WAtoday. It’s a long read, but I poured my heart into writing this on Friday, so if you are interested, please grab a cup of tea and give it some time. 

If you’ve ever experienced traumatic grief, you will know a part of you will always be grieving, will never get over it, despite you managing to build a ‘new normal’.

But after some years passed, another part of you might have realised it taught you something, sparked a change.

A girl carries flowers to a memorial wall following the Christchurch shootings, which left 50 dead and 39 wounded.

A girl carries flowers to a memorial wall following the Christchurch shootings, which left 50 dead and 39 wounded. Image: AP

Maybe something big and visible, a new mission. You’ve committed to making a difference in the world, and now you’re got the iron will to achieve it.

Maybe something more private. You’re more compassionate, more ‘present’, more appreciative of the small things.

Are you grateful for these changes? Of course you are.

Would you give them up in a heartbeat just to have that person you lost back? Just to hear their voice one more time, give them one more hug, even for one minute?

Of course you would.

It’s hard to acknowledge anything good could come from the worst thing that ever happened to you.

But just as grief is a universal human experience – as terrible as we sometimes are at talking about it – it might comfort you to know that this unexpected gift of growth is not an aberration.

“I don’t think many people have heard of post-traumatic growth, as it’s a relatively new field of study,” said Leigh Sales, who explores the concept in her new book, Any Ordinary Day.

“Most psychological research in the past has focused on the ways that awful life events impair normal function.

“Post-traumatic growth is the positive personal changes in outlook or attitude people can experience in the wake of something awful happening to them.

“Of course, nobody would ever want this, you’d rather not have the bad thing happen to you and not experience the changes!”

Sales, who appears this weekend at Perth’s Disrupted Festival of Ideas, said it was only 25-30 years ago some US researchers started to ask if, after a period of time, traumatised people might not just return to “normal” functioning but instead in some cases have “enhanced” functioning.

Leigh Sales appears in Perth this weekend.

Leigh Sales appears in Perth this weekend. Image: Daniel Boud

“People sometimes used their awful personal experiences to affect positive change for society as a whole – for example, Walter Mikac, whose whole family was killed at Port Arthur, was a major voice in the gun reform campaign in Australia in the late 1990s,” she said.

“Rosie Batty turned her personal tragedy into a major national campaign for domestic violence awareness.

“[Now] extensive research, looking at people who’ve experienced all kind of cataclysmic life events, from facing breast cancer to dealing with a death in the family, shows that people do develop in positive ways from those experiences.”

Sales, best known for her work on ABC’s 7.30, herself lived a blessedly lucky life until one day, about to give birth to her second child, she suffered a uterine rupture – a rare and often catastrophic event that frequently kills the mother, baby or both.

They both survived, but Sales’ sense of trust in the world had been irrevocably damaged.

She began to dwell on luck and chance, on blindsides, fear and how people cope with loss. Not losses like the expected death of an elderly parent, but the ones that can instantly tear a life apart.

She had spent much of her career trying to avoid direct exposure to these events, she wrote. But her own life in 2014, plus the news stories she anchored afterwards, made her realise avoidance was pointless – like “trying to hide from life itself.”

In an effort to walk towards, not away from, such possibilities, to stare them in the face, she wrote Any Ordinary Day.

Sales interviewed people including Stuart Diver, the sole survivor of the Thredbo disaster, whose wife died beside him; Walter Mikac, whose family died at Port Arthur; and Louisa Hope, a sufferer of multiple sclerosis who was also a hostage in the Lindt Cafe siege.

She crunched the numbers on the actual odds of a person experiencing such happenings and examined the reasons we all tend to be far more afraid of being involved in, say, a terrorist attack, than a car crash (spoiler alert… the media plays a role).

She also spoke to “ordinary” people who had lived through events that never entered the national consciousness, but were nevertheless the stuff of nightmares, asking them and herself: How did you survive? And if it happens to me, how will I bear it?

The answers were unexpected and precious: stories of resilience, love and hope, such as that of Juliet Darling, the priest and the detective.

Juliet’s late partner Nick Waterlow had an adult son from a previous relationship who had paranoid schizophrenia and believed his family was plotting to destroy him.

One night at a dinner, Antony stabbed his sister and father to death. His sister’s daughter, a toddler, was also seriously injured.

Any Ordinary Day is Leigh Sales' third book.

Juliet had not gone to dinner. The news of her partner’s death was brought to her doorstep.

But so was something else: people whose actions illuminated the vital role other people can play for another’s recovery.

In the following days, while Juliet was rocked with shock and fear, Father Steve Sinn, who would oversee the funeral, and lead investigator Detective Graham Norris, made countless small and yet infinitely compassionate gestures.

Father Sinn’s first gesture on entering her home was to throw away a vase of dead flowers, without pausing for permission or directions.

At Nick’s funeral, with Antony still at large, Detective Norris slid up to her and murmured, ‘You don’t need to be afraid, you can’t see us but we’re everywhere’, freeing her to farewell her partner without having to glance over her shoulder.

“Often people reported to me that when something dreadful happened in their life, some of their friends disappeared because they didn’t know how to cope,” Sales said.

“It was a bit like being plonked into a foreign land … if you found people who could speak the language, they were like lifelines.

“In Juliet’s case, she had two people who came into her orbit who seemed to speak the language … both seemed to understand death and they didn’t seem rattled or fearful.

“Both acted as if they believed she’d cope, and so that made her feel more calm.”

Three years after Nick was murdered, Juliet’s son George, a healthy 26-year-old, died of sudden and unexplained heart failure while at work.

“She had such a rough trot and she was a lovely person,” Sales said.

“I found her, like everyone in the book, completely compelling and moving in describing what she’d been through and how much insight she had into it. And also her bravery in telling me about some of the worst things in her life because she wanted people to understand what it’s like and to know better how to help others.”

Juliet’s experiences forced her to re-evaluate the beliefs that had previously shaped her understanding of the world.

She had once believed that everything happened for a reason, for example.

And that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

She now dismissed that as a cliché; no, she believed, something so terrible could easily weaken you.

But she was now more attuned to kindness in the world around her.

And more compassionate towards people who struggled to know what to say or do in the face of loss.

“People can sometimes feel resistant to the idea that such a horrible thing has changed them in positive ways, because of course, the pain of what happened is so much more present than any sense that you’re a more compassionate or present person,” Sales said.

“As I said, nobody would want post-traumatic growth if they had a choice. You’d rather be a lesser person and not have the trauma.”

And of course, anyone would choose to take that trauma from a friend if they could.

But in the absence of such an ability, Sales remembers advice from Father Steve Sinn.

“[This] has stayed with me more than any other thing anyone I interviewed said to me,” she said.

“He said all you have to do is accompany. You don’t have to say the right thing, do the right thing or even have any idea what to do. You just have to be there.”

 

Disrupted: Festival of Ideas runs this weekend at the State Library of WA in Northbridge, with guest speakers Leigh Sales, Karl Kruszelnicki, Geoff Gallop, Tracy Westerman, Bri Lee and more.

All Disrupted events are free and all panels will be live-streamed and on the Perth Cultural Centre screen. 

Full program here

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