It wasn’t until Robin Williams died that I asked my older sisters, “How did you tell your kids about Pat?” My son knew I had a brother who died when I was young, but not that he took his life.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day this year is November 22. Now at nearly triple the age I was back in 1987 when my brother died, and with two children who are becoming closer and more engaged siblings at ages four and eight, I’m thinking anew about the legacy of suicide.
As I’ve watched my nieces and nephews approach the age I was when Pat died – a week shy of fourteen – I’ve considered anew how Pat’s loss affected me and my siblings. My mom had four children in five years. I came along almost nine years later, making Pat the middle child at 10 years my senior. When I was little, I always wanted to be older, to be in the same league as my siblings. Childhood seemed like a waste of time, something to get through until I could catch up. Then, as my brothers and sisters left for college, I felt at times like an only child.
That late February day when I learned what had happened, I felt the loss of my family unit more strongly than I did of a brother I didn’t know very well at the time. After all, I was a navel-gazing young teen and he was a college graduate with a regular job and a car that wasn’t nice enough for the more upscale neighborhood my parents had moved to. I already felt alone in my new surroundings and like my siblings knew nothing of my life. When the three of them lost their brother, they lost someone they’d grown up with. I knew I didn’t get it, and I felt like my grief had nothing on theirs.
Or on my parents’. It shook me to my core to watch my mom and dad sob because one of their children chose to end his life. How could I possibly know how much that hurt? My mother told me then, and again and again over the years, that she hoped I would never know what it would feel like to lose a child. It’s becoming clear to me now as my son approaches his ninth birthday how deeply I’ve carried this fear for so long that it’s almost an eerie expectation that my children won’t possibly outlive me. It’s one of the reasons I wished I could have had a third child, because I couldn’t imagine one child losing the other and having no one left.
My mother also told me once that she felt like she’d lost two children because I’d retreated so deeply into my group of friends. I had promised her not to follow my brother’s lead to an early grave even though I certainly understood then what depression was. I had felt it in my own bones since I was at least a kindergartner and had seen her struggle with it. When friends asked of my brother, “Why did he do it?” I couldn’t answer with specifics, but I certainly understood the desire and even envied my brother his courage to end his life.
The only way for me to cope in that early aftermath was to stay away from my family and the acute pain they were in. That, and also to numb myself as often as I could get my hands on alcohol or pot, and with cigarettes. Now that I have a host of chronic health conditions, I recall knowingly taking toxins into my mouth as if harming myself in this slow way was the only action I could take.
After some time on antidepressants in my late 20s and early 30s, more serious health issues inspired me to make a lot of diet and lifestyle changes. When I stopped eating gluten and dairy, the dark clouds above me really did lose their heft and dissipate. Everyday challenges lost their overwhelming weight. Learning to meditate and breathe helped tremendously as did a lot of alternative medicine. I’ve now been off medication for almost a decade, through two pregnancies. It’s a delicate balance that can be thrown off by poor sleep or any number of factors, but now that my body is so sensitive that I can’t even stand being in an elevator with someone wearing perfume, I know medication is no longer an option. I believe that several factors have contributed to my chemical sensitivity and autoimmune conditions, including the stress caused by what’s known as an Adverse Childhood Experience and my substance abuse in its aftermath. Antidepressants were an important bridge for me at a crucial time in my life, but I’ve had to find more sustainable ways to keep my head above water lest I worsen other aspects of my health.
When I read recently about the suicide of Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna an alum from my undergraduate college, I felt so sad for her two children and her husband. If the legacy of suicide is this intense for me, a much-younger sister, what must it be like for a partner and a mother’s children to feel like they weren’t enough for her to want to keep living? And yet, my experience with depression tells me that she likely felt she was doing them a favor, that they would be better off without her. It doesn’t seem like that makes any sense from the outside, but when you’re in that nasty chemical soup, it is all you can think. I’m grateful to have found a way to stay out of that soup, for the most part, even if it takes a lot of effort.
Some of my friends probably think I’m a little over the top when it comes to protecting my son, not from dirt or bruises or hurt feelings, but from sugar and additive-laden foods and late bedtimes and other triggers that I know added to my difficulties and that I can already tell are bad news for him, too. I admit I’m a little scared of losing him to inner demons. I’ve avoided telling him much about my brother because honestly, I do not want to give him any ideas. I am not ready for him yet to know that this person who was so closely related to me could hurt so bad that he chose to not live anymore. It’s not lost on me that my son is privileged to not experience violence and tragedy firsthand as so many children a few miles and thousands of miles away do. I know. But surviving suicide is a real thing with long-lasting consequences.
So when, during a rare beach vacation, my husband informed me as we waited for our omelets and gluten-free pancakes that Robin Williams had died and answered my “How?” with a vague “asphyxiation” – a word my four-year-old promptly started to repeat like a fancy new sound – I sunk into a spiral. Not only was I mourning the loss of a fixture of my childhood and such a talented creative spirit, but I was trying to figure out how or what to tell my son if he asked. And if I’d tell him about the uncle he would never meet.
The TV in the hotel room that night showed some tributes. While I emailed my sisters to ask how they told their kids about Pat and read articles online about Williams’ struggles with depression, my husband did a good job of maneuvering away from coverage that went into any medical reports. It’s now been three months, and I don’t think our son ever heard more from us about the actor’s death than, “They’re not exactly sure how” and “It’s very sad.”
As we drove back home two days later, we listened to the soundtrack to Frozen, which we’d only recently purchased. It was still new enough to me that I was struck breathless when I heard Anna trying to get Elsa to come play with her. “Do you want to build a snowman?” she asks, with such hope and yet also the knowledge that it’s just not going to happen. What must it feel like to be completely shut out from someone you love? I was grateful my husband was driving so I could turn my face to the window and sob with only the fields and trees watching.
For the first time in forever, I think I finally understood what it must have been like for my siblings to lose their brother, their age-mate. My children sang together in the back seat, and I was at once so deeply glad that they had each other and yet so worried of how they would rebound if anything happened to the other one. I wished yet again that I were well enough to have a third child.
At least I have sisters to tell me how they talk to their own kids, and I have a brother who, though he’ll likely always have survivor guilt, has been an incredible and a hugely supportive force in my life. The three of them lost a quarter of their initial gang, a key player in all their childhood memories. The love I see between my children is taking me to yet another level of grief for the brother we all lost. I know fear does no good, and I’m trying to notice it rather than live in it so that I can imagine a different – a happier – future for both of my children.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please get help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). More information is at the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, the group organizing International Survivor of Suicide Day on November 22.