The devastating story behind this viral photo of a man and his dog

Alana Calvert

Brenton Smart had been driving his truck on the outskirts of Adelaide when he saw a solitary man pushing a buggy along the road accompanied by a dog.

It was the height of summer and he had been worried about the pair, but didn’t have time to stop.

Later that same day, he was on his way back when he saw them again and pulled over. He was not prepared for the man’s heartbreaking story.

The truck driver subsequently shared a photo of the man and his dog to Facebook.

In the image, the man was crouched down in the little shade supplied by his buggy with his head downcast towards his dog.

“I seen him and his dog so I pulled over to make sure he was ok,” Mr Smart explained in the Facebook post in which he shared the photo.

“Turns out he lost his daughter in November last year from suicide.”

Mr Smart went on to explain the grieving father had told him he was walking from his home in Adelaide to Canberra to deliver a petition that urged for improvement to Australia’s “inadequate mental health system”.

Paul Murcott and his dog RJ pictured travelling through Adelaide in February 2018. Source: Brenton Smart / Facebook
The photograph Brendon Smart took of Paul Murcott and his dog on the outskirts of Adelaide that went viral online. Source: Brenton Smart / Facebook

The truck driver was so affected by the man’s story, it was only afterwards he realised he had not even got his name.

The Facebook post Mr Smart put up about the man, whose name he later discovered was Paul Murcott, quickly went viral on social media and caught the attention of numerous media outlets, including Today Tonight and ABC Radio.

‘I needed to heal my head’

Nearly four months on from going viral and starting out on his trek for his daughter, Mr Murcott, along with his dog RJ, can still be found on the roadside making steady progress on their trek to Canberra.

The pair have still got a long way to go — more than 800km in fact — but as time goes on Mr Murcott said the trek has become less and less about the destination or when he gets there.

“As the trek’s been progressing, the time frame has become less relevant,” he told Yahoo News Australia. “The more I’m out here, it seems the more I’m getting the word around.”

When his 32-year-old daughter, Shona Mai, had taken her own life in November 2018 after a long custody battle over her four children, Mr Murcott’s life as he knew it had ground to a halt.

Paul Murcott and his dog RJ have been walking to Canberra from Adelaide since February 2018 for suicide awareness. Source: Facebook / A Trek for Shona Mai
Paul Murcott and his best mate RJ have been on the road since February. Source: Facebook / A Trek for Shona Mai

“I was shattered,” the 59-year-old said.

“I felt like I’d had my guts ripped out. I couldn’t focus on anything. Basically, I think I was in shock.”

For the grief-stricken father, needing to embark on the trek was as much about saving his own sanity as it was motivated by raising awareness of mental health – if not more so.

“I needed to heal my head,” he explained. “I was having really dark thoughts.”

Thankfully, a “coherent thought cut in” during this time and, despite still enduring the rough terrain of the grieving process, just three months after he lost his daughter, Mr Murcott set out on the road with just his best mate, RJ, and a buggy that he had quickly “slapped together”.

Adelaide man and grieving father, Paul Murcott with the buggy he is pulling to Canberra . Source: Facebook / A Trek for Shona Mai
Paul Murcott's buggy had been "slapped together" for his epic journey before strangers he encountered along the way helped improve it. Source: Facebook / A Trek for Shona Mai

The pair have encountered more than a few hiccups since they set out in February — including flat tyres, busted ball bearings and getting caught in all manner of extreme weather events, one of which was a dust storm so bad it blew RJ’s bed away.

But the kindness he’s experienced from strangers has put his “faith back in humanity”. Many of whom had been similarly touched by the cruel blow of losing a loved one to suicide.

Last year, new data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed the national suicide rate had seen a startling spike, the counselling service Lifeline described the increase as an “outrage”, and urged the Morrison government to implement a national target to reduce the suicide rate.

The ABS data showed that 3,128 Australians had taken their own lives in 2017 — 262 more than the year before. While intentional self-harm was ranked the 13th leading cause of death, moving up from 15th position in 2016.

Paul Murcott's daughter Shona Mai, 32, pictured died by suicide in November 2018. Source: GoFundMe
Shona Mai was 32-years-old when she died by suicide in November 2018. Source: GoFundMe

‘It’s not weak to speak’

Mr Murcott admits that before losing his daughter to suicide, he had “that Aussie thing” society seems to expect of men. “You know, [being] stoic and not letting your emotions show, and all that sort of stuff, and being good at it for years,” he said.

“But that didn’t achieve anything, and that’s what I’m trying to do out here — [get the message across that] it’s not weak to speak.

“When I first started this, it was to raise awareness, to make this tragedy not such a negative, to make a sort of positive out of it. If what I’m doing helps open up communication with people, gets them to start talking about [mental illness] so it’s not such a taboo... then I’ve done good.

“If I can help just somebody not take that final step [towards taking their own lives] then I’ve done good,” he explains, because it might mean one less person suffering through the excruciating pain of losing a loved one, which has been his agonising reality for every minute of every day for the past seven months.

“I don’t want people feeling like I do,” he said. “It’s gut-wrenching.”

Paul Murcott is walking to Canberra for suicide awareness for his daughter who took her own life. Source: Facebook / A Trek for Shona Mai. RIP
Paul Murcott's buggy with the banner made for him by kind strangers encountered during his long trek. Source: Facebook / A Trek for Shona Mai. RIP

Keep up to date with Paul Murcott’s journey on his Facebook Page, A Trek for Shona Mai. RIP.

Those wishing to sign his petition, can do so here.

To make a financial donation to help Mr Murcott on his journey to Canberra, his Go Fund Me, can be found here.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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