Purpose: How do I find it again?

Whilst his wife had been dealing with depression for many years, Noel didn’t see her suicide coming. It was one week before their son’s wedding. And then she was gone.  

Noel’s entire identity was tied to that of his partner. She was his reason for living, his moral compass, his purpose. And without her he had lost all direction.  

Instead of letting this tragedy define him, Noel decided to embark on a journey of self discovery. His search for purpose would take him all over the world and spark a passion for writing that see him publish four novels. 

Through this love of travel and the power of the written word, Noel is now determined to honour Maris’s life through connecting with people and encouraging them to seek help if they ever feel there is no way out. His story reminds us that even in the darkest of times, there is hope. 

 
"Doors have been shut, but at the same time, others have opened." Not Alone.
 

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Transcription

CONTENT WARNING 

Just a heads up: this episode of Not Alone contains a personal story of mental health. If you or someone you know need support visit beyondblue.org.au, or call our Support Service on 1300 22 46 36. 

NARRATION 

Hey there, I’m Marc Fennell and from Beyond Blue, this is Not Alone, remarkable stories from everyday Australians about their mental health journey, to help you with yours. 

And this episode is all about finding your purpose in life. 

(music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

MONTAGE 

FEMALE VOICE 1 

I go to bed every night not wanting to be me, and I wake up the next day feeling the same way. 

MALE VOICE 1 

I don’t really feel anything anymore… 

MALE VOICE 2 

I don’t feel anything… 

MALE VOICE 1 

…I walk around like some sort of robot. 

MALE VOICE 2 

…I’m just numb. 

FEMALE VOICE 2 

I often think that my life means nothing… 

MALE VOICE 3 

I just want to feel something again. 

FEMALE VOICE 2 

…and I will never achieve anything. 

MALE VOICE 4 

I’m going through life and its motions… 

MALE VOICE 5 

Today it took me three hours to even get out of bed. 

MALE VOICE 4 

…but I’m not really there. 

FEMALE VOICE 3 

I want to curl up in a ball, and cry in darkness, and push everyone away. 

MALE VOICE 6 

What’s the point in trying? 

FEMALE VOICE 1 

What’s the point in trying? 

MALE VOICE 7 

What’s the point in trying? 

FEMALE VOICE 3 

What’s the point in trying? 

(music - high ambient drone)

NOEL 

That was a dreadful experience. That after 42 years of us sleeping together in the one bed she wasn't there and would never be there. 

NARRATION 

Everyone has a different idea about what their purpose in life is. And actually, a lot of us have never even considered that our life has a purpose. It’s just a thing that we do; it’s life.  

But for 87 year old Noel, he knew what his purpose was. 

NOEL  

To be a loving husband and father. I was very much tied around family. Also to be a good professional - to do a good job. 

NARRATION 

At least that’s what he thought before 2004, when Noel felt like he lost his purpose.  

Now to give a bit of context, the Noel you meet today is an incredibly fit and determined guy. He’s now retired, he’s written five books, and he’s a dedicated volunteer. Nothing about this guy says “lacking in purpose”. But to understand, you need to go back 60 years to a dance at the Heidelberg Town Hall in Melbourne. 

music - big band dance hall 

NOEL   

And in those days the boys used to get into suits - we all had suits - and the girls in their flowy dresses and that. And I just saw this tall girl on the opposite side of the hall. And I noticed she was knocking back the boys, because in those days, of course, it was the boys who went and asked the girls, not the other way around. That would be just not done. 

NARRATION 

The girl was Maris. She was from a tiny country town near the Victoria - New South Wales border and was down in Melbourne studying midwifery. The night she met Noel, was her first out in the big smoke. 

NOEL   

She told me then, that actually she was waiting for a boy whom she danced with before. They went out and had a milkshake, which you did then at the milk bar, and came back and he was just going to shift this car. And by the time I arrived, she decided she'd been stood up. 

MARC   

Ah right place, right time, right suit 

NOEL   

Right time. It was perfect timing. So I danced with her every dance. 

NARRATION

And the rest - as they say in the classics - is history. 

