- Posted May 5, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Going public with mental illness
Life After John
Christmas of 1994 will forever be etched into my soul, and the heartache of losing my youngest brother will always be just a memory away.
A mother should never have to comprehend the news that her child is gone--from his own hand. A sibling should not have to bear this most distressing news to a parent.
But this was the setting on December 27, 1994, only two days after Christmas. My brother was only 21 years old, and had been discharged for one year from the military. I did not know that fateful day just how extensive the wound would be to our family, or the long road to coping with my own grief.
Twenty years later, I reflect on that day, and the ensuing weeks and months that followed. The first thing I remember feeling was numbness and denial. Then there was guilt and anger. I later learned that there is a process to grief, and one must go through all the stages before healing.
Healing? That seemed like an oxymoron during those dark days. Nothing can prepare you for a loss of someone so young and so sudden. John had been depressed while he was deployed to Saudi Arabia at the tail end of the Gulf War, and had actually been honorably discharged before he returned back to Oregon.
He lived in Eastern Oregon, and we talked often on the phone. The visits to Central Oregon told me that things were not right with him. Of course looking back in retrospect, I always thought I should have done more.
There was that guilt again. I also learned that guilt plagues most family members who have lost someone to suicide. You always look back and think you should have done more. If only...
The "what ifs" almost drove me crazy. John had wanted to come and spend Christmas with us, but changed his mind at the last minute. I remember our last conversation just before Christmas, and it left a knot in the pit of my stomach. I was off on Christmas break, and I resolved that I would go and spend some time with him after Christmas until New Year's. I had two young children, and they were both under nine years of age.
I would never get that chance. He ended his life on a cold Saturday in the early morning hours. He was on his job assignment as a night watchman, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
My sister called me first to give the grim news. He had been living with her and her family, and she wanted to ensure that I told my mother in person. Our mother lived in the same town as my family. I called some of her best friends, and we all met at my house. It took some time for me to muster up the courage to relay the tragic news.
I remember my mother's expression like it was yesterday. When we started up the path to her apartment, she greeted us with her ready smile--but her face soon dropped and was filled with pain when she saw the look on our faces. I barely got out the words before she crumbled, overtaken by her pain.
I immediately took charge of the task of calling the mortuary, the Veteran's Administration, and many of our family and friends. My mother was overcome with grief, and so I buried my own sadness by staying busy.
If there is one thing that I can pass on to families who are grappling with a suicide, I would tell them this: Don't bury your grief, and don't look for someone to blame. You won't find answers in blame, and burying your sorrow won't help you cope with it. Time helps ease some of the pain, but there are no easy answers. You have to be there for each other and hold each other up. There are no right or wrong ways to come to terms with it--each has to find their own way.
For many years after I lost my kid brother, I didn't enjoy Christmas. I went through the motions for my children and my husband. I finally came to terms with my own feelings, and made peace with my grief. I realized that he would want me to go on and live my life to the fullest, and that doing so wasn't disrespecting his memory.
My son was very close to my brother, and even now he looks very much like his uncle did in his early twenties. Sometimes family resemblances skip generations, and this was certainly the case between my son and my brother. I also learned some hard lessons about children and grief. The effects are often harder on children, whom have had very little life experience to cope with such things as suicide--not that any of us are prepared for such a life-shattering experience.
The other day, I came across a picture album that my mother had given me soon after my brother had died. She had found it too painful to keep, and I had also put it on a shelf until I was ready to look through it. Years went by, and I forgot about its existence.
Twenty years later, I found it buried under some other albums in my closet. It was like finding a treasure, and my heart beat a little faster as I opened it to find his familiar face looking back at me. Most were photos of the last two years of his life--including his deployment pictures. There were captions in his own hand--a quick reminder of his quick wit and sense of humor.
I had tears as I looked through the photos, but I also found that I could smile, and remember my kid brother for the man he once was.
I have no words of wisdom or perfect answers for those who lose someone to suicide. Sometimes there just are no answers at all. We can honor their memory, and be a listening ear for someone who is suffering through a similar experience.
If someone is showing signs of suicide, the signs should never be taken lightly. Learn what you can, and find resources to help you and your loved one get through this time in their life. Get them help, and educate yourself. It might make all the difference