Practicing Good Survivorship

One person’s interpretation of honoring a loved one lost to suicide.

Posted Jan 14, 2016

The following is a guest post by Caroline Ridgway.  Though I've known people who have died by suicide, I've not lost a close friend or loved one to it. Despite battling suicidal thoughts myself, I can't imagine what it would be like to have someone dear to me die by suicide. When I met Caroline at a local mental health luncheon, I felt we were kindred spirits. We had shared experiences, but those experiences were from the opposite sides. She was so open to talking about her brother's struggles and her own in relation to them. It was clear she had something important to say about a subject I couldn't speak to. I invited her to write about her brother, his struggles, their collective experience in order to help others (you perhaps) who might may be reeling from the death of a loved one from suicide.

Caroline Ridgway, used with permission
Source: Caroline Ridgway, used with permission

They tell me I’m a survivor. That’s the lingo for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. I’ve survived before, actually. But this one. I’ve earned my survivor merit badge, for sure.

I lost my dear, treasured brother a few months ago. His death was not entirely unexpected, insofar that he’d struggled with depression and anxiety for his entire adult life, including repeated hospitalizations and an extended course of ECT. We’d harangued, harassed, hovered, and held hard as a family for years. If he doesn’t answer a text message within this many minutes, how worried should I be? If I say, how are you, does that count as nagging? Maybe it’s all in frequency and tonality. Let him live his life.

Except that, at the end, he didn’t, or couldn’t. That night and the following morning I sent messages with the noise of alarm bells in my head growing louder and louder. I still don’t know at what point during the night or morning it happened. It. His death. The action precipitating his mortal exit from the world, an otherwise physically healthy person, decades away from expiration.

Loving someone who is mentally ill is a sort of exercise. You can get better at it, though practice, practice, practice and you still won’t land on the podium of the Olympics of Caregiving. You can’t possibly prepare yourself for the finality of death by suicide. You think about it and what it might be like, but you don’t know. You think you will be able to handle it, but you can’t.

Then there’s this piece of it: I still don’t always understand that he’s gone. I mean to say, intellectually I understand. I remember clearly sitting in my father’s house that afternoon with the detective. Our priest was on his way. I thought, well, if they’re here and we’re talking about this then it must actually have happened. I sat at the funeral home with my parents while they signed paperwork and checks. I didn’t see him before he was cremated. At the time I felt strongly that I didn’t want to, that it would not bring me any solace. Some number of weeks after the fact, when all we had left was dust and some bone chips, I wished I had. Maybe then I’d have a better sense of his absence, tangible proof of his lack of life.

Because it’s easy to forget.  

They say that the depth of a person’s grief, whether considered temporally or otherwise, in mourning the death of a loved one, is proportional to the amount of love expended during the deceased’s life. How exactly they measure that I can’t say, but I accept the basic premise.

We poured oceans of energy into my brother. We worried and fretted; cried and screamed; hoped and prayed. Any opportunity for optimism was welcomed, celebrated. After the ECT, his depression significantly abated (albeit at the expense of his short-term memory) we looked forward. Is he… better? Is that the word? He seemed lighter, easier. He was more open to getting out and doing things. He bought new clothes, talked about plans for the future.

One of the hardest things to accept about this whole thing is that, even up to the moment of his death, he was always planning for the future. He wanted so desperately to be well. He was in school again, chasing that elusive bachelor’s degree. He worked, he was relied upon. He practiced playing his guitar. The week before he died, he’d just bought his books for the new semester. We talked about upcoming family vacations. How much time could he take, if any? We wanted him with us but didn’t want it to be a source of stress for him.  We assured him if he felt he couldn’t make it we’d miss him but understand.

As it happens, we missed him even more than we could have speculated. And did we understand?

It’s impossible for those of us who aren’t afflicted as my brother was to grasp what he felt on a day to day basis. In miniscule moments, at my most vulnerable and insecure, I may have some semblance of a clue. But I imagine that magnified times a hundred, or a million, and constant.

I have at no point been angry at him for what he did. I am sad. Abundantly and chaotically so. I miss him more than I can find words for. My life is quieter, emptier, and less interesting now. But I am not angry at him. I know how hard he fought and how much he wanted to live. I suppose he finally decided, for whatever reason we will never know at that particular time, that all the fight, and all the therapy, and all the medication in the world wasn’t going to give him what he wanted or, more poignantly, what he deserved.

He was an extraordinary person: kind and intelligent, sensitive, patient and wise. In my role, willingly assumed, as one of his caretakers, I felt some obligation to share the wonder of him with the world around me. I invited him out places, paraded him around in front of my friends, so proud of this person I called brother and wanting so desperately for everyone else to agree with me about how magnificent he was.

When he could, he humored me. When his demons were quiet enough, there were moments of awesome joy and contentment. I will never understand why some days he was better than other days. Why on some days his smile was closer to the surface, and the prospect of social interaction outside of a select, chosen few didn’t induce paralysis. I am beyond grateful, however, for those moments. I can close my eyes now and revisit them. I am happy for him that he was at least occasionally genuinely at ease.

I am happy for him now that he is no longer suffering. I picture him loose and free.

I know there are others like me out there, loving someone like my brother. I don’t know what concrete guidance I can give you, other than continue to love that person. Accept them and let them be, and if they leave you continue to love them and honor the contributions they made to the world while and where and how they could. As much as I felt it was my responsibility, during my brother’s life, to hold him up, I now feel it is my opportunity to represent his memory. These people, these people who we love, deserve that much.

Caroline Ridgway lives in south Florida, where she dedicates much of her time to arranging words into sentences, both in professional and personal pursuit. Caroline has degrees in psychology and law, and having worked across nonprofit and private sectors is currently exploring new horizons.