This is Noel reading an excerpt from one of his books describing that time. 

music - book excerpt theme - pensive solo guitar through a gramophone  

NOEL - reading 

“One night some months later we were parked, cosy in my orange Volkswagon Beetle, facing St Kilda beach. The moonlight glinted in the water. Our arms were around each other. I looked across and whispered, ‘Maris will you marry me?’ She whispered back to me, ‘I couldn’t think of anything nicer.” 

NARRATION 

For Noel and Maris, they made a warm and supportive life together. They had some hardships, particularly with pregnancies, but eventually raised four kids together in a loving home. Maris was a caring and compassionate mother, and Noel worked as a psychologist.  

music - Noel’s theme begins - guitar and strings 

NARRATION 

Shortly before he retired, Noel took up a volunteer position with Lifeline, offering phone counselling to people in need of support. They gave him training around the right things to say and strategies to offer hope when it was needed most. 

NOEL 

Even back then, I always had this thought as to whether I would have to use them with Maris. 

music - Noel’s theme continues 

NOEL  

She’d suffered depression. And she was… and it was getting worse. The periods would expand over the years. One time it was two or three weeks, but then it got longer. And in the middle of the year, she decided she should see a a psychiatrist. 

NARRATION 

The year was 2004, and in October, Maris and Noel’s youngest son was getting married. They were living in Sydney at this stage, and with family and friends due to arrive for the celebration just the weekend after next, excitement was high.     

NOEL 

On the Wednesday night, we went to the opera house here in Sydney, and saw the Mikado. Delightful Gilbert and Sullivan Show. And she really enjoyed it, and she laughed and she loved watching the people, you know, and we drank champagne and that. 

music - sombre solo piano 

NOEL 

On the Friday night, we were having a party at my daughter's place. All the family were there. And we were driving over and on the way she wanted to go to hospital. And that put me in a real query, you know, here’s the family waiting. What shall I do? So I tried to persuade her, “well, let's go to this and then we’ll see the next day about it.” She sort of said, “right.” 

music - sombre solo piano continues 

NOEL 

The Saturday was going to be the bucks party for my son, and Saturday morning she woke up not very well at all. Well she never did. The morning was always very distressful for her - just coping with getting up and facing the day. 

music - sombre solo piano continues 

NOEL 

Part of the routine in the morning is that I'd squeeze a couple of oranges and I put out two orange drinks there in the morning. And that's what I'd done. I'd squeeze the two orange juices and she went off without having her orange juice. And that was one of the alert signals that I had. 

music - sombre solo piano continues 

NOEL 

She said she was off to change a book with a friend. But then I got this dreadful feeling as she went out. And I followed her out to say “I'll come with you.” 

But it was too late. 

music - sombre solo piano concludes 

NARRATION 

Noel stood in his driveway and watched Maris’ car disappear down the street.  

Hours later, police arrived and asked Noel to have someone drive him to the hospital. And there, he’s informed that his wife of 42 years had taken her own life. 

The family immediately came together. 

MARC  

How are you feeling? 

NOEL   

I think I was struggling with denial that it really happened. And I think so was all of the family. It was just a sense of complete exhaustion, you know, like a numbness as a result of the catastrophes; the tumultuous sort of nature of the day. We needed to play with each other family. It was just everything have been destroyed.  

Then of course I got this massive feelings of guilt. 

MARC 

Why guilt?  

NOEL 

Because I should’ve taken her to the hospital…bugger the family - pardon the… I thought “bugger the family”, I should’ve just taken her straight to hospital when she said she wanted to go to hospital. 

music - book excerpt theme 

NOEL - reading 

“I realised that night would be the first on my own. Maris would never share the bed with me again. I stood in the doorway staring at the bed. Despite her anguish that morning, she had made it neatly as she did every morning. It looked so ordinary.” 

NOEL 

The next day, I decided we shall go to church. I decided we're going to tackle this thing full on, full frontally. 

And I can remember that look. They already knew, they’d already been told, you know, Maris, had just died and taken her own life. And of course, they  couldn't understand that because she kept it hidden. Only a few knew. 

And even I heard one lady saying “she couldn't have killed herself.” That lady was in denial herself. So you had to handle that too. And of course, one of the other things that you have to do yourself was once you told people, then you felt obliged to support them. Because they were feeling distressed themselves.  

And sometimes I would think, you know “why are you doing this? You should be back there nursing your own grief.” Whereas here I was: back in Lifeline mode.  

