Tuesday, March 7, 2006

A Sibling's Story of Surviving Suicide

It's interesting how memory works. You try not to focus on a date, and still, it comes around and bites you. Everything was normal this morning until I dated a letter that which made me realize it was March 7th today. I don't know why that specific moment I remembered, and yesterday I didn't. Even last night, while I was writing my blog for today, and I wrote March 7th, I didn't remember. March 7th was the day my brother died, and every March 7th I remember, though I don't plan to. I want it to be a normal day. I want to forget. I want to be a normal person without that word "suicide" hanging over me.

This year, I can do something to remember this day, that will maybe help someone. In the past four years I have been privileged to volunteer some of my time to mental health awareness and suicide prevention in the State of Utah, through the Utah HOPE Task Force. They have asked me to speak at two of their Conferences, to present the perspective of a sibling survivor. Today, to remember my brother, I am going to share that speech. Maybe it will show up in a Google search someday, and maybe it can help someone who happens by. (Hopefully this will eventually get more traffic than Cordova Ice Worm Day, which is currently my most Googled page.)

HOPE Suicide Prevention Conference 2005
Suicide Survivors- Break-out Session

Why are we called suicide survivors?

I would like to explain why we call ourselves survivors. The term can be confusing to those who don't understand all the implications of the term. When you read an obituary you see that those left behind are listed as survivors. Once you have reached a certain point in life, everyone has been listed as a survivor in an obituary. How come we don't have a society of survivors? Why would a survivor of someone who has died from that particular cause, suicide, choose to label themselves from this one event? If you are a suicide survivor, it might be difficult to put into words why.

Research by Barbara Rubel in "The Grief Response Experienced by the Survivors of Suicide" found that certain grief complications are unique to suicide survivors, such as a loss of social support, an increase in self-destructive tenancies, and suicide survivors list guilt as the most distressing factor of their grieving process. Rubel's research also stated (this is my favorite) "that suicide survivors tended to be more psychologically disturbed, [and] less likable ... than non-suicidally bereaved."

David L. Conroy, PhD in his book Out of the Nightmare Recovery from Depression and Suicidal Pain listed twenty-one qualities that intensify grief that are specific to suicide survivors. Among these are:

-a lack of time to say good-bye to the deceased
- reoccurring health problems such as headaches, and stress related illnesses,
-increase of mental health problems, and
-a stronger likelihood to develop suicidal ideation.

He, like Rubel, notes a "lack of social support" he recognizes society is getting better at supporting suicide survivors but "the amount, quality, and duration of social support ... is still much less than the normal grieving process." During the grieving process survivors feel an intense lack of trust in others and in self, weakened interpersonal relationships, and Conroy spends quite a bit of time on what he calls the "deep and complex feelings of guilt."

These are just some of the issues that suicide survivors must work though. No wonder we feel a bit different from other grievers. No wonder we feel like aliens compared to "normal" people for years after the death of our loved one.

General public needs to be aware that there are many survivors in our community

Many sources estimate that for every suicide there are six to ten people whose lives are and will be irreversibly affected by the suicide. With thirty thousand Americans dying annually by suicide, that makes at least an estimated one hundred eighty thousand new survivors a year. With numbers like that, if you are not a survivor, you likely know a survivor, or will intimately know a survivor in the future.

My Family's Story

I am the oldest of my parent's four children. My brother was born just two week shy of two years apart. We celebrated our birthdays together, having one birthday cake-one set of candles to blow out. I liked frosting, and he liked cake, so I would eat his frosting, and he would eat my cake. We were very close friends as we were young. We were playground buddies, co-conspirators; we presented a united front against parents, other neighborhood kids, and sometime our younger siblings. As we entered teenager-hood, he began to have problems adjusting socially to middle school, and was held back a year. He hated school. I loved school. Our closeness changed; we grew apart. His teenage difficulties were different than mine. My mom said that he would go into a deep dark place for days, and wouldn't talk. I couldn't understand the place my brother was in, and frankly, at that time, I didn't want to try to understand.

His freshman year of high school, my senior year, we had a very difficult year in our relationship. I couldn't wait to go to away to college, and a lot of that anxiousness was from the tension that his illness created in our home. That year he was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and when he chose medication as his treatment option, things did get much better.

