The Question I Needed to Be Asked After My Brother's Suicide
“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.” — Margaret Wheatley
Grief is a mysterious thing. It is so unpredictable, so powerful, and so difficult to navigate. For a long time, I wanted to contain my grief because I had no idea how to get through it. I learned to hold it in because when I would let it out and open up, my vulnerability was often met with discomfort and uncertainty. People wouldn’t know what to say, so they would change the subject. If I was crying, people wouldn’t hold my gaze.
When my brother died by suicide, I quickly learned most people are not comfortable talking about death, depression, or mental illness. Neither was I, but now I realize how high the stakes are and that breaking the silence can mean the difference between life and death.
Lately, I have been learning how much better it is to liberate my grief than to try to contain it.
Until recently, I have felt like I needed to keep a lid on my grief. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, so I would wait until I got home to cry. I held back tears when I spoke about my brother’s suicide. I would change the subject when he would come up in conversation because I could feel the people around me walking on eggshells. I didn’t want it to be awkward for anyone if I spoke in too much detail about death, suicide, depression, or any other stigmatized topic that has become such a major part of my everyday life. I have always been a people pleaser, and I always try to make sure everyone is comfortable and happy. But I don’t think keeping people “comfortable” and “happy” is really the answer anymore.
I think the solution will be found somewhere in the discomfort and pain. I think there is strength and honor in allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable and to hurt a little bit. I think it is a necessary part of change.
A short and simple conversation I had with a new friend helped me realize all of this.
I was working at my desk when Stephanie walked in. She was killing time in my office while she waited for my co-worker to free up for lunch. We made the usual small talk until we somehow landed on the topic of nonprofits, charities, and the causes we are most passionate about. I will never forget how genuine and bold she was when she asked how I became involved in suicide prevention.
“Did you lose someone to suicide?” she asked.
It was a simple question, but it took me by surprise. Usually, people shy away from these painful conversations. Even some of my closest friends still avoid the topic.
In that moment, I loved Stephanie so much just for asking me this simple question. I loved her because I knew she wasn’t afraid to talk about the uncomfortable stuff. Her question was an invitation that allowed me to talk about my brother freely and discuss my experience with suicide loss. She looked straight at me and didn’t try to change the subject. I gave her bits and pieces of my story, and she listened.
When I was finished she said, “I’m so sorry.”
I shrugged and offered my typical response because I didn’t know what else to say.
“It’s OK,” I told her.
“No. It’s not okay,” she said.
And she’s right. It’s not OK. It’s not OK that my brother felt so alone and hopeless in his depression that he thought suicide was his only way out. It’s not OK that mental illnesses are so stigmatized that people are ashamed to ask for help. It’s not OK that someone dies by suicide every 4 seconds. It’s not OK that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America.
But it’s people like Stephanie who give me hope and help me believe that one day things will be OK.
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