This Saturday is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. To find an event in your area, click here.
Two years ago my sister died. It was Thanksgiving morning, and I was getting ready for work when my dad sat me down in the living room, his face pale. In a shaky, restrained voice he told me the news: Elizabeth was dead. Within a few hours we were on a plane to Vancouver for my sister’s funeral. A picture slideshow of Elizabeth’s short life played on a screen as my mum’s hysterical cries echoed through the church.
Elizabeth died by suicide. It’s so hard to say that out loud, even after all this time. I quickly deflect questions about how she died because I don’t want to risk being socially ostracized. But here’s the thing: Losing my sister was painful enough as it is. My family and I do not deserve the added weight of shame and guilt on top of the searing pain of grief. There is only so much a family can endure.
So before forming an opinion on my sister’s character or upbringing let me explain: She did not end her life to cause us pain; she did it to end her own. It did not happen because she was not strong enough. My sister was stronger and braver than anyone I have ever known. To go through life weighed down by darkness, shame, and guilt is incomprehensible to someone who is lucky enough to have never experienced those things. She fought hard for many, many years – literally for her life. Her decision was acted out by the voice of depression, the voice of hopelessness, of just wanting the pain to end and truly believing that taking her own life was the only path to peace.
During university I studied psychology and spent most of my time trying to find different ways to pull my sister out of her depression. Elizabeth’s illness and everything around it consumed so much of my mental energy I barely had room for anything else. I felt like I was in an almost constant state of dread. I read countless books on mental illness, for school and for her. I remember running home in joy thinking that maybe I found a way that just might make her happy again. It breaks my heart because I can picture her sitting so keenly on the side of her bed taking notes and saying, “Talk a bit slower I didn’t get that last part.” I can see her faking enthusiasm and telling me she feels “happier already” and me leaving her room feeling so proud of myself for finally getting through. But I never got through.
When my sister was depressed it felt like watching her drown and not being able to do anything to help. It felt like no matter what we did, she’d just keep getting sucked under. I’d try everything and anything I could think of, eventually collapsing in tears. I would get so angry that I would take my anger out on Elizabeth. I’d scream and yell and tell her I wanted nothing to do with her or the family anymore. I would storm out of the house and retreat to my boyfriend’s place for a few days. Eventually I’d return home late at night and find her sitting on the couch eating pickles, watching Cold Case Files, and looking at me like, “Can we stop fighting now?”
I know in my heart that my family and I did everything we could to save my sister. I know that my sister did not want to die; she just wanted the pain to end. I wish I could’ve taken her pain away. I never wished for anything more desperately than that.
However, I do not want my sister to be defined by her depression. I want those who knew her to remember her for the kind of energy she brought to them before depression took it away. I want her to be remembered for her sense of humor and that infectious laughter that made everyone smile.
Because I lost my big sister I think I feel an instinctual need to stand up for her. I can’t allow her legacy to be one of pain and sadness. I can’t allow whispers and judgments to be made when no one understands the whole story. I want Elizabeth’s legacy to be filled with hope and joy because her story ended with the opposite. I hope it inspires people to be supportive and encouraging to others, to listen when someone is hurting, even if you can’t understand why. I just want people to listen. I want people to know not to minimize a person’s suffering by comparing it to another’s.
I am forever grateful to have had a sister like Elizabeth. She was my amazing big sister. She washed the wheels of my stroller, protected me from the boys who bullied me in high school, and created the kind of art I could only dream of replicating.
I’m choosing to share Elizabeth’s story to bring awareness to suicide. I hope we can find effective ways to help people living with a mental illness. I hope that no one else’s sibling, child, parent, spouse, cousin, grandchild, or friend will ever have to endure the pain of losing someone they love to suicide. I hope that, one day, mental illness will be treated in the same way as any other illness.
Each time we share our own stories we are slowly breaking down previously held beliefs and moving toward acceptance and understanding. I know things are changing for the better, and I am so grateful for that. In these past two years I have been overcome by emotions that I never experienced so intensely before. I don’t know why, but when I experience joy now, I feel absolutely immersed in every particle of it. I think it’s my body’s way of creating balance within itself. The pain from my sister’s death was like a pendulum that crashed through walls within me I never even knew existed. But it also swung back with such force it has allowed me to experience a level of happiness that is so potent it feels almost euphoric. And when I feel that kind of pure euphoria, I hope that wherever Elizabeth is, she feels it too.