November 18 is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. For the first 18 years of my life, that day slipped past just like every other. But for the last four years, November 18 has become one of the most significant days of my year.
On June 7, 2013, after years of struggling with chronic migraines, my sister Melissa died by suicide. To say that day completely altered my life would be an understatement. Following her death, I wrestled with thoughts like:
Would my sister still be alive if I had done something differently?
What will others think when they hear how she died?
How can I continue living without my sister?
Shortly after my sister’s passing, I was approached by a group of “survivors” in my town who had also lost loved ones to suicide. They, and others I had connected with online, shared pieces of their journey with me. Their stories and their words and their honesty helped me to realize that the thoughts I was struggling with were not exclusive to my own experience.
Still, despite the reassurance, these thoughts were overwhelming; usually the loudest voice in the room. It was difficult to hear anything else, which led me to feeling isolated.
In the months that followed, I struggled with finding a way to move forward. I felt guilty for feeling any emotion other than grief. My sister was on my mind every single day. I was worried that if I didn’t remember my sister’s story and the pain she endured, that nobody would.
Throughout my freshman year of college, these feelings weighed on me like an anchor. As I was immersed in this fast-paced, high-stress environment, the guilt I was experiencing only seemed to double.
But those weighted emotions seemed to dissipate when I shared my story—my sister’s story—with others. I found comfort in the conversations that reminded me that we’re all carrying our own anchors. While I shared a common pain with some of these people, others had entirely different experiences. The content of these conversations didn’t matter, but rather the people having them. The reassurance that while I felt alone at times, I wasn’t alone. There were others out there whose struggles looked like mine. It was through these exchanges that I started to find myself moving forward.
I knew I wanted to use my story to make a difference. I wanted to use the pain, and the empathy I felt, to help others. The idea that I could use the heaviest season of my life to lessen the pain of another pushed me to continue. And through that idea, I would be honoring my sister’s story the best way I knew how.
Four years later, that is still my intention. I am building my life around that goal. It’s taken new shape over the years: moving to Florida to intern with TWLOHA, working with refugees and immigrants for a year, and now continuing my education with a Masters of Social Work program. Throughout these varying seasons of my life, I have never lost sight of why I started down this path. I recognize that there are so many people who feel alone, who feel isolated, who feel that their voices are not being heard. I want to love and support those people; I want to challenge the narrative surrounding these struggles. That’s what my sister would want me to do. That’s what I want to do.
My sister wasn’t weak.
My friends aren’t weak.
I am not weak.
We need to support those who struggle, whatever their struggles might involve. If we can put loving people first, and asking questions second, I would argue that we could change lives.
After all: Love is still the most powerful force on the planet.
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