A NINE month old kitten called Gracie is Buninyong man Michael Bernard’s most persistent reminder that his daughter is gone.
Just before her first day of Year 12, Catherine asked her father to look after it.
It’s just for two weeks, she said.
But then, after being bullied at school and on Facebook, Catherine took her own life.
“Catherine was the apple of my eye, she was my whole life, she was everything to me,” says Mr Bernard.
“Wherever I went, Catherine went, and she loved her animals just like I love animals. She was a very special little girl.
“She’d walk into a room and just her presence would knock you over. She didn’t have to say anything, she was striking.”
The 17-year-old student at Emmaus College in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs had told her father she’d been bullied, but he never thought things were that bad.
He never thought that she would take her own life.
“On the night she passed away, had I suspected she was going to do anything like this I would have been down in Melbourne within an hour,” he says. Catherine was living in Melbourne with her mother at the time.
“I honestly thought she’d be all right the next day. I remember I spoke to her about 8.30pm and by 10.30pm she was gone.
“When her brother told me, it was the most horrific time of my whole life.”
Michael has had his share of tough times. Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After it was removed, he had to learn to walk and talk again.
Around the same time, his marriage broke down and he went into detox to put an end to his alcohol addiction.
Then he lost the person he loved most in the world.
“I still walk past everything of hers, her room remains mainly untouched,” he says.
“Even when I’m feeding Gracie and her other pet cat, Tiger Lily, which she conned me into getting, she’s everywhere in the house.”
According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the national suicide rate increased steadily between 2005 and 2010 – the last year for which data is available.
Almost five per cent of those suicides were teenagers, a figure which has also grown since 2005.
Mr Bernard believes social media played a role in his daughter’s death, with websites like Facebook providing an instant and highly visible way for bullies to leave their mark.
He says other parents should try to be aware of what their children are saying online and what is being said about them.
“Catherine was very popular with her friends and this is why I find it so hard,” he says.
“Facebook actually beat her.
“I think what parents need to do is, not to spy on their children - I wouldn’t recommend that - but to make them aware that they are looking at their Facebook pages so children know that what they write they can be accountable for.
“Parents should get to know their children’s friends. I was lucky Catherine would put me on the phone to different friends or bring them up to meet me.
“I knew a lot of her friends and that was really cool because I could talk to Catherine about anything. A lot of children don’t and can’t talk to their parents.”
Mr Bernard says his daughter’s looks had also been a source of bullying.
Her mother was of Sri Lankan descent, meaning Catherine had darker skin than most. She would often tell her father she wished she had freckles and red hair.
“It was like a good tan that most people would pay a lot of money for,” he says.
“Last year she wanted to be a vegetarian because she thought she was too fat and there wasn’t an ounce of fat on her.
“It’s the stereotype and she doubted herself, she didn’t think she was pretty, she just thought she was plain.”
Since Catherine’s death, Mr Bernard has become heavily involved in local group Survivors of Suicide, which supports people who have lost loved ones to suicide while also trying to break down the stigma surrounding the issue.
Mr Bernard is also campaigning to get more support from the government, while raising awareness in any way he can. He says he’s not sure how seriously the government is taking the issue, speaking of its commitment of $14.5 million for a Stamp Out Bullying campaign.
“You never know what the government is doing, they can pledge the money but they never put a piece in the paper saying that they’ve opened this centre or that program,” he says.
“So far I haven’t seen any proof to tell me otherwise that they are acting on their promises. But then I haven’t got a daughter in school anymore to tell me what’s going on.”
Of the government funding, $10.5 million is being invested in an eSmart cyber safety initiative developed by the Alannah and Madeline Foundation.
All Victorian government schools and 300 selected Catholic and independent schools have been funded to become eSmart.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Martin Dixon said the remaining $4 million was currently being invested in a communications and community awareness campaign.
“The death of Catherine Bernard highlights that the impacts of cyber-bullying are real,” she said.
“This only strengthens the government’s commitment to work with our schools and their communities to stamp out bullying and cyber-bullying.”
But regardless of what the government says and does, Mr Bernard will continue to use his daughter’s example to teach others a heart-breaking lesson.
“If I can save one life out of anything I’m doing, it’s all worth it,” he says.
“I’m not doing it for myself believe me, I’m doing it for Catherine and everybody else out there.
“Catherine’s passing has given me a totally new look on life.”
* People seeking support and information can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.