What I Didn't Know Then — but Understand Now — About My Cousin's Suicide
I didn’t get to know him very well. He lived in Colorado, we lived in Illinois. We didn’t go visit often, but even when we did, I was still pretty young and don’t have many memories of those travels. I have a couple memories of my cousin. Memories of being at dinner together and me complaining my steak was underdone. Memories of us jumping on a trampoline in his backyard. Memories of watching TV with him. Memories of going to his high school graduation. But I was so young, I never got to know Ben very well.
Even though I didn’t know or see him very much, I knew how much his aunt, my mom, loved him. She would tell me about his life every now and then, things like his aspirations for life and the things he struggled with. Ben didn’t always have an easy life and struggled with how people responded to him being who he was. But based on the few things I knew about him and what my Mom told me, Ben always seemed like a source of joy and happiness for other people, despite what was going on in his own life.
I still vividly remember when we found out. It was Easter, and we were still in church after the service. We were all sitting in the nursery when my mom got a call from my uncle, Ben’s dad. I remember my mom saying she was preparing for bad news, but not about Ben. My grandmother also lived in Colorado, and my mom said she was preparing to hear news about her. When she picked up the phone, it wasn’t more than a couple seconds before she starting crying and screaming. Everyone but my dad left the room, but I remember hearing her say, as I was walking out, “It’s Ben!” My sister and I stood in the hallway, listening to our mother sob and mourn, and I already knew what had happened: Ben had died.
There was no way for me to know. Ben could’ve been sick, in an accident, missing, any number of things. But I knew from how my mother was crying that Ben was gone. I told my sister to wait in the hallway. I walked in slowly and my mom, with tears still coming down her face and stooped over in a chair, looked at me and said, “Ben killed himself.” Even though I didn’t know Ben that well, I still knew him, and he was still family. My heart broke, not only because I had lost a member of my family, but because my mother had just lost a nephew she loved just like she loved me and my siblings. My sister came in, then our pastor, and that was it. I don’t have any memory of the rest of the day. All I know is that Easter, a happy day for my family, had become a dark one.
I was only 15 when Ben died, and I hadn’t matured enough to understand the importance of cherishing our loved ones while they’re still with us. Life throws curveballs all the time, so it’s better for everyone to enjoy the time we spend with those we love. As I got older and learned that lesson, it made me feel one thing when I think about Ben: regret.
I regret the fact that I didn’t get to know my cousin better. I regret not talking about him more with my mom when she would bring him up. I regret not talking to him more. But there is one regret that is the worst of them all, and it makes me feel guilty and embarrassed: I didn’t go to Ben’s funeral.
Like I said, I was only 15 when Ben died. When the funeral had been planned, it overlapped with a big event I had to be a part of. Being a teenager, I didn’t prioritize correctly. No event is big enough to justify saying goodbye to a family member, especially when they die the way Ben did. It’s been six years now, and I never went through a true mourning process for Ben. But over the past six years, I occasionally think about Ben and how I didn’t really know him. But worst of all, I wasn’t there to say a final goodbye to my cousin.
I’ve talked about this regret with a lot of people, including my mother. She always reassured me that I shouldn’t feel bad, that I was young and I didn’t make a wrong decision. But no matter how many times people tell me I shouldn’t feel bad about not going, I think it will be something I will carry with me the rest of my life.
I’ve had my own encounters with suicide personally. I almost made the decision to die by suicide three years ago. I’ve self-harmed to deal with those feelings, but I hid both of them for years with no one knowing but me. When my mother found out, and had to drive me to the hospital alone, I had a feeling she was reliving what she felt when Ben died. She held back tears the whole car ride and while I was getting admitted, but she was on the verge almost the entire time. And for good reason: I was causing my mom a lot of pain.
I don’t know if mom was thinking about Ben when I was going through what I did with my own battle with suicide and mental illness, but I do know that she thinks about Ben often and still misses him. And the fact that her own son almost died the same way he did, I certainly didn’t help with my mother’s experiences with suicide.
I’ve been thinking about Ben a lot lately, and I honestly have no idea why. Maybe because I’ve been reflecting on my own life and the things I did and almost did. The mistakes I’ve made, the mistake I almost made to cause my mom the same heartache she felt when Ben died.
I’ll regret not going to Ben’s funeral for the rest of my life, I’m sure of it. But thinking about him has made me realize something: Ben fought a lot of the battles I did and we shared a lot of the same feelings. We both made the same decision in our heads. Ben wasn’t weaker than me and I wasn’t stronger than him. I’m not better than Ben, and he isn’t worse than me. We’re kindred spirits, and I know he wants better for me. So I’ve decided on a new outlook on life: I’m going to live my life for Ben. I survived the same decision we both came to, and he isn’t here to live the full and happy life he deserved and would’ve had. So how can I make it up to him for not going to his funeral? I can live my life with Ben on my mind and honor his memory by working to fight my history of suicidal ideation. Ben may be gone, but I can work so that he isn’t forgotten, and I can make him proud by fighting the demons I think he faced too.
Getty image via twinsterphoto