Survivors of Suicide Loss: Lessons from One Survivor to Another
Everyone who has ever lost someone to suicide lives with a double vision of the past. One, the real one, in which someone dies. And the other, the alternative, the one that should have happened, in which someone lives. Those two conflicting visions, collide with one another, disturbing, unsettling, keeping us awake at night.
I have that double vision. Unfortunately, I know many of you do too. I’ve discovered, though, that even the things that you don’t want, the things you never wanted, the things you would give away if you could, can have a purpose. And I believe the purpose of this double vision, is that it allows us to contemplate that unsettled past, and try to arrive at some kind of coherent peace with the future.
I want to talk with you about my youngest brother and my family.
My youngest brother, Ben, became ill in 1977. He came to me first, before anyone else, to tell me that he had been having troubling thoughts. We were very close, so it was only natural he would talk to me. He couldn’t describe the thoughts he was having very clearly, but said they kept returning to him and wouldn’t let him sleep. He swore me to secrecy. He felt there was something shameful about needing psychiatric help, and wanted to try to work things out on his own.
I was young at the time, and tried to keep this confidence. It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. I saw him getting worse everyday. Privately, I urged him to get help. He refused. Because of my promise, I delayed getting anyone else involved.
Eventually I could see a crisis coming and I had to tell my family. When my brother discovered that I had told, he saw it as a betrayal. I felt awful. It placed a barrier between us just when I could have been the most help. I wish I hadn’t tried to keep that secret. I wish he hadn’t asked.
Things developed from there. What at first seemed to be just confusion and scattered thinking in Ben changed into something scarier. Ben told me he was in communication with beings from another dimension. After I told my parents what I knew, they tried to get Ben to seek help. He refused. He began stalking the hallways of our home late at night, a stick in his hands.
I really didn’t fully understand what was wrong with him until one day, after he initiated a fight with my older brothers; Ben was taken to the hospital by the police. He was handcuffed and transported in a police squad car. In hospital, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Ben remained upset that I had shared news of his illness, and wanted nothing to do with me. I held on to the hope that I’d be able to help with his recovery, and that eventually things would return to normal.
But things didn’t turn out the way I’d expected. Ben had a pretty terrible time in the hospital. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t like being there. He refused to talk with me, and he didn’t have much to say to anyone else — psychiatrists or family. His doctors were concerned that he might harm himself so he wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital. For several weeks he tried to escape, sometimes making it as far as the highway in his flapping medical gown and paper slippers. Each time he was caught, and returned to the ward.
Once Ben was diagnosed and given medication, the voices in his head started to settle down. The doctors felt he was improving and permitted him to come home. He was quieter, but seemingly on the mend. He attended support groups on a weekly basis, met with his therapist. Then, a few months after his release, he disappeared.
He didn’t show up at his group therapy at the appointed time. He didn’t return home for supper. No one knew where he had gone.
The family went searching for him. After several hours looking, he still hadn’t turned up. As the rest of the family drove about the city checking in with various people, my father doubled back to our home to see if Ben had returned. He descended into the basement, calling Ben’s name. In one of the rooms the light had burned out. My Dad stepped into the darkness and felt his way forward. That’s how he discovered Ben, sprawled behind a shelf of books.
Nobody saw it coming. He left no note of explanation.
It’s difficult to think about those events even now. That last year of Ben’s life was sad, painful and chaotic. Those final images I have of my younger brother are troubled, but you’d have to have met him before that time to understand the real him.
Throughout my childhood and right up until that last year, he was smart, funny, kind, and my best friend.
I don’t know how to describe how it felt when he died, really, except to say that it was like nothing else that had ever happened to me. It was as though a bomb had gone off and knocked everything over, but it was a private explosion that the rest of the world couldn’t see or hear.
Suicide provides such a rich vein of shame that it is almost inexhaustible for the mining. Everything reminds you of what you might have done, or failed to do. Normally after a funeral, the community provides support. That’s not the way things roll after a suicide. The small kindnesses one usually encounters after a family member dies are almost entirely absent following a suicide.
People are so frightened, embarrassed, or anxious that they stay away. They don’t phone and they don’t stop by. It’s hard not to conclude that you are being shunned.
My family became nearly invisible in the community, and in a sense, we became invisible even to ourselves. My father spent his days in long, solitary walks. My mother attended business conferences out of town. My brothers returned to their respective workplaces. I immersed myself in theatre studies at the National Theatre School in Montreal. It wasn’t ‘normal’. Nothing was entirely ‘normal’ in our lives anymore, but everyone, in their own way, attempted to carry on.
So, when three years later my older brother Olivier (Liv) started seeing things and hearing voices as well, I felt many things. I was surprised, yes — I wondered how it was possible that two people in the same family could get schizophrenia. I was incredibly saddened, too. I felt like the people I knew best, and cared for most, were being seized and carried off, one at a time.
