March 16th was my brothers’ birthday. On that day, just as she had done for the past 43 years, my mother baked a banana cake, smothered it in vanilla icing, and placed a few candles on top; which my 6-year-old niece vied to blow out. There was singing and laughter, even a few balloons, but my brother was noticeably absent from the celebrations. You see, two and a half years ago my dependable, loyal, loving brother died by suicide.
Two and a half years ago my life changed forever. I had just celebrated my own birthday, and went to bed happy and grateful for a special day. I was oblivious to the nightmare that was about to unfold. At 2 a.m. my phone rang, it was my sister who relayed the terrible news. As the details emerged, I felt the darkness envelope me. Somehow I found myself outside lying in the damp grass groaning like a wounded animal. I could hear the roar of the ocean near by and with each crashing wave the reality of the situation came hammering down on me, tearing at the deepest parts of my being… my brother was gone.
But I am not alone. On average, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds.
This means that each year there are over a million families, like ours, living with the aftershocks of suicide. My experience has taught me a few lessons that I feel compelled to share, in the hope that shining a light on this darkness brings an opportunity for understanding.
1. There Is No Formula for How to Grieve
Let’s be frank, it is a total shit show! We would like to fit an individual’s grief journey into a framework, where one progresses through specific stages, over a certain timeline, culminating in acceptance. And yes, while there are specific characteristics, behaviors and emotions that are associated with bereavement; how, when, where and if you experience them is unique to the individual. For me the ocean is a perfect analogy for how I experience my grief. Sometimes it is calm but out of nowhere a big wave crashes over you and you’re tumbling underwater, not knowing which way is up. Eventually you make it to the surface spluttering, just in time to see a set of smaller waves approaching, which you dive through headfirst, only to realize that you’ve swam into a rip tide. Here the undertow is strong and despite your best efforts the pull is just too much. Just as you give up, the current guides you to calmer water.
Like the ocean, grief is a raw force and unpredictable. You can only feel what you feel, and whatever that emotion is, it is totally valid for you in that time and place.
2. No Training or Experience Prepares You
I previously believed that I was empathetic person who was ‘in touch’ with my emotions. In stressful situations I ‘talked it through’ as it helped me to gain perspective. I sought information from books, thinking this knowledge was empowering. I generally ‘wore my emotions on my sleeve’ rather than ‘bottling them up.’ But in the shadow of my brothers’ death I couldn’t tap in to any of my usual coping strategies. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t cry, and there was no way I could bring myself to read about suicide loss. It was like rehearsing for a play but on the day of the performance not remembering your lines or realizing that you had learnt the wrong script! I was bereft. I was untethered. I looked in the mirror and didn’t know who I was anymore. There is no reset or resume button, you just have to slowly learn to live in a world that is different and that you are a different person in it.
3. Suicide Is the Ultimate Conversation Stopper
In health care, and society in general, our drive to save lives eclipses care around the dying process and consequently we are uncomfortable talking about death. In the same way, our focus on the health of the physical body trumps that of our mental wellbeing, and as a result mental health conditions are poorly understood and stigmatized. So when death and mental health collide in the perfect storm of a completed suicide we have the ultimate conversation stopper. For decades we have swept these taboo topics under the carpet, and because of this we are ill equipped to deal with it.
So what is the ‘right’ way to talk about suicide? I am not sure what the correct answer is. It is certainly important to acknowledge a persons bereavement and offer support. To be there without judgment. No one is to blame for this. To be there with no expectations. Someone who has suffered a suicide loss, might behave more aloof or more needy or more erratic than before, but do not take these behaviours personally. This is not something that they will ‘get over’ in a month or a year. They have to start anew and that takes time, but also requires patient and supportive friends.
4. We Are Complex Emotional Beings
A month or so after my brothers death, my daughter, then 2, pulled at my shirt and asked “Mummy, when will you be happy again?” I looked at her beautiful expectant face and wished that I had an answer for her.
What I have discovered since, is that happiness and sadness are not opposite emotions on either end of a spectrum, but they can co-exist together in the same moment. Some days, one dominates over the other, but for the most part, they are both there appearing in everyday moments like when my daughter hugs her brother, or when a certain song plays on the radio; and of course these emotions are stronger on special days like his birthday.
Yes, I lost my brother to suicide. I lost my brother on a night that the darkness was so opaque that he was swallowed by the blackness. There is so much about that night that I will never understand, so much that I cannot reconcile; but it cannot rob me of my memories. So on his birthday I chose that happiness would dominate. I popped a bottle of bubbles and raised my glass in gratitude to my family and friends, who I am indebted to and love deeply. I raised my glass in remembrance of all the lives cut short by suicide and to their families who are surviving the best they can. I raised my glass in celebration of my brother, and when I did, I saw him smiling… yes, that was my brother always smiling.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative from Huffington Post.