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No One Knows Exactly why Jeff Barger killed Himself
When she replays the scene as she must, over and over in her mind, it still makes no sense.
It is like a slow-motion nightmare, from the first concerned glances at the kitchen clock wondering why Jeff was late home for Sunday night dinner, the unanswered calls to his work and mobile phone, then the shocking discovery in a dark and lonely corner of a park in Altona in the early hours of the following morning.
Now, 10 weeks on, the re-telling still leaves Tilly Barger with a feeling of surrealism. Her anguish is made worse because their son James, then 18, was also there to bear witness to the outcome of his father's last solitary act.
The two had been out searching for some time when they spotted what appeared to be Jeff's van, partly hidden behind a clump of trees in the local park.
"My first thought was, 'Thank God, we've found him'," Tilly explains quietly.
But then they noticed it: the hose winding from the exhaust pipe into the van.
Before she could even stop the car, James had leapt out, desperate to pull the hose away, desperate to get to his dad.
"It's like I'm watching from another planet - like an out-of-body experience," she says.
How could that be her husband's body in the van? Was that really James throwing himself to the ground, pounding the earth and screaming "Dad! Dad!"?
The minutes that followed are like a dream involving other people, Tilly Barger says now. She knows she was there, fumbling in the dark for keys to Jeff's van, applying CPR while taking instructions over the phone from ambulance officers, exhorting her husband to return from the dark. "Come on, Jeff, come on!"
When they arrived the ambulance officers could not revive Jeff. Tilly drove home and told their daughter, Melanie, 21.
At 3.30am on Monday, Tilly, Melanie and James sat in a devastated stupor, but they had already resolved there would be no pretence.
"The police had said to us, 'Look, some people in this situation decide not to let on it was suicide. It's up to you what you tell people'," Tilly says.
"We talked it through and the kids were firm. They were proud of their dad, not ashamed of him. Never ashamed."
They agreed that Jeff had made one bad decision in a lifetime of doing the right thing. It was best just to be honest.
Jeff Barger was 51 when his "demons" finally completed their fatal mission, leaving Tilly, James and Melanie to stare dumbly into the middle distance and contemplate their man's fragility. As is often the case, Jeff's suicide note gave them nothing except more questions.
"Everything I know is shattered. My truths are no longer true," Tilly says.
It all still seems impossible. But Tilly Barger wakes alone each morning now, and that is very real.
She accepts that her husband became a "masked depressive" - a man with undiagnosed depression whose despair is hidden. No one knew he was in danger, and in these circumstances hindsight can be excruciating - and relentless.
So Tilly sifts through the evidence, analysing seemingly minor but now perhaps revealing words and actions of a man who was falling towards the black void but who didn't have the language to cry out for help. Why did Jeff choose to leave it all behind? What, she wonders, did she miss?
Tilly Barger, also a school principal, is now a grieving widow, a single mother and a detective, investigating her own husband's death.
The life and death of Jeff Barger is, tragically, not unusual.
Australian men aged 25 to 44 are taking their lives at a higher rate than any other group in the country. These men account for almost half of all Australia's suicide deaths. Men over 75 and middle-aged men in the 45-54 group have the next highest suicide rates.
Men like Jeff Barger - dependable, hard-working, loving, strong, intelligent - can suffer depression in silence and solitude. The message from doctors is unequivocal: if we could get to them, we could help, but it is not in the nature of blokes like Jeff Barger to send out warning signals.
He and many others like him had none of the oft-quoted obvious suicide triggers - busted relationships, debt, gambling problems, drugs, unemployment. Instead, these men, for reasons we are left to guess about, come to a point in their life when suicide becomes an option - too often a fatal option.
After three decades as a popular and capable teacher, Jeff Barger was appointed principal of Woodville Primary School in Hoppers Crossing.
He was worried by the job almost immediately, Tilly says: some of the problems seemed insurmountable.
Despite all he achieved as principal, it never seemed enough to him.
But Jeff Barger had a distinguished record of tackling things, of taking responsibility - even for doing odd jobs. Pupils and other teachers would laugh when Jeff put on a boiler suit over his collar and tie and set to work on broken spouting.
No one will ever know what shifted Jeff's perceptions and propelled him towards that park in Altona, but Tilly now places new emphasis on his tendency to work long hours. By the time he died, he was working seven days a week. In a couple of years, he had gone from the heavy workload of a responsible teacher to the almost superhuman load of someone whose life is out of kilter.
