The Larkin family before Gavin and Gus’s cancer diagnoses. Photo: Supplied/Larkin family

R U OK? Day: The true story behind the movement

Six years after Gavin Larkin’s death, the memory of the movement’s founder is still being used as a guiding light.

By Caitlin Shea

As R U OK? Day rolled out for a third year across Australia in 2011, its founder Gavin Larkin was anything but OK.

He was days away from death, but still tracking the success of his fledgling suicide prevention movement from bed at his Sydney home.

“I’ve got Twitter on and Facebook,” Mr Larkin said on the day.

“It’s everywhere, so I’m very happy because it’s more important than me.”

His wish was for R U OK? Day to continue well beyond his death and, six years on, Australians have wholeheartedly embraced the concept of checking in on the welfare of each other.

The latest figures show 80 per cent of Australians are aware of the day of action and one in four of those have participated in an R U OK? Day-related activity.

But the phenomenon has also been a source of strength and comfort for his wife and children.

“This is the house that lives and breathes R U OK? and it’s incredible to see the community that R U OK? has built around us,” his daughter, Josie, said.

“It’s incredible to see what he dedicated the last few years of his life to still helping others.”

Gavin Larkin checked out of hospital to attend the second year of R U OK? Day in 2010. Photo: Supplied/R U OK?

‘I don’t ever say it’s not fair’

The Larkin family has endured unimaginable loss over the past six years.

Two years after Larkin’s death from lymphoma, his 15-year-old son, Gus, died of a brain tumour.

Mr Larkin’s wife, Maryanne, said her family had suffered the “unthinkable” but were doing “pretty well considering”.

“I think outsiders look at it and think, ‘My God, if that happened to me, how would I get up everyday?’,” she said.

“I do have feelings like that some days; that it is so hard, but we’ve been able to cope, and I would say cope pretty well actually.

“Acceptance has been a big part of me being able to get through it.

“I don’t ever say, ‘it’s not fair’.”

R U OK? born from personal fear of suicide

Gavin Larkin was a successful advertising executive when he set up R U OK? Day in 2009. Photo: Supplied/R U OK?

Larkin set up R U OK? in 2009 as a personal project to honour his father, Barry Larkin, who took his own life in 1996.

Despite his successful and lucrative advertising career, Gavin Larkin feared he was heading down a similar path to his father.

“I should have been feeling on top of the world and I felt empty, I felt black, and it really scared me and I started to worry that I might do what my father did,” he said.

He came up with the concept of R U OK? Day, a national day of action to encourage people to reach out to others who may be struggling.

He used his marketing skills and high-profile contacts to get newspapers, television stations and a host of celebrities on board.

It was an instant success, but shortly after the first R U OK? Day, Larkin was diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma. Gus was diagnosed three weeks later.

“You could say, ‘Why me?’ and then you go, ‘Well why not me? What is it about us that’s so different or special?’,” Larkin said.

“Life is random and you’ve got to cop the good with the bad.”

Gus was equally accepting.

“Que sera,” he said. Whatever will be.

Gavin’s story ‘central’ to R U OK? movement

(L to R) Van, Maryanne and Josie still participate in the R U OK? movement. Photo: Australian Story/Mayeta Clark

Six years after Gavin’s death, his wife Maryanne, 16-year-old daughter Josie and 12-year-old son Van are all still involved in the R U OK? movement.

Josie gives speeches for the organisation, and Ms Larkin and Van took part in the Conversation Convoy, a group of four bright yellow cars that toured Australia spreading the R U OK? message.

R U OK? chief executive Brendan Maher said Larkin’s personal story was central to the ongoing power of the movement.

“Gav’s never far away,” Mr Maher said.

“I often think, ‘What would Gav think about this?’, and I hope that he’d be happy with where we’re going.”

Everyone agrees Larkin would be thrilled to see how successful his suicide prevention movement has become.

“He would be very happy,” Ms Larkin said.


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