Mostly, though I was scared. I didn’t know if I could find a way to stop Liv’s story from ending the same way Ben’s had.
I was in Montreal when my girlfriend phoned late one night to give me a head’s up. She warned me that Liv was behaving oddly. I called him and discovered what she’d told me was true. It turned out that he was, like Ben, experiencing delusions. I was crushed. I urged him to see a psychiatrist, but he refused. He sensed conspiracies everywhere, and was sure that the doctors — all doctors — were involved.
Like many people who haven’t had a great deal of experience with severe mental illnesses, I thought I could persuade Liv that the voices he heard and the visions he saw weren’t real. I had debated with Ben about what was real and what wasn’t till I was hoarse. I begged him to listen to me. That got me precisely nowhere. The same was more or less true with Liv. Though I pointed out that the things he was experiencing were illogical and impossible, he was convinced that they were totally and terribly real. Liv saw mysterious figures following him and spied stranger slipping past wearing masks. Many times, when I was speaking with him, he would hear voices – voices that I couldn’t hear – instructing him.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t persuade him to take that next necessary step of getting help.
One night, while I was home for the Christmas holidays I walked into the living room. It was dark except for the Christmas tree, which shimmered in a corner. Several of its bulbs were old-fashioned, containing a kind of caramelized, coloured liquid that bubbled as the lights grew hotter; the shadows in the room swirled and crawled. Liv sat near the tree, on the couch, and in the dim, shifting light I thought I could see him crying. I asked him what the trouble was. He answered that he had taken a walk to the river and tried to kill himself but couldn’t seem to get it right.
I suggested that it was time that we went to the hospital. He agreed, and together we packed a small, battered backpack. Then we walked out to the car and drove through the snow and, for the second time in my life, a brother of mine passed intake at the psychiatric ward.
Once in the hospital, Liv was diagnosed – schizophrenia, as we suspected – and was treated, and after several weeks of therapy, released.
He came home from the hospital tired and withdrawn. He was on medication. He had lost his job and the possibilities of getting a new one any time soon were slim. He was still struggling to control his paranoia and he was depressed. It seemed to him that his life had gone off the rails – perhaps permanently. He felt everyone was watching him – and to a degree he was right. Everyone was keeping an eye on him, hoping that he was on the mend.
I tried talking with him about his feelings, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t respond. He’d sit for hours on my family’s beat up sofa, gazing out the window. Finally, to break the silence, I wrote him a letter with a stamped, self-addressed envelope. A few days later he wrote back. I sent him another letter. He fired one back.
That’s the way we communicated for about a year, exchanging letters back and forth, until one day when the mail was late in coming. That day he called me on the phone to ask when he was going to get a letter. Then, for a couple of years, we exchanged telephone calls daily. Eventually we were able to just talk to one another – but it took a while.
Thinking back to that time also reminded me of when Ben first got ill. When he was taken to the hospital I was upset, confused – a lot of things – but I was also impatient. I wanted him to get treatment, quick. I wanted him to get well, quick. I wanted him to go back to being the brother he had once been — quick. I wish now that I’d approached things differently. My eagerness to see results created a lot of pressure – for me and for him.
So when Liv became ill, I realized that my sense of urgency and my impatience didn’t help anybody. My anxiety and worry just created more anxiety and worry for Liv – and what good did that do?
I’ve had to learn to be patient. I’ve realized that an illness doesn’t follow any particular schedule. Things don’t get better just because I want them to. Part of becoming patient has been understanding what my job is, and what it isn’t.
My job is to be Liv’s brother — not his doctor. I can’t provide therapy, but I can provide support. I can offer him someone who will listen when he needs to talk. I can help him deal with problems when they arise. But I’ve come to understand that most of what happens with my brother is his call. Now, I simply try to be there when he needs me.
I’m proud of him, and respect his ability to dig his way out of very dark place. It has been a long, long journey, and a complicated one; and I am grateful for his companionship. And when I think how close my family came to losing him, how a near a thing it was, I’m very thankful. My older brother is with us today. That sometimes seems like a miracle to me.
For a period of time, Ben’s death and the illness of my two brothers turned my family upside down. We’d once been a noisy, talkative family; now we were quiet and withdrawn. I didn’t talk about my brothers’ illnesses or the suicide with others – that just felt like self-pity. What was my pain compared to Ben’s, or Liv’s? Or compared to my mother’s, who had lost her youngest child? Or my father’s, who had found the body, and was seared by that experience?
I thought about Ben all the time. I felt guilty. I felt incompetent. The outcome was so awful, I thought I must have done something wrong. None of us discussed any of this because there was so much sadness bottled up, so much blame to be shared. It felt like if we so much as breathed a word, the grief could swallow us up.
So, instead. we forged silently ahead.
Life happened, but it was a life that didn’t involve talking about my younger brother. Or my older brother. Or suicide. Or the illness.
