Family shares story to break the stigma

It is 20 years since the Tungali Feedlot at Sedan was established.

But Mark Irrgang, the man who helped build the facility and ultimately rose to become its manager under current owner S Kidman & Co, will never see Tungali enter its third decade.

Four years ago, on the morning of April 3, 2013, Mark took his own life, leaving behind his wife Jenny, two teenage daughters and a legacy of running the 5000-head capacity feedlot with meticulous pride, dedication and ingenuity.

Following on from his tragic death and the grieving that ensued, Jenny and Mark’s mother Dot decided to speak about their loss on the second anniversary of his death.

“If by sharing our experiences we prevent just one suicide, it will be worth it,” Jenny said.

Strength in family

Mark often joked that he could always remember the month and year he started working at Tungali because it coincided with the birth of his eldest daughter Stacey. 

The truth, however, was that it was his starting date at the feedlot which helped him remember Stacey’s birthday.

“When Stacey turned 18 we held a party for her at our house at Tungali,” Jenny said.

“Mark gave an amazing speech and everyone cried.

“The realisation that our younger daughter Courtney will never get to have that experience is very hard to accept.”

Jenny said her work colleagues at the Tanunda Lutheran Home had been amazing over the past two years, while an already close relationship with Mark’s mother Dorothy had grown even stronger and helped both women to cope.

“Our family relationships really haven’t changed since Mark died,” she said.

“I know tragedy can tear some families apart, but we’ve all stayed very close.

Dot confirmed the strength of her relationship with her daughter-in-law.

“Jenny and I have always got on very well,” Dot said.

“We still have a lot of laughs, just like we did before Mark died. 

“He had a unique sense of humour, just like his father Dennis.”

Mark and Dennis shared a love of farming, motorbikes and mechanics, and according to Dot, they were great mates who both loved telling bad jokes.

“Mark’s death really hit Dennis and it still does,” Dot said.

“They used to do so much together.” 

The hardest phone call

When the police arrived at Jenny’s workplace at 10am on April 3, 2013, she could never have known the awful news they were about to deliver.

“At first I assumed they had the wrong person because the suggestion that Mark would commit suicide was impossible for me to believe,” she said.

But before long, the horrific reality started to set in.

“I just collapsed in a heap.

“Then the police drove me to Nuri High where I had to tell Courtney what had happened.

“Then I had to ring Dot and Dennis and they were just about to leave their home to attend a funeral. 

“That was the hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make.”

The trauma of the week following Mark’s death is still painfully fresh in Jenny’s mind.

“The days leading up to the funeral were horrendous, everyone was so stunned,” she said.

“I felt angry in the beginning, but throughout our relationship I could never stay angry at Mark. 

“I know he had no malice towards us, it was obviously just a very dark place he found himself in.

“It’s hard when you’ve been with someone for 30 years and then they’re just gone with no warning. 

“You don’t get to say all the things you’d like to say to them and you can’t help but feel guilty because you couldn’t stop it from happening.”

The funeral was held at Eden Valley’s St Petri Lutheran Church and attracted 400 of Mark’s family, friends and associates.

Mark’s beloved Honda XR 650 dirt bike was on show at the front of the church, adorned with his jacket and helmet. His mates from the Keyneton and Morgan motorcycle clubs lined their bikes up outside the church and local CFS volunteers formed a guard of honour to acknowledge their fallen comrade.

“Stacey and Courtney put together a slideshow with Mark’s favourite music and it was absolutely brilliant,” Jenny said.

“It showed how warm Mark was as a person and how laid back he was.”

The family were initially unsure about how to address the nature of Mark’s death during the funeral service.

With the encouragement of local pastor Erik Braunack-Mayer, the Irrgangs determined it was important to talk about Mark’s suicide.

“The pastor made the point throughout the funeral that people, and especially men, have to speak to one another,” Dot said.

For Jenny, the feedback was validation of their decision.

“So many people came up to me after that service and said it had changed the way they viewed suicide,” she said.

“It really was an amazing service in that respect because for most people there it was the first time they’d been confronted in that way about suicide.”

Kidmans: an empathetic employer

At the funeral, Jenny made a point of thanking Mark’s employer, S Kidman & Co.