The next school year was my brother's first full year of medication, and his best year in school ever in his whole life, socially and academically. He became a photographer on the school yearbook committee, did the sound and lights for the school play, and had a close group of friends for the first time since his childhood. Since I was at college, from long-distance we began to rebuild our friendship. He wrote me letters, we talked on the phone. I began to see my brother as my friend again. In his letters he sounded excited about life. Every letter he ended with "I can't wait for you to come home." I never wrote him a letter that year. It is the biggest regret of my life. I considered our phone conversations enough.

Then March 7, 1993, my brother, took his own life. He was sixteen years old. It was the last night of the school play that he had worked so hard on. He did not leave a note. We as a family still cannot find any significant warning signs... if it had happened the year before, it would have made sense, but he seemed to be doing so well. There are so many unanswered questions.

My parents became completely different people from the secure, safe, strong people that I had always relied on. They were completely shattered by my brother's death. I felt that my real parents had died with my brother. I know that sounds very harsh to the parents in the room, but I feel very strongly that parents need to be aware of this. Your children cannot talk to you about their true feelings about their grief. You must provide another safe adult, who will listen to them during the grieving process.

I felt abandoned by my friends and church leaders. My friends were young, and did not know how to react to my grief. Whenever I tried to talk about my brother, the subject would quickly be changed. When I would ask sincere questions to my church leaders they would give me the equivalent of a head pat, or a trite answer. We need to encourage community conversations about suicide so that people can understand the needs of survivors and respond appropriately when they need support. During those first few years, I had only one friend with whom I felt safe sharing my feelings, and I cannot imagine where I would be if I did not have that friend. We need more friends out there to support survivors.

There is no way to prepare for the magnitude of the loss that suicide creates or to prepare for the lack of support following a suicide

No one is ready for the loss of a loved one to suicide. Even if there are warning signs due to mental illness, one simply cannot prepare oneself for the actual impact of losing a loved one by the violent act of suicide. In our culture, suicide is still a taboo subject. Sometimes it is impossible for survivor to share their grief surrounding a suicide because they feel blame and judgment from the community that should be supporting them. Society has an unspoken message that a suicide is indicative of a character flaw and/or a family dysfunction. We need to change these perceptions.

There is no-one to blame

When suicide occurs, there is not someone or something concrete to blame, like in a sudden death due to a car accident, or cancer. This is difficult for anyone to face, but for young people who are not experienced with expressing and understanding their feelings, this ambiguity can be extremely difficult. Human society craves fairness. We need a villain, or something to blame. It is extremely confusing when suicide happens because it's extremely unfair, and it's not unfair in the way that death from a car accident or cancer is. With non-suicide related deaths it seems okay to be angry at something other than your loved one. Survivors of suicide feel guilt for blaming their loved one for their death. We feel wrong for being angry and for going through the normal grieving process. The easiest way to deal with these feelings is to blame ourselves for not seeing the pain, or understanding the pain, that our loved one was going through. We blame ourselves for not seeing the signs, or listening to promptings, that might have changed the outcome of the situation. We can sit forever blaming and being angry with ourselves, but it will not allow us to progress. We, as survivors need to learn from whatever mistakes were made, and learn to live life, and to love those around us without regret.

Suicide changes the family- forever

When suicide occurs, our family has forever changed and we are forced to reorganize and redefine roles in our family. The suicide destroys the safe haven that the family has formed, that the siblings have formed. As siblings we are bound by love and respect, friendship and jealousy, we have stuck up for and fought with one another. Siblings play an important role in the people that we have become, and what we will become, and when this tie is cut, the loss is significant.

When you lose a sibling to suicide, you lose part of your childhood. Your shared memories become tainted, and it seems as if the act of the suicide bleeds backwards into the happiness that had once been. For many sibling survivors the suicide is the first young person they know that has died. This death is the first step into the realization of our own mortality.

Siblings in families that have suffered a suicide loss have many issues that they have to deal with. We deal with the crushing pain of our parents. We see our parents as shattered, imperfect human beings, instead of the super-human personas that seemed to exist before. We feel that if we share our own pain with our parents, it will increase their pain, so we hide the increasing senses of loss, anger, guilt, sorrow that we feel that we cannot express.

The loss that a family feels from a suicide will be felt almost every day. As my family gathers for family celebrations, we are very aware that my brother is not with us. Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, never seem completely right without him.

