Staying by Jessie Cole

Know that for a very distressing subject, you’re in extremely safe hands with Jessie Cole. Staying describes Jessie’s childhood and her family’s devastating experience of suicide.

Growing up in idyllic northern New South Wales, Jessie and her younger brother spent their childhood roaming the forest surrounding their house and swimming in the nearby creek.

There were advantages to growing up in a family with a high tolerance for eccentricity. Boundaries were loose, undefined.

Each school holidays, Jessie’s half sisters from her father’s first marriage, Billie and Zoe, would arrive from Sydney. These older sisters were mysterious, clever and dazzling and Jessie was completely devoted to them. But when Jessie was 13, Zoe, who had been battling mental illness, took her own life.

…it is hard to forget that they have chosen to leave you. That whatever love they had for you wasn’t enough to make them stay.

The family struggled to make sense of the loss and then –

Four years after Zoe died, my father’s grief turned wild and the tangled threads of his control snagged and tore apart.

When her father took his own life, Jessie and her family were back to that incomprehensible place all over again.

Jessie writes about Zoe and her father’s deaths honestly, capturing the unspeakable sadness and rawness that she was feeling.

And every year, as the person gradually diminished, the event of Zoe’s death expanded. The event lived on – her suicide – breaking away at each of us, pulling us to pieces.

It is her descriptions of grief – the one painful thing that, if we are experiencing it, we feel a hundred different times in a hundred different ways – that are striking and true.

Grief has its own time line. While other people’s lives moved forward, ours were stuck at this one harrowing point.

At its heart, grief entails learning to live with the consequences of love. Without love, there is no grief, for nothing has been lost.

We celebrate those who have climber high mountains or broken into burning buildings, but try calling your friend who has just lost her baby and listen to her keen.

There is a curiosity in Jessie’s words, almost as if she was learning about her grief as she wrote. I hesitate to say that writing Staying was cathartic – I don’t know her grief – but she does say this, ‘A narrative is a powerful thing, laying down a road that can be walked, a path that can be seen behind you.’

This is not an easy book to read and I know some will avoid it because of the topic. However, there’s beautiful writing to be enjoyed in this book –

And then there were the parties, the slow glide into night while the house filled to bursting. People seeping out the open doorways and into the garden sea, unconcerned by the darkness lapping at their feet.

So much of Jessie’s story is intrinsically linked to nature and her connectedness to her home – rooms of the house scattered among the trees but somehow joined or the grieving done hiding in dunes at the beach – and it is in nature where Jessie seems to repair, if only a little.

4/5 Heartbreaking.

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4 responses

  1. I love Jessie Cole’s writing, and I’ve been supporting her work since her literary debut with Darkness of the Edge of Town- but I did not want to read this. I heard her interviewed on RN and that was hard enough.

  2. A ‘PS’ about the power of narrative: some years ago I did a six-week course on teaching children who’ve experienced torture or trauma. We were told there is clinical evidence that framing a narrative, orally, in writing or by drawing pictures, can break the associations that are triggered by certain sensory experiences. (For example, a pattern made by venetian blinds that were casting shade in a torture cell or a sinking boat is something that might be seen anywhere in the new safe environment, and trigger the same terror in the person who experienced the torture, with bystanders totally bewildered as to the cause of the terror). We learned ways of encouraging children to generate these narratives, and although we were told it didn’t always work for all people, it was a very powerful tool.
    I hadn’t gone to the course with my own case in mind because it didn’t occur to me that I might have anything in common with the children I was working with. But I tried it myself, because I had had, for many years a traumatic memory of a near-drowning triggered by the sound of high winds. (On a very windy day, my son was literally blown off a pier into the Bay, and when The Ex dived in to rescue him they were both towed out to sea by the rip.) This memory of when I nearly lost them both would cause hours of sleeplessness, heart palpitations and nausea. I wrote out my memory of that day in pages of detail, and that narrative broke the association between the wind and the memory. That was nearly 20 years ago, and it hasn’t happened to me since.
    It would be wonderful if Staying does have a cathartic effect for Jessie Cole…

  3. This goes straight on the TBR – thank you! (Thinking of fiction/nonfiction pairings … have you read Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee and All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews? I’d recommend both.)

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