Then, seven years after Ben’s death, four years after Liv had been diagnosed, I was approached by a film director from the National Film Board (NFB). She was investigating and documenting schizophrenia and she said she wanted to interview me.
I didn’t know if that was a good idea. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share my thoughts, but the director and I ended up talking for hours. After the interview, she asked if she could shoot a film based on my family’s experience. I was asked to write the voiceover and narrate the film as well. The NFB produced the film, titled “Shattered Dreams”. It was released on the festival circuit and aired on television.
Not everyone in my family was eager to participate. My father was dead set against it, and declined to be interviewed. He told me that mental illness was a private matter – the most private matter because it was about a family’s failure. He said it was a label we would carry for the rest of our lives.
My mother was extremely nervous about getting involved as well. She was so used to people blaming parents for the mental illness of her children, she felt certain that there would be a lot of finger pointing. Luckily, that turned out not to be true. For the most part, the response to the film was very positive and almost entirely supportive.
But I learned something important doing that documentary. As the cameras rolled, I listened carefully as my family opened up and told their stories. I realized how
much we still shared. But I also realized how isolated everyone had become within this cage of their own memories. I discovered that when somebody in a family develops a mental illness, everybody is affected. And when somebody dies by suicide everybody, everybody, everybody gets hurt.
Not talking about it just keeps the pain deep inside.
Don’t get me wrong. Talking, on its own, doesn’t provide some kind of miraculous sudden cure. You don’t share your experience, heal, and realize that everything is going to be okay. It’s not like that. But just the realization that everybody had their own secret pain provided me with a new way of understanding my family.
And listening to others, I began to realize that we were all bruised in ways that we weren’t aware of.
So here we are. All of us. We’ve all experienced the death of someone we held close. We can’t undo that – what can we do? We can do what we are doing now, we can talk about it. We can share our stories. The uniqueness of suicide, doesn’t lend itself to healing. It makes it hard to seek or receive advice. That special circumstances wrap it in privacy, and shield it from exposure and in the darkness, nothing heals. Taking it into the light helps, I’ve found.
We can afford to be gentle with the survivors. Suicide is a brutal experience. It knocks everything around. The time leading up to a suicide is often turbulent, and confusing – and certainly the time following a suicide is very, very rocky. The intensity of the experience is like a tremor. It shatters things. It pushes people to the walls, to the corners, to the floor. It’s hard to get up, and sometimes you don’t want to get up. The circumstances around the sudden death of a loved can lead to blame and guilt, which isn’t productive, and is often unrealistic. Could I have done things differently prior to my brother’s suicide? Perhaps. Could I have done more to save him? Maybe. Could I have seen it coming? I don’t know. I will never know. I know I did everything I could think of doing at the time. Ultimately, it’s impossible to outthink suicide. It’s made its decisions and it feels no responsibility to explain itself after. All I know is that in the end, an outstretched hand will help a person up in a way that pointed and accusing finger never can.
I’ve also realized that suicide is such a powerful gesture that it tends to overshadow everything else. For a time, when I thought of my younger brother, I couldn’t remember any other moments I had shared with him. My mind would skip past everything else and rush to the cascading series of events that a led to his death. It almost felt like an insult to even try to think of him, without honoring his sadness and pain and departure. I have since decided I won’t do that anymore. I have decided that it is important to uncouple that pairing. I have decided that there are other episodes of my relationship with my brother that were as important as his death. There was the entire rest of his life. I remember him when he was still a baby, and he would tag along after me. He shared a bedroom with me throughout our elementary school years, and I can think back to the laughs we shared, and the conversations we whispered in the dark when our parents thought we were sleeping. I remember hiking together high in the back country of the Rocky Mountains through pouring rain, spending a miraculous night in a rough wooden shelter by the shore of a remote alpine lake as lightning flared across the dark sky and thunder ricocheted from one peak to another. We watched silently as herds of mountain sheep stalked from the slopes to the lake shore and were frozen as though in a stop action film by each separate, brilliant, electric flash. I will never forget my brother’s death, and I don’t want to, but the life we lived deserves to honored and remembered as well.
Knowing now how permanently things can change in an instant, I am also reminded of how precious the lives are of the people who are close to me now, and of the necessity to treasure the gifts of love and laughter and life. I cannot permit the events of the past to steal those critical moments of the present from me.
Those are the things I have thought about. Things that I wanted to share with you. I’ve also realized that the small things that therapists say count, do actually count. Getting enough sleep, eating properly, staying active, connecting with friends – these things matter. I’d encourage you to do all those things.
I’d encourage you to find ways, large and small, to replenish your bank of optimism. To stay healthy, it’s important to connect to those things that make you happy.
I would urge you to have patience, with others and with yourself, and to continue having courage. Gather a trusted team of people around you and keep them close.
I would urge you to know that you have the strength to deal with the difficulties you have experienced.
And I would urge you to remember that you are not alone, and to never ever, ever lose hope.