Noel’s story was featured on Beyond Blue’s podcast, Not Alone. You can listen to his episode here.
Noel will never forget the first time he saw Maris.
It was at the Heidelberg Town Hall in Melbourne’s north. The year was 1958. And the band had just started up a Foxtrot.
“I saw this tall, dark-haired girl on the opposite side of the hall,” he said. “And I noticed she was knocking back the boys.”
Eventually, Noel summoned his courage.
“Would you care to have this dance?”
She hesitated for a moment, and then agreed.
As they swayed to the music, Noel made the conversation. He told her he was 26, studying psychology at the University of Melbourne. Maris was 21 and had just commenced her midwifery certificate. She was from a tiny country town near the Victoria / New South Wales border and this was her first night in the big smoke.
“I noticed you were knocking back some of the boys,” Noel said.
“I was waiting for the fellow who had taken me out for a drink at the milk bar to return from moving his car, but by the time you arrived, I decided I’d been stood up,” she replied.
Right place, right time, Noel thought as they danced away for the rest of the night.
A few months later, Noel asked Maris to be his wife.
This time she didn’t hesitate before saying yes.
Despite a few complications with pregnancies, married life was everything Noel had hoped for. After all, he had Maris.
Together they raised four children. Noel often found himself in awe of Maris’ selflessness in all aspects of her life.
“She was very compassionate, very caring,” he said. “She felt with the heart.”
The family were active members of the local church and community. Noel and Maris would go along to as many Sydney Swans games as they could, dissecting the team’s performance on the train ride home.
In his later years, Noel volunteered on the phones with Lifeline, a crisis support service.
At home, Maris was beginning to experience her own mental health issues. Depression would come in waves and Noel found himself wondering if he would ever have to use the techniques he’d developed at Lifeline with his wife.
2004 was a particularly bad year for Maris.
“It (her depression) was getting worse,” Noel said. “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 psychiatrist.”
The mornings were particularly bad. Noel felt a sense of helplessness as Maris would stare blankly at the ceiling, too distressed to get out of bed. The love of his life was gripped by a despair that she couldn’t explain.
One morning, Noel decided he would do his best to describe it for her. He penned a poem:
On the morning of October 30, 2004, Maris was more distressed than usual. Eventually she got out of bed and told Noel she was meeting up with a friend to exchange some books. As Noel saw the car leave the driveway, a feeling of dread took over.
In 42 years of marriage, he says it is the first time that she ever lied to him.
What followed was the longest morning of Noel’s life. Eventually a car did come back into the driveway, but it wasn’t Maris’. It was a police car. They asked Noel to come to the hospital.
She had taken her own life.
In a blur of grief, anger and guilt, Noel had never felt more alone.
“I realised that night would be the first on my own,” he said. “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.”
Life in the years that followed would be anything but ordinary. Noel found grief to be a constant companion.
“As soon I came back home, back to the empty house... Bang, there was the grief just waiting.”
Her passing left such a hole in his life that Noel considered joining her.
“I visited Maris’ grave daily,” he said. “I would say, ‘There’s space for me in the grave, I’ll join you.’ But I could hear her saying, ‘Not yet.’”
Eventually, Noel made a decision. If he couldn’t live out his days with Maris, he would live out his days in honour of her. He had always admired her selflessness and ability to put others first.
“And I think I sort of made this decision,” he said. “Instead of just thinking, how's it going to affect me all the time, which I think I tended to do, I'm going to try and reach out to others in the same way that Maris would reach out.”
Noel began facilitating groups for people bereaved by suicide.
“I had great admiration for these people,” he said. “Most had 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 the training which enabled them to come together and get the support.”
Noel also began writing about his journey with grief. He has now authored several books, seeking to spread his message that hope can arise from tragedy.
He has also found a passion in undertaking pilgrimages such as the famous Camino de Santiago, a series of walking routes throughout Europe that wind their way to the Cathedral of St James in Galicia, Spain.
Despite reaching an age where many would consider putting their feet up, Noel continues to open doors to new challenges and experiences.
“Admittedly they might be different doors to what you would open when you were younger,” he said. “But there are still doors to be opened for you to undertake new challenges, to constantly be prepared to accept risk and to take challenges."
Noel still talks to Maris.
He will often light a candle and feel her presence.
He still wears his wedding ring.
And he still misses her dearly.
“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,” he said.
“Maris’ death is part of my life and I have arrived at a more or less peaceful acceptance.”
On the eve of his 88th birthday, he is still driven by a purpose he found in her passing. To talk openly about his experiences. To ensure depression and suicide are not met with silence. And to live a life in her honour.
It’s a love story that started in 1958 at the Heidelberg Town Hall and continues to this day.
“I think that's my purpose - as a model,” he said. “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 bit of encouragement to keep pressing on.”
“Just after she died, I saw nothing positive. But now 15 years later I can look back and see, Maris’ dying opened up many, many opportunities which I would never have thought about or considered.”
Noel has written several books on his personal journey of grief and finding purpose. They are available for purchase here.