“All the Kidman representatives were there at the funeral and I know it was very hard for them as well,” she said.

“In my speech I reiterated how grateful we were for the way the company had always treated our family and how supportive they’d been since Mark’s death.

“Kidmans were wonderful from the outset and assured me there was no pressure to move out of the house at Tungali.”

The company also paid for significant renovations to the cottage in the Sedan township that Mark and Jenny had purchased years earlier and where Jenny had lived since June 2013, when she moved out of Tungali of her own volition.

S Kidman & Co chief executive officer at the time Greg Campbell oversaw his company’s assistance of the Irrgangs and remained in contact with Jenny. 

“Mark’s tragedy hit us all like a lightning strike,” Mr Campbell said.

“From an always friendly and immensely practical man, it was such a shock for us all to realise, sadly too late, that he must have been suffering the insidious creep of anxiety and depression.”

Mr Campbell said Tungali stood as a lasting tribute to what Mark contributed to S Kidman & Co.

“Mark’s legacy is that he built from a bare hillside, a fully functioning 5000 head feedlot,” he said.

“He also developed a dedicated team of local farm staff, and following his tragic loss they stood tall, demonstrating one of the greatest legacies any boss can leave, trained committed people in your wake. 

“They are all still there today.”

Saying goodbye

On January 2, 2015, Jenny took to the skies above Langhorne Creek for a special sky-diving mission in which she spread Mark’s ashes. 

Stacey and Courtney joined their mother for the jump.

“It was fitting because Mark was such an adrenaline junkie,” Jenny said.

“I felt that was an important part of moving on from the grieving period.” 

For Jenny, much of the first 18 months after losing Mark were a blur and the experience has left a lasting impact on her health.

“I have struggled with severe anxiety and sometimes I’ve just completely frozen,” she said.

“I’ve had counsellors ring me wanting to come and sit down to talk about what happened but I just haven’t felt as though I could do that. 

“I want to help other people who unfortunately have to deal with the aftermath of suicide too.

“Sharing my story now is a big step for me to see how ready I am to talk about it.”

Not alone

Mark Irrgang’s death was one of four suicides in the Sedan community in just two years, understandably shaking the small town’s population of just 150 to its core.

Going on the most recent official data compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from the day Mark took his own life through to the second anniversary of his death, some 5000 Australians will have suicided. 

This number is nearly twice as many fatalities as road related transport deaths in the same period and equate to almost seven deaths by suicide in Australia each day.

Experts do not yet fully understand why suicide rates are higher in regional areas and why adult rural males like Mark Irrgang are especially susceptible. 

While research continues on a national level, there is momentum at a local level for proactive grassroots measures to minimise the risk of further suicides at Sedan.

Mardi Jennings, a Mid Murray Council councillor and chair of Sedan Progress Association, saw a clear need in the community for a suicide prevention strategy.

“Our suicide prevention network set up through council was an initiative that came from a community response to a number of suicides in Sedan, sadly, of which Mark Irrgang was one,” Ms Jennings said.

Working with Country Health SA, the council was working on a Suicide Prevention Action Plan, which would provide a centralised point for the council to work with and address wellbeing and mental health concerns in the Mid Murray.

Such measures are playing a vital role in regional communities because, quite simply, small rural towns like Sedan just can’t afford to lose vibrant community members like Mark Irrgang.

“Mark was an amazing man and a wonderful father,” Jenny said.

“His death is such a waste.

“I’m so lucky that I’ve got two beautiful daughters to hang to.

“I just look at Stacey and Courtney and I see Mark in them every day. 

“There’s so much of Mark in their values, courage and strength. Mark would be so proud of them.”

Ultimately, Jenny hopes that by talking about Mark’s suicide others in her community will be more comfortable to talk about their own difficulties and, with any luck, further suicides might be prevented.

“No matter how much we all wonder what we could have done to prevent Mark’s death, we can’t change what happened,” she said.

“As I say to my girls, we can either let this define us for the rest of our lives, or we can live a good life just like Mark would’ve wanted.”

• Tom Dawkins interviewed Mark Irrgang 20 days before his death for a profile on the Tungali Feedlot.

Details: If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, ring Lifeline, 24 hours a day, on 13 11 14, or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467; for information and support, call Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or visit beyondblue.org.au.