Moving past the pain of suicide

Soon after the suicide, I made the mistake of putting myself on a time schedule. I felt that I needed to go through the Kubler-Ross grieving schedule in an organized grieving process. The reality of my grief was that it was real, it was ugly, it was not organized, and it often snuck up on me leaving me in tears without warning. I often felt many emotions in a matter of seconds, and I could not logically put myself in any phase of grief.

As each month of the first year passed, I would think "Just give me a year and I will get over this." After the second year, which was worse than the first, I wondered if I would ever get over it. I saw people in my life withdraw from me because they thought that I should "be over it." I became suspicious of people wanting to be my friend because I thought that eventually they would not want to be my friend because I would be forever sad.

In the years since, I learned how to incorporate the pain into my life. There will always be times where I feel a big empty spot in my heart. I have learned that is part of life, and I would rather that I have the experience of knowing and loving my brother, than not to have the pain.

I have no doubt that my brother's choice changed my life. But, I believe that all suicide survivors make a choice to either be proactive and become stronger from the pain, or to let the pain rule your life. Some days, some hours, it may feel that we survive because we have no choice. We have to go on, even if it seems that nothing will ever be normal again. Twelve years later, I still cry for my brother, for the unnecessary loss, but as time goes on, I do feel a sense of normalcy that I did not feel before.

I will never be the same person I was before my brother's suicide. In some ways, I am much stronger than before the suicide, in other ways I am more vulnerable. Sometimes when things start to get stressful, I feel renewed by the challenges that life has given me. I am the eighteen year old who cleaned out her brother's locker, and spoke at a school assembly, and finalized the funeral plans in the first week after my brother's death. I remember these accomplishments as strengths. Then there are the times I remember the eighteen year old girl two weeks after his death, who struggled every morning to get out of bed and talk to her roommates, and pretend to be a normal college student because I was overwhelmed with guilt, and sorrow, and wondered how I could have saved my brother, and why I wasn't a better sister, why I didn't send him even one letter while I was away at school. I feel responsible for everything that has gone wrong in my life, with my family, in my job, and in the lives of those around me. I feel overwhelmed by life, unable to accomplish any task. I can relate these feelings directly to the impact of my brother's suicide. But, I do hold on to the belief that as I accept new challenges, life will continue to provide a new sense of normal.

(I love you, brother. I wish you well. -- Absent-Minded Secretary)


brandeev said...

To Whom It May Concern,
On July 22nd, 2006, I will be hosting a motorcycle/ all modes of transportation ride to benefit suicide prevention. The registration fee is $10 per person with a $5 lunch buffet. I am looking for donation items to auction off or have for door prizes. We do so much in every community for many other charities that we sometimes forget that suicide is a silent epidemic that is many times overlooked. It is a subject that we tend to sweep under the rug. If we don’t talk about it, we can’t help fix it. It is everyone’s responsibility to resolve this tragedy. I have lost my Dad, Denver Fire Lt .A .A. Wharton , my cousin Noel Preston Gray, and nearly lost my 14-year-old daughter,February-2006, to this silent killer. We all know someone who has been affected by suicide. Lets remember those who no longer can take a breath for themselves. Lets breath for them. If you have it to give, please give, if not please let me know if you can volunteer with registration, helping sell raffle tickets, blowing up balloons, clearing lunch tables, or just holding hands with someone who needs a hand to hold during this time. It takes so little time to mean so much to someone in need or in crisis. Please help when and where you can.

Thank you,
Brandee Voit

Master Fob said...

Thanks for sharing that, Absent.

LL said...

I so respect your willingness to do things that can be uncomfortable in the hope that you will help someone else. This is one of the reasons I am honored to have you as my dear friend.
And, you have helped me.

Absent-minded Secretary said...

brandeev: Thank you for that information. I will pass it on to the groups that I am involved with.

Master Fob: Thank you. You inspired me to stretch beyond my comfort place in this here blog.

ll: Dearest friend, You Honor Me by being my friend

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Inflicted Smiles said...

The pain caused by a suicide is unbearable. I myself am also a sibling survivor of suicide. 5 years ago my brother took his own life. I am currently living the pain that this one act has caused. I now write a blog about my struggles to overcome this tragedy in my life. I spare no detail besides my name and any identifying factors so I may remain anonymous and do not feel the pressure to censor myself. Im sorry for your loss but I am glad that i was able to find your blog. Thanks.