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Hiding My Brother’s Mental Illness From My Children Only Added to Their Grief

I am a hypocrite and a liar.

It was my own child who was most hurt by my lies. That is my shameful truth, six weeks after my brother took his own life. Suicide has been in our lives since my brother was a teenager and first started thinking about ending his life. For all of my adult years, I have understood on some level the demons of mental illness might finally claim Dave, even as he rallied time and again against them.

Once my children were born, I learned a new kind of fear. Every emotion and reaction was closely monitored for signs of mental illness. I had watched my brother struggle all his life. More than anything in the world, I didn’t want my boys to walk the same path.

At the same time, the boys were so good for Dave. They loved him in the way only children can, completely, unconditionally and beautifully. Who was I to tell them about the other side, the one that sometimes made him sleep through most of his visits or dwell too much on the past in late-night conversations with the grown ups?

He was still their Uncle D. They loved and accepted him fully, no matter which version of him came to visit every few months. Why would I want them to see him differently? It felt like a gift to them to keep them blissfully unaware. Then came the last year, when the medication stopped and so did the visits, the laughter and the contact. Eventually, I shared with my older son some of the truth, couched in comfortable phrases. My younger son, my sweet little boy, who was 11 and loved his Uncle D so much, would ask and ask why he wasn’t coming to visit anymore, I lied to him.

It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I still believed Dave would come back around. He always did. So I made excuses and told the pretty side of the truth. He was working hard, finishing up his master’s degree and building his life in Boston. He would visit soon, I would promise. Just as soon as he wasn’t so busy.

Then the world crumbled at our feet on January 15, with a knock on the door everyone, except my youngest had known, on some level, to fear. We cried, remembered, spread ashes and cried some more. Then, the world crumbled at my child’s feet again. We were sitting together, talking with the grief counselor, and I gently explained to him I had been scared Uncle D would take his life since we were both kids. I will never forget his face, as he realized we had all known, had all understood this part of Dave’s life and had kept him apart. Heartbroken doesn’t even begin to describe it.

A quiet moment with Uncle D

The easy answer would be I lied to protect my child, to keep him from having to deal with the hardest parts of life. Partially, that was true. Although it was terribly misguided, not understanding his uncle’s illness, only made his suicide even more confusing and sudden.

But the real truth is I lied for years and years to my children to protect my little brother. In my heart, deep down, some part of me accepted the idea that if they knew the severity of his mental illness, they would judge him or see him differently. The horrible truth is, I was the only one making that judgement. Those boys couldn’t have cared less. Their capacity to love and accept is far greater than any words could destroy.

I was a hypocrite and a liar. My choices added to my children’s pain. Worst of all, they sent them the message that mental illness is something to hide. Something so terrible, their mother would lie to them about it.

I don’t get a second chance, but you might. Please, please talk about mental illness, even the hard and ugly parts. If there is mental illness in your world, then it is part of your truth. It is part of my truth. Now I am speaking it, even though it feels far too late.

This post originally appeared on SVL Free News.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255