The morning of June 4, 2013, I was at the local library with my four children for the summer reading program. My kids were excited for new books and to collect prizes. I was at a kiosk, looking up a book, when I received a text message from a good friend of my older brother. It read, “Amy, I’m so sorry. Brian was like a brother to me.” My heart sank. I knew. Brian was dead. And by suicide. I responded with “what do you mean?” and proceeded to hustle my kids to get their books. I was checking out when the friend called. He was sobbing and I could barely understand him. I began to yell, and swear, in the middle of the library. I yelled at my kids who weren’t moving fast enough as my anxiety continued to rise and panic was overcoming me. I sat on a bench outside the library, where a kind woman asked if I needed any help or want her to call anyone. I simply, and politely, declined, then quickly told my kids it was time to go. Then I realized I couldn’t drive, so I sat them in the grass and told them that their uncle was dead. My kids still hate that location behind the library…four years later. We no longer park in that area. As I type my story, I am in tears and shaking. I am still overcome with grief and sorrow that my brother is gone. He was my person.
This was not my first experience with suicide, and it is definitely not my last. Just 16 months prior my cousin, Shane, took his life at his parents’ home. In college, a high school acquaintance took her life in the garage of her father’s home. I have clients in my office all the time who have lost a loved one to suicide…a sibling, a child, a friend, a parent. It’s so devastating. I make sure to tell my clients my story, so they understand that I continue to struggle with my grief and it may interfere with my ability to care and be there for them. None have requested a different therapist. I think I know why.
Losing someone to suicide is a different loss than anything else. We are called “Suicide Survivors” not because we survived a suicide attempt, but because we are surviving after the loss by suicide. This was the most helpful thing after Brian’s death. It helped normalize everything I was experiencing. I have experienced the loss of family—a grandparent, great aunts and uncles, the loss of a pet (aka, my first baby), and of classmates. I even saw friends lose parents since 3rd grade and siblings. Nothing prepared me losing my brother to suicide, even my cousin’s death. I think I protected myself when Shane died. I was able to be sad and shocked, and keep going. With Brian’s death, my world stopped. I was angry, but not at him. I was angry with others who kept going. Didn’t they know Brian was gone? Didn’t they miss him? Why were people going to work? Why are people laughing already? Why was it perfect weather outside? I closed off from good friends and distanced myself from family—somewhat. I didn’t completely isolate. I found a lot of comfort talking to Brian’s friends…most of whom where in California (where he lived). I think I had 50+ more Facebook friends the week after he died. I was flooded with text messages and calls—my husband took care of that for me by holding my phone, as I would be agitated with people caring, asking myself “Why don’t they just leave me alone?” I wanted to be alone and comforted. No one could win with me. My favorite thing (if that is possible) in the wake of Brian’s suicide: getting messages and memories shared with me from friends of his; some of which I knew since childhood, some I never met.
My anger didn’t last long, but my intense sadness did. It has lessened in the past 2 years, but that first year was an emotionally draining, exhausting fog. The second year grief really sank in. Yes, I said that right…It took over two years for me to not feel sad all the time. I remember one night I was brushing my teeth and burst into tears because it was the first time I went all day without thinking about it. Some might think, “oh that’s good. You’re moving through your grief.” I felt AWFUL; I had so much guilt for not thinking of him.
When losing someone by means of suicide, I know I truly lost someone to depression. It became too much for Brian to bear and he ended his pain. It is not selfish, although Brian knew his family would be in pain. Research says every 40 seconds someone dies by suicide. Man, that is a lot. And that means, that every 41 seconds the grief and pain begin for others. Brian wasn’t selfish. He couldn’t take his pain anymore and through years of trying to do better, feel better, and feeling like a failure, he believed this was the only option.
When losing someone by suicide it is so important to get the support you need, in the healthiest way you can. Seek counseling, go to a support group, surround yourself with loved ones, distract yourself with a hobby (mine was running and biking), call the hotline, exercise, and/or see your doctor. It can be helpful to be honest about your experience, and the death. Talking to children can be very challenging because suicide is so complicated and people fear “giving kids ideas.” It’s often best for their trusted loved ones to provide the information in an age-appropriate manner then finding out “through the grapevine.” To talk with kids, there are some great suggestions here. If someone you know and care about lost someone to suicide, it’s okay to tell them you don’t know how to be helpful. Don’t give up on them; continue to reach out, bring dinner, take the kids for an afternoon, stop by to visit, offer to go with to a support group or counseling, etc. It’s useful to remember their grief might come out as anger, frustration, and isolation. Don’t take it personally, as they will come around in their own time. Be sure to be respectful and not ask questions/make statements such as: did you know? How did he/she do it? Was he/she always depressed? At least he/she didn’t shoot up a school too. These are insensitive and truly not helpful or important.
I don’t know much outside of my own experience, or what I have heard from others who have shared about their loss of a loved one by suicide. I do know that I struggled, and I continue to do so. I know that I miss my brother every day, and am sad I can’t share things with him or hear his voice. I believe the world (aka my world) lost an amazing person that day. I appreciate those who knew how to be around me as I grieved so intensely, and those who stuck by me even if they didn’t know how to act or what to say.
If you know of someone who is suicidal or have concerns, please call the hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741741. There are so many different terms used, statistics, programs, and help. I recommend looking at resources such as American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Survivor Day is November 23 and AFSP has events throughout the country to help support those of us who have lost a loved one by suicide.