Have you ever been told, “I can imagine how you feel” or “I understand,” yet you are certain that, no, they can’t fathom what you’re going through and wouldn’t want to? I have felt this way on many occasions, but mostly the year after my brother passed away. That’s when I lost my will to live and wanted nothing more than to be with him in death.
Four and a half years ago, my only brother took his life. I have a hard time speaking the actual words, not because of the stigma, but because the thought alone pains me. I won’t say he committed suicide. “Committed” sounds as if he is guilty of a crime. I also won’t say he killed himself. This wasn’t a violent murder. For me, “he passed away” feels more gentle.
But the language doesn’t change the reality: his life ended by suicide.
When someone takes their own life, people always seek answers about their mental state: Were there signs? Was he depressed? Was he hiding his depression? Was he on medication? Drugs? A closeted alcoholic?
While these are natural inquisitions, each inquiry feels like a dagger. I’m pressured to have the “right” answers, so that I may convince everyone that it was expected, because that, apparently, is supposed to soften the blow. Unfortunately, his suicide blindsided me and my family.
We love, we support and we believe we have the answers to mend almost any situation, but as much as we care, we can’t possibly know how someone feels. We are not personally feeling what a broken person feels.
After suicide, people also place judgement on the person who took their life, saying, “what about his family?” But the true question to ask is, “what about him,” or rather, for someone like my brother in their darkest, bottomless pit, “what about me?”
I’m sensitive to any language around emotion, loss and grief, and feel attacked by harsh opinions. Frankly, not everyone is compassionate, and not everyone has experienced tragedy. They’re ignorant to such perils and, simultaneously, blessed. But I want them to understand that the mental illness of suicidal depression can, and should, be placed into the same disease as cancer. It comes on unexpectedly and unfairly poisons healthy bodies. The mind, just like the body does during physical illnesses, takes control. And while treatment of all sorts is available, there is no guarantee that these resources will work.
After my brother’s passing, and for a long while, I believed that I could love him back to life and that God would realize both he and my brother made a mistake and would send him back. He would appear one day when I least expected it, run up behind me, pull my ear and say my name. My heart would drop to the soles of my feet, and I’d be so elated that I’d forget he even left me. I’d bury my face in his chest and hold him so tightly that he could never try to take his life again.
This never happened. Instead, I was left with pain like ocean waves: Sometimes it was massive and I’d get knocked over, and other times it was small ripples that followed me throughout the day.
Understanding that the mind, just as the body, needs medical attention after trauma, I began therapy just two weeks after my brother’s passing. I was in a state of shock, consumed with guilt and did not trust myself. I needed an outlet and some relief. I was running, biking, hiking and spending time with friends who love me and were concerned about my stability and mental health and was also prescribed anxiety pills to ease the frequent attacks I was having. But I was far beyond broken. My soul ached. The entire world around me changed and, although my “progress” was applauded and praised, I was so angry that I had to keep living. I was frustrated that life doesn’t stop for death, and, ultimately, I was aggravated that I couldn’t control the speed of time. I wanted to hurry up and die. Every night, I went to bed begging God to take me the following day. I didn’t care how. And every morning, when I’d make it to the next day, I’d feel disappointed and angry that I was alive.
Weekly therapy sessions, daily words of affirmation and antidepressant medication helped some, but none of it alleviated my grief. I could not fathom another day without my brother. It hurt to be alive. It pained me to my core to wake up every morning and have to push through the day. I didn’t care how selfish I seemed to others, how inconsiderate my behavior was or that I was seemingly dishonoring my family or my brother’s own life. I realized that because my hero, my idol, my brother took his life, I could, too. All of a sudden, suicide seemed tangible. Realistic. It was the only thought that brought me any comfort and peace.
There were so many reasons for me to “stay.” People would tell me “be strong,” “stay positive” or “think about your daughter.” Although these words were meant to be encouraging, they came off as dismissive — as if I was being ignored from what was actually happening. What would have helped me, and my brother, even for a moment, would have been comments like, “I’m sorry this is happening.” People who are hurting need to be acknowledged and validated, not condemned, about the way they feel.
At each therapy session, I was asked if I felt safe and if I had suicidal thoughts. I always said that I didn’t, but I was still provided with the suicide prevention hotline along with the instruction to call my therapist if I had thoughts to harm myself. She told me a 72-hour hospital hold would be my path to treatment.
I debated the suggestion, but ultimately trusted my own words.
If I lived each day, I would live them solely for my brother, and now that’s what I do. I live with a sense of pride in all that I do — for him, for myself and for my family.
After a couple years of therapy, which I encourage for a healthy state of mind, I began to feel OK. Neither grief nor acceptance has deadlines. Time is all we have. So I utilize my time and nurture and love myself every day. The latter, admittedly, remains a work in progress.
I miss my brother deeply, and understand that he’s no longer here, but my soul longs for him daily.
If you or someone you know are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).