Real Life

Mark Mitchell’s family tragedy ‘My mum’s a hero’

Losing a loved one spurs the pair to fight for others struggling

When National MP Mark Mitchell thinks about his childhood, there are countless memories of his mum giving back to others. Whether it was taking in other children, picking strawberries to make enough money for a family holiday or volunteering in the community, Sally was never afraid to get stuck in.

It’s a value that has stood the test of time – and now at 74, Sally is still serving others as a Victim Support volunteer.

The intensive role sees Sally helping support families through the worst moments imaginable when a loved one dies from suicide or is a victim of domestic violence.

“Mum has always been someone who volunteers. I’m extremely proud of the work Mum and the other Victim Support volunteers do. Being there when people need them the most in extremely stressful situations is very demanding,” says Mark, who has also been involved with the organisation both in his role as an MP, and when he was a member of the Dog Section and Armed Offenders Squad with the New Zealand Police.

Victim Support provides free nationwide support services, including counselling, ACC assistance and justice advocacy, for people affected by crime, trauma and suicide.

“Just the other week, Mum came for family lunch but had to leave early because she had three suicide follow-up calls to make. It’s a huge commitment and, without a doubt, she’s an unsung hero.”

Sitting beside her eldest son Mark in her North Shore home, Sally openly shares with the Weekly that she has a very personal connection to this work as she lost her second-born son Sean to suicide in 2000, when he was 29.

“People who I am supporting through suicide often say no one knows what it’s like,” says mother-of-four Sally, who has also volunteered for crisis phone service Youthline and police community patrol in the past. “But I do. I’ve been through it, so I can really understand.”

Brothers Sean and Mark were very close growing up, and his death has had a huge impact on the whole family.

“Sean had been suffering from mental-health issues for a long time,” recalls Mark, who’s determined to keep his memory alive. “He was either the life of the party or couldn’t make it past the letterbox. He was a great uncle and loved his sailing – anything to do with the ocean.

“I’ll always talk about Sean publicly because I feel it’s really important to keep highlighting that we’re a country still trying to deal with serious mental- health issues.”

Sean’s death was a deeply trying time for the Mitchell family, but grieving openly and bringing his body home for loved ones to spend time with before he was laid to rest helped.

The family cherishes precious memories of Sean.

Sally tells, “One night, I couldn’t sleep, so I went and sat with Sean. I held his hand and said, ‘You just look like you’re sleeping.’ The next minute, I heard this snoring and got a huge shock. Mark was sleeping on the other side of the bed on the floor because he didn’t want Sean to be alone either.”

Mark and Sally laugh together at the cherished memory. They both believe Sean would be proud of the work Sally is doing.

Where many her age are looking to ease into a more relaxed lifestyle, Sally tirelessly spends two to three hours every weekday calling or visiting the 40-odd cases she’s supporting at any one time, and is on call for urgent situations and sudden deaths.

“It’s challenging, but it’s also very rewarding,” shares Sally, who recently received an award for her dedicated services to Victim Support. “I’ve been working with one family for nearly three years. They lost their 16-year-old son to suicide. They’re very proud and don’t have family in New Zealand.

“It took me a while to get a rapport going, especially with their older son. He plays the piano beautifully and he recently wrote a song for me called Sally’s Song. That was really special.”

It’s no surprise to Mark that Sally has such a strong influence on the families she supports.

“Mum’s had a big impact on all of us,” he enthuses. “We lost Sean, but even with his struggles, he was heavily involved in community service with the Coastguard. My sister Lisa is one of the biggest fundraisers for the Mental Health Foundation and my youngest sister Tracey works with people with disabilities. All of us have a strong drive for public service.”

Sally, her friend Fran and daughter Lisa fundraising for a police community patrol car.

Smiling, Sally continues, “My dad always taught me, ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do to you.’ That’s how I’ve raised my children and grandchildren, and I’m very proud of all of them.”

To donate to Victim Support or to find out more about becoming a volunteer, visit victimsupport.org.nz

Related stories