Ryan's Story

26 Jun 2024

Ryan Abramowitz, 33, from Melbourne, Victoria, did The Push-Up Challenge in 2024 in support of Lifeline. The push for better mental health is very close to Ryan’s heart, following the loss of his beloved dad, Joel, to suicide in 2016 

Ryan has written and illustrated an award-winning picture book, Elegy for an Elephant, to support his own journey through loss and help other families to understand and talk about the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Here, Ryan shares how the loss of his dad has shaped him, his passion for supporting others experiencing mental health challenges and grief, and the importance of suicide postvention initiatives.

Image: Nat Court Photography



How has losing your dad to suicide in 2016, when you were 25, shaped you and your views on mental health?  

This is one of the most formative experiences of my life. For me and my sisters, it's made us ambassadors of trying to promote mental wellbeing and conversations around mental health.  

It's really important for me and my sisters, to encourage dialogues that de-stigmatise issues such as suicide, such as lived experience of losing someone to suicide, and depression, which I think, categorically in society, we're doing so much better at.  

My dad kept a lot of things to himself. We have really come to understand the importance of reaching out and speaking. From his suffering, we have learnt that when one experiences feelings that are perhaps too much, that's when you solicit the help that is there. No human is an island, and we don't have to navigate these journeys alone.   

It's made me appreciate the importance of my own mental health hygiene and responsibilities. So, I frequently see my psychologist, and reflect on whether things in my life are going good or bad - I just think it's so important to have those check-ins. 

A session with a psychologist can help us understand the mechanics of our thinking so much better. And I don't think we necessarily need to have a ‘problem’ per se to benefit from a therapeutic framework to understand our life and the negative patterns of our thinking, and our anxieties.  



What was your own mental health like after you lost your dad?  

When I think back to my dad’s death, it all seems really blurry. I was doing an exchange semester abroad in Copenhagen as apart of Masters degree, so I wasn’t even living in Australia when it happened. But I remember the sense of community surrounding me from the moment the news broke. It was incredible, my friends from school bought me a plane ticket to fly back to Sydney. 

I had at the time a psychologist who I saw frequently. I relied on friends, I relied on family.  I had my art and my writing. I processed things as they emerged. It was like treading water. But all things, from emotions to grief, moves like the waves.  


What measures have you taken since, to ensure your mental wellbeing stays as strong as it can? 

I wasn’t very athletic growing up, but since my dad died, I do a lot of exercise. Movement is medicine. I go to the gym frequently now, more so for my mental health.  

The exercise promoted through The Push-Up Challenge is so important and so beneficial, because of the endorphins, that translates from a strong body to a strong mind. And you feel more resilient. The Push-Up Challenge is such a good initiative. I think the significance of a push-up for every person who died is such a strong and powerful symbol. 



How has doing The Push-Up Challenge in 2024 supported your own mental wellbeing? 

The Push Up challenge has given me permission to further believe in myself.  This is through seeing myself literally push through these challenges. Although the push up target is 2249 for the lives lost to suicide in 2022, for me the 2250th is in honour of my dad.   

Although it was a heavily daunting figure at first, the more push ups I did, the more invested I became. Sharing the journey on social media also made me feel more accountable. With every push up, I tried to be mindful of the tragedy of a life lost and to honour this memory.   

I felt my mental and physical health enhanced. The more I did them, the stronger I physically felt. This cascades into my sense of resilience and mental fortitude. These things are what make The Push-Up Challenge so powerful, whilst also raising awareness. 


Can you tell us why you decided to create your book, Elegy for an Elephant? 

It’s been eight years since my dad died, which is the amount of time it took for me to digest that lived experience, process my own emotions, and then eventually convert them into the book, as an offering that could support others in their grieving journey. 

It’s vital to have as many access points into conversations around suicide and mental health as possible. I think this is something that we really need, because there aren't enough suicide bereavement resources available, especially for kids. 

The book was realised across 22 manuscript revisions in dialogue with seven mental health reviewers. There were children's psychologists, psychotherapists, trauma counselors, suicide bereavement experts who all weighed in. Language is so tender and I didn't want the book to be activating, triggering or impart any judgments on suicide. It was really important to make sure that no one would open the book and become activated or traumatised.  



How did the process of art making help you to process your grief? 