NARRATION 

At the age of 72, Noel had lost the love of his life. His feelings of loneliness, grief and guilt were intense. 

NOEL  

Grief is very much a sort of, a hollow feeling. Pretty much like your life fluids being sucked out. 

music - book excerpt theme 

NOEL - reading 

“I tried to visualise what life after forty-two years of marriage would be like on my own. I couldn’t. I resorted to self-deception. Maris was away and would be back. She was already up, having a shower. She was downstairs having breakfast.” 

NARRATION 

In January of the next year, Noel decided to travel. It was a trip he and Maris had planned to take together, and Noel hoped that fulfilling the plan would help with the grieving process. 

MARC  

How did it feel to be traveling by yourself? 

NOEL  

Very often I saw a couple. Because we used to travel as a couple. But I used to say to myself, “Noel you've just got to get used to this.” And of course as soon I came back home, back to the empty house. Bang. There was the grief just waiting. Just waiting there.  

MARC 

You’d just postponed it.  

NOEL 

It was just postponed and it was dreadful then.  Lurking like a demon in the corner, you know? Out to grab you. 

music - book excerpt theme 

NOEL  - reading 

“I visited Maris’ grave daily. I needed to talk to her. For 42 years we had chatted about the events of our day. I needed that to continue. I discussed all of my problems on these visits. After living with her for so long I had a fair idea of her attitudes and responses to any question I was likely to put to her. Sometimes, she would give me a serve, just as she used to when she reckoned I got things wrong.  

I would say, ‘there’s space for me in the grave. I’ll join you,’ but I could hear her saying, ‘not yet’.” 

MARC 

A bit earlier, you spoke about the purpose you had in life: being a good husband and a mental health professional. Maris’ death, I can imagine it would have been a real assault on your identity. 

NOEL  

I certainly lost that sense of identity, “who was I?” There was great confusion. I was one of a couple. And we'd been always like that: “Maris and Noel”, “Maris and Noel”. It was always like, whenever we went anywhere, it was “Maris and Noel”, and now it’s just Noel. It certainly was a complete different sense of who I was and what I was on about. 

music - book excerpt theme 

NOEL - reading 

“Grief wafted down every path and alleyway like an invisible cloud. It drifted into my lonely bed every night, wrapped itself around my dinner table, seeped under the door of my bathroom, settled on my computer, followed me to church, and sneaked up from behind in most unexpected ways.” 

NARRATION 

After Maris died, Noel had immediately stepped back from his volunteer work at Lifeline. He felt he was too emotionally stirred up to offer the support that the job really required.  

Now, although still weighed down by those feelings of guilt and struggling to find direction, he made a decision: he was going to return to the phones to see if he could use his experience to help others. 

NOEL  

They were all very caring and concerned, like people at Lifeline are. And I was saying to one of my colleagues, these massive guilts that I didn't do enough for her. And she said to me, “well, Noel, think of the things you did do.” 

MARC  

As opposed to what you… the guilty you were feeling about what you hadn’t done? 

NOEL  

What I didn’t do. She said “think of what you did do.” And I thought, “yeah, well, I did do a lot.” And that in a way was a sort of like a turning point in my thinking. 

music - warm solo guitar 

NOEL 

An opportunity came up to get some training in facilitating groups for people bereaved by suicide. And I was asked, would I like to get involved? So I said “absolutely.” And then I started facilitating groups.  

And I had great admiration for these people. In the main, they’d lost a child to suicide. And the group itself was great support for each other. And I used to feel I was making a contribution because not only was I on the same journey as them, I had, sort of like, the training and facilitation which enabled them to come together and get the support.  

So I gained a great sense of satisfaction that I was doing something useful, and using the experience of losing Maris there. 

NARRATION 

Noel was beginning to find a reason to get up in the morning again. Once hitched to a life of being a decent family man, he was now finding purpose in being a support to others. And then, as an extension of that, he started writing again, the result being a book called No Way to Behave at a Funeral, a personal journey exploring Noel’s experiences with grief, guilt and learning to live without Maris. 

And then somewhere in the midst of this, Noel travelled overseas again. This time with more verve and confidence that he could manage a solo expedition. Now back when he was a younger man, Noel had enjoyed learning French. So he took himself to Chambery in the French Alps to continue studying the language. And it was there, that he became intrigued by the idea of walking the Camino pilgrimage trail across France and the north of Spain. 

music - relaxed French style   

MARC 

Why did you think it was a good idea? 