"He would come home late from work, put his earpieces in and listen to his favourite sports show on the radio, read the paper and fall asleep," Tilly says. "Then he'd be up early and back to school."
One of Jeff's oldest friends, Alan Thompson, also noticed Jeff had become more distant, and thought the hours he spent at Woodville Primary seemed far beyond reasonable.
"When I found out he was working Sundays . . . we all thought, 'What the hell do you DO on a Sunday at school?' But Jeff would be the bloke who got up on the roof and got the bloody balls out of the gutters," Thompson says.
Tilly sees now that Jeff's "dedication" in the past two years was unhealthy, and paradoxical: if he hated the job so much, why did he spend more and more time there?
Psychiatrists say there are people who, sensing they are losing control of the environment in which they most readily identify themselves, seek to regain control by striving harder than ever.
It is possible - not conclusive, but possible - that Jeff Barger felt his high level of achievement was eroding under an assault of impossible work problems. What should a reliable, strong, successful man do?
Tilly says Jeff experienced several traumatic events after becoming principal two years ago. A pupil died in a car accident and a teacher died of cancer. As he always had done, Jeff dealt with the tragedies well, steering the school community through the crisis.
But there was an outrageous setback that damaged his confidence, she says.
"Jeff was physically assaulted by a parent three times. The last time, the man threatened to return with a screwdriver and drive it through Jeff's heart," Tilly says.
We can only imagine to what extent such violent, personal assaults undermined Jeff's view of himself. Tilly wonders whether her husband was jolted into believing he would not be able to protect his family: if it could happen in the workplace, could it happen at home?
Jeff was a strong man, but not a violent man, Tilly says. He was appalled by violence. If the physical attacks became, in Jeff's mind, a mental attack on his masculinity, and if he was already questioning his future and his identity .
It is this "what if?" factor that always troubles those left behind to deal with suicide's fallout.
"I thought I knew Jeff intimately - but who do we really know?" Tilly asks.
She was not oblivious to her husband's suffering. She knew his job had become an ordeal. But his advanced sense of "duty" allowed him no respite. Tilly remembers the garden becoming overgrown because of Jeff's extraordinarily long hours away from home.
"But if I did some gardening, he'd kick himself for not being around to do it, so he'd get up two hours earlier and do gardening before heading to school," she says.
"So I had to learn not to let him think he was ignoring the house."
It was plainly too much. Tilly began encouraging Jeff to take a year off, perhaps to join the Teachers Released to Industry Program.
"Or just retire. He'd accrued years of sick leave and long service leave. But it was typical Jeff: he couldn't do it, couldn't let people down."
Another old mate, George Kalandadse, also a principal, has been knocked sideways by Jeff's death. Notwithstanding his friend's admirable devotion to the education system, Kalandadse is concerned that Jeff never embraced a clean break as a lifestyle choice.
"He had a superannuation option and enough leave to walk out of the school the next day and never work again. I mean, he had something like 400 days owing," Kalandadse says, shaking his head.
The Thursday before he died, Jeff and Tilly Barger were at a regional principals' conference in Lorne. Uncharacteristically, Jeff decided to miss the final dinner. He and Tilly dined elsewhere. He told her, again, he simply hated his job.
Well, come on, Tilly said, let's do something about it. She was relieved when, over the next day or two, Jeff began investigating share investments.
He also spotted a van and told the kids he would take Tilly around Australia when he retired. How long will you be gone, James asked - a couple of months? No, a year, Jeff had replied, smiling.
Tilly relaxed a little. Jeff had always been a careful planner, so it was normal for him to seek advice on investments.
"Jeff wasn't obsessive, it was just his nature to do things and do them properly," Tilly says.
On the Saturday, Jeff went to Telstra Dome to cheer on his beloved Bulldogs in a high-scoring match against the Kangaroos. In a plucky performance, the "Bullies" lost by 11 points.
During the game, Jeff got a text message from Tilly: they were invited to a Williamstown restaurant that night for dinner with old friends. Yep, that's fine, Jeff replied.
No one knew, but it was crunch time for Jeff Barger. "We were walking along the street with friends," Tilly recalls.
"Someone mentioned that they were going on a 10-berth catamaran trip in the Whitsundays, and Jeff and I should take the last two places. I made a jokey remark, just being flippant, along the lines of, 'Oh, Jeff couldn't - the school would fall apart without him'."