The truth is when I grew up, I wasn't the closest with my dad because he was a lot more traditional in his way of seeing the world. And I am more colorful and queer. He was a very archetypal male in some ways who held in his feelings. So I think when he passed away, so much of my grief was around our lost potential.  

There was a period of time in making the book, which having to relive my dad's suicide so intensely really took a toll on my own mental health. So at the beginning when I was writing the manuscript, it was incredibly painful. 

But in the process of painting the book, he came alive in the most beautiful way. I can have such an active relationship with him now. You know, whenever I see elephants, I feel like there he is. I feel more connected to my dad.  



What would you like people who may be going through grief themselves to know? 

I think it's so important for people to know that if they're not feeling a certain way in the grief process, that it's okay. It doesn't have to look the same to everybody. Because textures of grief are so complex and so nuanced.  
What this book also addresses is that when someone is bereaved by suicide, it can evoke complex grief to navigate through. This stems from those feelings of abandonment, prompting Wonder the whale (a character in the book asks) to ask “Why did you leave me?”. Then there is also the guilt about what could or couldn't have been done to change the outcome. In turn, Grace, a golden swallow asks “Did I do anything wrong?” However while the book uniquely considers suicide, it may resonate with people navigating all types of grief for at its heart it honours ways we can connect to loved ones we have lost and the timeless nature of love.  

Having said that, any words of acknowledgement of loss are appreciated. Even if you're not sure exactly what to say, it's better to say something that can validate the grief such as 'I'm sorry for your loss', instead of nothing at all. 



What do you think other people bereaved by suicide need from those around them?  

When people can make an effort to consider what language may be triggering for those who are bereaved, it can make the world of difference. For me, words around the method my dad used are incredibly triggering. Also, removing any words that have inherent biases in them, so we don't say ‘commit suicide’ because commit’ implies that there was a transgression. So, we say ‘died by suicide’. 

Image: Dean Schmideg, DS Images



What sort of impact do you hope to make with Elegy for an Elephant? 

With this book I've been able to make my dream of being a published author illustrator come true, with a picture book that is so meaningful and will be able to help others move through the shadows of where my sisters and I have been. The book is intended to be a resource to help with processing and prompting difficult conversations in safe and supported ways. This will be of benefit to parents, teachers and mental health practitioners.  

My wish is that the book can be universal and anyone can connect to it. We are all navigating through life; not just those who are navigating a loss through suicide, but those who are just navigating any type of grief in their world. My wish is that those who read it will feel seen and supported. 

However I also wanted the book to make a financial impact and so 18% of profits from every sale are being donated equally; 6% goes to Movember, 6% goes to Lifeline and 6% goes to the Jesuit Support After Suicide Services. The selection of these organisations means that both work in suicide prevention but also suicide postvention can be financially supported through the book sales.  



What is suicide postvention and why is it important?  

There’s suicide prevention and then there’s postvention, which refers to the activities or interventions that occur after one has lost a loved one to suicide. It’s about how we best support those who are bereaved by suicide, and what services and resources can we offer them.   

I hope the book becomes a conversation starter for discussions between parents, teachers, caregivers and psychologists about what is suicide and why did it happen. Sadly there is a literature shortfall and not a lot of materials to support those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide. My initial research explained that if children are lied to, it can build mistrust. And so 

if you can empower them with an understanding of what happened, it can build trust and it can establish certainty in the face of uncertainty.  



What was your dad, Joel, like, and how would you like him to be remembered? 

He really was a gentle giant. There were so many reasons why elephants were just the perfect metaphor – like the elephant in the room; elephants mourn their dead. My dad was a tall, statuesque person, but very gentle and very delicate, with a really good heart. And he taught me about the value of hard work, about showing up for others and doing good in the world. Sadly he was very silent in his suffering, and we wish he had made more noise. He had a really tender beautiful, kind soul.  



Do you have a final message around mental health? And why we need to push for better in Australia right now? 

In terms of grief, those we’ve lost do ‘live on in our living’. We can always access them through our memories. And we can honour their legacy with how we conduct our lives.  

There is strength in vulnerability, in reaching out and asking for help. No human is an island, and life is tricky. There is always help, resources, and offerings available to those who seek them. In those darkest moments when you feel so isolated, remember there is always another soul who you can reach out to.      



Check out Ryan’s book, Elegy for an Elephant, here. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health challenges, Lifeline offers 24/7 crisis support on 131 114.    

Read more Lived Experience stories from other Aussies who have been impacted by mental illness here.