NOEL  

Oh, I thought I'd like the idea of going on a pilgrimage. Bit of an adventure. The idea of long distance walking.  

MARC 

How long is it? 

NOEL 

Well, there's about 60,000 kilometres of Camino routes through Europe. But the popular one through the top of Spain is about 700 kilometres. It's generally considered if you're do it in one it’ll take you about 40 days. 35 to 40 days. 

NARRATION 

At night, bunked into one of the many hostels along the camino trails, Noel meets others from all around the world, and he makes lifelong friends. He shares stories and revels in this human contact and camaraderie.  

During the day, he actually spends most of his time by himself, with his own thoughts and experiences. And he starts to examine his guilt and this process of grief that he’s been working through. He finds himself challenging his beliefs and his assumptions about his life.  

And of course, he also thinks about Maris, the person she was and all the things he could still learn from her. 

NOEL  

She was very compassionate, very caring. Felt with the heart. And I think I sort of made this decision: I'm going to do my best. Instead of just thinking, “how's this going to affect me?” all the time, which I think I tended to do. I was trying to say, “I'm going to try and reach out to others in the same way that Maris would reach.” 

music - relaxed French style continues 

MARC   

What did you find out about Noel that you didn't expect to find out when you walked the Camino? 

NOEL  

Noel was far more resilient than I thought it was. He’s happy to accept that you take risks. That the way that really lifts the mood, for me, is to talk to someone. It's possible to walk around and not see anything. But if you walk around with your eyes open and senses open, the world in many ways is a wonder. 

And the other thing I think, is to never take anything for granted. Because, you know, one day Maris was there and then the next day she wasn’t. And by reaching out to others you've got tolerance, far more tolerance, far more respect, far more acceptance, I think. I think all of these were changes, I think, in myself.  

And I see that it's a combination of both of checking to re-identify myself after Maris and internalising all of her values. And also what the Camino’s taught me. And it's evolving, it's just ongoing. You know, I'll be doing this forever. 

MARC   

It's funny when people talk about the concept of recovery, so often we talk about it as though you're trying to claw back to something that you were before. But it occurs to me listening to you that it's not really about going back. It’s about building something new, isn't it? 

NOEL  

It's completely new and it's completely evolving. And every new experience has real impact. Even just our talk here now is… It’s a new experience in itself. And this will evolve, and it's a continual process of renewal. 

music - book excerpt theme 

NOEL - reading 

“I had lost Maris, but I’ll never lose the years with her. From the evening I first met her at the Heidelberg Town Hall to the morning of her death. Even though she’s gone, she’s still part of my life and the family’s. I remind myself that I should think more of her 66 years of life and the 42 years we had together, and not dwell compulsively on the one moment of death.” 

MARC   

What do you think of as your purpose today? 

NOEL  

I think my purpose today is by just being me that I can communicate a message to others that it is possible to be resilient and recover from catastrophe. And associated with that, it's possible not to allow age to shut doors on you. But for them to be open. Admittedly they might be different doors to what you would open when you were younger. But there are still doors to be opened for you to undertake sort of new challenges, to constantly be prepared to accept risk and to take challenges. It is possible. 

And I look at people my age, and many of them even much much younger, you know, and I’ll meet somebody in their 50s and 60s who tells me that they’re too old for this and I'll tell “it's bullshit.” I might not tell him, but I'll think it. 

 music - Noel’s theme begins 

NOEL 

I think that's my purpose: as a model. And to give hope to people. I don’t expect I’ll solve their problems in any way, but just by my contact and perhaps by my example, if that gives them a little big of encouragement to keep pressing on, that’s all you can ask for really. 

music - Noel’s theme continues 

NOEL 

There have been benefits from Maris’ death. Just after she died, if anyone said to me “what benefits?”, or “what opportunities?”, I would have belted them. I saw none, I saw nothing positive. But now 15 years later I can look back and see, okay. Maris’ dying opened up many, many opportunities, which I would never have thought about or considered. 

music - Noel’s theme continues 

MARC   

What do you think Maris would say about the way you've rebuilt yourself and your life since she's gone? 