Tilly's brow crinkles as she explains what happened next. Jeff thrust the bottle bag containing their beer and wine at her, so fast she could not grab it. It fell to the ground.
Jeff said: "I can't stand this any more," turned around and began walking away from the group.
Alarmed and incredulous, Tilly sent her friends on to the restaurant and chased after her husband. When she caught him, the colour in his face was odd.
"I said to him, 'Let's go home and talk about it - let's just go home.' He seemed to have shut down," she recalls.
Jeff regained some composure. No, he said, he would be all right.
They arrived home late and went to bed. Jeff's little breakdown was not discussed.
The next morning, Jeff was busy around the house. Before Tilly could find the moment to get him to sit down and talk about his anguish, he left. She heard his van start, and back out of the driveway.
"It was completely unusual. He always said goodbye, gave me a kiss," she says.
It was the last time she saw him alive.
Jeff Barger would have been amazed at the turnout. More than 600 mourners filled the Footscray Football Club's President's Room to overflowing. Shoulders hunched and coat collars raised against the bitter wind, they had parked their cars at Whitten Oval, scarcely acknowledged the statue of the great "EJ" in full flight, and filed upstairs.
There was a stunned silence, and the air was punctuated only by an occasional muted greeting or nod of recognition.
Peter Welsh, who played 165 games for Footscray before retiring in 1978, had known "Barge" since kindergarten. A solid friendship of nearly five decades was tragically over, and he struggled manfully to make sense of it.
Welsh told the audience he was not much of a public speaker, then held them spellbound with 15 minutes of touching anecdotes about his relationship with "Barge".
At kindergarten, Welsh said with a warm grin as he shared his cherished memory, the teacher, Mrs Holmes, had a cupboard near her desk.
"In there she kept naughty children, or at least she threatened to put them in there - and that was good enough for me and Barge," he said.
As he wound up, Welsh cast his gaze from one side of the room to the other. He eyeballed a few middle-aged men, cleared his throat, then issued a warning he could not have imagined would ever be necessary.
"There are lessons for us all in Barge's life and in his death," Welsh began.
"The lesson of his life to me is what a wonderful gift it is to live a life in the service of others, to be sensitive to their needs and caring enough to nurture them.
"The lesson of his death is relevant to us all, but particularly to those of my generation and gender, people in positions where they are responsible for the welfare of others.
"Teachers, principals, managers and parents alike need to keep a proper balance between lifting and leaning - between the urge to do more for your people, and the need to recharge."
Welsh paused, looked blankly at Jeff Barger's coffin, then continued.
"If we fail to do this, we run the risk of building around us a version of Mrs Holmes's cupboard; alone, the key within reach in your pocket, but with the keyhole to the lock on the outside."
Welsh reckons his enduring memory of his mate "Barge" is captured in a poem he once heard about the world being populated by two kinds of people.
"Not the good and the bad, because everyone knows the good are half- bad and the bad are half-good," he says.
"No, the world is divided into those who lift and those who lean. Barge was one of those who lifted all his life, giving generously of his time, love, knowledge and skill.
"It was his greatest strength, but also his Achilles heel."
In the two weeks after the funeral, Tilly Barger's home was inundated with flowers, cards and notes of sympathy. They dangled from drooping threads strung across windows, filled the mantelpiece and had taken over the dining room table.
Jeff's wife was overwhelmed by the outpouring, and grateful that so many people were signalling their love and support.
And, she noticed, many of the notes were from people so affected by Welsh's eulogy that they wanted a copy of it.
There was another constant theme: school principals who had written to say they had some empathy with her husband's decision to commit suicide.
"Their view was 'There but for the grace of God go I'," Tilly says.
Will these men talk to each other? Or will they, like Jeff, bottle up the pain and plough on until something stops them?
Those who heard Peter Welsh's captivating eulogy and plea for men to examine themselves are already affected.
The former Bulldogs big man harked back to his playing career for an analogy that correctly captured his sense of helplessness.
"I played mainly in defence and one of the things I learnt very early was that balance was needed between going and holding. When it was your turn, you had no choice but to go at it with everything you had," Welsh said.
"At other times it was your responsibility to hold, saving your energies for the next contest, trusting those around you to carry the load. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but one you had to master.
"I wish Barge had spent some time with me in defence. I wish we
could have learnt that lesson together."
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