**Trigger warning: This story contains content about suicide, which some readers may find confronting**
Last weekend, fire fighter and Fortem Australia ambassador Tara Lal, along with her friend Sarah Davis, completed the final stretch of an epic 5000 KM journey with a series of circuits around Sydney’s Centennial Park. It is a journey that they began on March 12 in Steep Point WA – the western-most point of Australia.
Tara originally planned for the ride to take place over 60 days, crossing from the western side of the continent to the east, while raising funds for two mental health charities – Lifeline and MoodActive.
However, much like life in general, Tara and Sarah faced challenges during their journey that required adjustments along the way. From seemingly never-ending bike issues to compressed nerves and gear failure, Tara said many lessons were learned the hard way – by making mistakes. Other challenges were unavoidable, like the heat, and pestilential swarms of flies and mosquitoes.
Tara says the ups and downs were a key part of the experience and were a big part of the overall message they hoped to impart through their ride.
“One of the things Sarah and I said from the beginning, is that struggling is part of growth. There is little progress in life without some form of adversity and leaning into the discomfort associated with it,” Tara says.
“That’s certainly been my experiences in life – one of the most formative events for me, was when my brother took his own life when I was 17.
“It took me many years to learn how to live again, including the last 15 years, much of which I invested in turning towards my pain and dysfunctional thought processes to build my own mental fitness.”
As it would turn out, it was her mental strength that helped Tara on her journey across Australia – and not just in prevailing against the tyranny of distance, or the physical struggles – as the journey would test them in a way that was unforeseeable.
Tara and Sarah met 21-year-old Leif Justham while crossing the Nullarbor Plain. Only hours after that meeting, he was killed on the Eyre Highway, after being struck by a road train.
“We had a lot of difficult times throughout our journey, but hearing the news about Leif was definitely our toughest day,” Tara says.
“It’s something that we really had to think very hard about; whether we would continue or not after that happened.”
Tara says her familiarity with grief and trauma, as well as her mental fitness, helped her deal with the event.
“One of the big things with trauma is just giving yourself space to process it, and what it means for you. It’s important to acknowledge that something really terrible has happened. The worst thing you can do is bottle it up and try to just push past it,” she says.
When asked about how they dealt with the news about Leif, Tara says, “Sarah and I spoke with Leif’s family and joined them in their grieving and distress for him – we cried and laughed together, but we were also able to help them, by filling in some missing details and eventually, providing advice and support in the grieving process – something that I am intimately familiar with.”
“Like all trauma, the key to getting through it is acknowledging your own reactions, being kind to yourself and having social connection – which for us was the conversations we had with each other and with trusted friends.
“Another key part of coping with grief and trauma is how we make meaning from it – and we got that through the support that we were able to provide to the family.”
Tara says that while they had only known and met Leif through a chance encounter, her experience and study in mental health told her that one doesn’t need to have a close relationship with the person who died to experience distress – or even grief for a person you’ve met fleetingly – something that life as a first responder had prepared her for.
“To process the death of a person you’ve met in passing, or in some cases, not at all, is a big part of being a first responder. Our reactions and responses are always layered on our own past experience and may trigger memories of past losses,” she says.
“Unfortunately, as a firefighter, it’s not uncommon to deal with tragic situations – including fatal motor vehicle accidents. Many firefighters will deal with one at some point in their career.
“When we set out on this journey, the key message was – how can we struggle with challenging life experiences in a way that facilitates growth.
“We could not have known that we would have to live that struggle and message in a very real way through the tragedy of Leif’s death.”
As a result of the road conditions that claimed Leif’s life, Tara and Sarah ultimately made the decision to defer part of their journey – some 300 KMs, which they completed in Centennial Park last weekend.
“Ultimately, it is a sense of purpose and social connection that helped us through the emotional and physical challenges of our journey,” Tara says.
“So in a way, it’s quite fitting that we finished our journey at Centennial Park, surrounded by our friends and people we call family.
“Cycling across Australia is a lot like life – it’s a struggle, but it’s worth persevering – the toughest moments are the ones where we grow the most.”
Tara Lal is a fire fighter, mental health researcher, speaker, author and ambassador for Fortem Australia. You can find out more about Tara through her website, www.tarajlal.com or donate to her ride at www.cyclingoz.com/donate.
Eligible first responders can arrange an appointment with a Fortem psychologist by calling 1300 33 95 94.
Beyond Blue provides one-on-one support with trained mental health professionals at any time of the day or night. Call 1300 22 46 36.
Mental health resources for first responders and their families can be found in the Fortem Resource Library.
Fortem activities, events and community engagements are designed to support the mental fitness of our first responder families. Read more about Our Approach.
Find out Who We Support and share this story to help us reach them.