NOEL  

She’d probably say, “well, Noel, there's no need to talk about me so much.” 

(both laugh) 

MARC   

Do you think she’d be proud of what you've built? 

NOEL  

Yes I would think so. She would see my efforts to try and reach out and think about that other person first, she would see that as being very, very worthy. 

music - Noel’s theme continues to end 

NARRATION 

One of the things that really strikes me about Noel’s story, is that even at the time of Maris’ death he was getting on a bit in years. And according to Dr. Grant Blashki, Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Adviser, rediscovering your sense of purpose, in the midst of that really intense grief at a late age, it’s remarkably challenging. 

MARC 

Hello, Dr. Grant. How are you? 

DR. GRANT 

Good, good. Good to see you again. 

MARC 

Nice to see you too. This is not a small question, but how do you regain a sense of life. Like a sense of purpose in life. Because, I mean, the thing that stands out to me listening to Noel is that obviously imagining a future seemed quite hard for him. Is that quite common? 

DR. GRANT 

Well, I think that his story, which was very intimate and it was amazing to hear him share what he’d been through, it just illustrates how in his particular case, he found a way to find meaning in it. I think for someone who’s lost a loved one to suicide it’s a very difficult time. And there’s all sorts of feelings that they may have, you know: anger, guilt, “should I have done more?”, uncertainty about their role in their life. Like it’s a really massive time of challenging and rethinking things. 

I think some of the lessons we could hear from Noel was that first of all there’s no fixed time course. Like these things can be an ongoing thing. You know, there’s no one way to react. But I think in his case he really found some meaning, and felt that helping others with their similar experiences was something that he could really do. 

MARC 

The person who is impacted by the suicide of a loved one, how do you guide someone through that grief and those immediate days, week, months that come afterwards? 

DR. GRANT 

So I think you’ve got to use a bit of common sense and a bit of judgement with that person. Listening, you know, just sit back and listen. Probably providing little, sort of, cliches is not that helpful. You know, “be strong and you’ll be fine” sort of glosses over it. So give people time to process it. Recognise that they’ll have good and bad days. You know, they may want to talk about it, and then they don’t want to talk about it. Practical support, particular in the early stages. You know, anything from arranging funerals, to informing other people about what’s happened, to filling up the pantry with food. So practical support can be really helpful to. 

But ultimately, it’s that being there for people and being able to help them. And I think, you know, we know that suicide is quite common in Australia. You know, more than 3000 people a year, so this effects so many people in the community who are often very heart broken and trying to make sense of it all.  

MARC 

What is it about Noel’s story that’s going to stay with you? 

DR. GRANT 

I think what I really found moving about Noel’s story is the transformation. And he’s an incredible role model for old people about not being caught up in the stereotype of either just being an old person who’s rigid and can’t do new things. He was really remained open to reinventing himself. And I really enjoyed that about him. 

MARC 

Dr. Grant, it’s lovely to talk to you again. 

DR. GRANT 

It’s great to talk. 

music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm 

NOEL - reading 

“I had to make many adjustments. I could not grit my teeth and pretend nothing had happened. I had to overcome a fear of an uncertain future and a sense of hollowness… Maris’ death is part of my life and I have arrived at a more or less peaceful acceptance.  

My existence has a new meaning. I have wounds that may never heal, a sense of loss that may never leave me. I can’t say that I will ever stop grieving for Maris. I have just got used to the idea of her not being around.  

Doors have been shut, but, at the same time, others have opened. I have grown. I have a purpose in my life, something to look forward to.” 

NARRATION 

I do want to say a huge thank you to Noel for sharing his story. 

And you can join the conversation and share your story anytime you want at beyondblue.org.au/forums  

If you, or someone you know needs support, you can visit the website that I just mentioned. Also there is a Support Service you can call on 1300 22 46 36. We’ve also included resources in our show notes that you can find there.  

Not Alone is a Beyond Blue podcast, it is hosted by me, I’m Marc Fennell. It is produced by Sam Loy, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander, and Tom Ross.   

This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Gadigal Country, and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands. 

Thank you for listening to Not Alone. 

Not Alone is hosted by Marc Fennell, produced by Sam Loy, mixed by Saskia Black, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander and Tom Ross.

Our theme song, Sense of Home, is by Australian artist Harrison Storm.


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