What No One Tells You About Losing A Loved One To Suicide

Photo: Martin Lee/REX Shutterstock. Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
In honor of National Suicide Prevention Week, which runs from September 7-13, 2015, Refinery29 has produced a series of stories that delve into what it’s like to work at a suicide hotline, current research into the most effective suicide-prevention strategies, and the emotional toll of losing a family member to suicide.

If you or someone you care about is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.

Despite the great loss that suicide, like any death, brings, there are still things suddenly left behind — homes to clean out, clothes to give away, pets to find shelter for, social media accounts for which you have to figure out the passwords. My little sister left a kitten, an apartment she shared with her boyfriend just outside Charleston, SC, and an unfinished college career in political science. Most importantly, she left behind so many unanswered questions.

It was a Tuesday in July when my mother called me, tense on the phone, asking if I could drive to my sister’s apartment. She’d gotten a frightening phone call from my sister’s boyfriend, but he was crying too hard to get many words out. My mom just wanted me to make sure everything was okay. It would be a couple of hours before we learned that it wasn’t.

When I pulled up, I saw my sister's boyfriend, surrounded by police officers, on their lawn — slumped over with his hands on his knees as he choked on tears, unable to speak. The sight of him like this made the hair on my arms stand up, my throat suddenly threatening to close as my eyes welled up in fear of what might really be happening. My sister's kitten, named Izzy after Katherine Heigl’s character in Grey’s Anatomy, was strangely sitting in a cage on the grass.

She left behind so many unanswered questions.

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These are the things that no one tells you about suicide.

I did not know that my mother and I would become “survivors” — what the loved ones of someone who dies by suicide are called. I learned that in support groups.

I was struck by how peculiar it seemed that my phone kept buzzing with messages from friends who wanted to go out that night, that my boss at the newspaper where I worked was emailing to see where I was — that the world kept spinning, even though mine was crashing.

And then, even though you’re grieving, there is work to be done. We had to clean that apartment and tie up the loose ends of my beautiful, 19-year-old sister’s life. We packed it all away, neat and tidy, so she could be put to rest with respect. We had to organize the funeral. And then, we had to grin and bear it when the church told us they couldn’t send a priest. Suicide is a sin, they said.

Of course, grief and pain come with any death, natural or otherwise. There are always things to clean up after someone dies, but there are many nuances unique to dealing with suicide. A common one is the incessant itch to scan the past for red flags, for ways that you might have stopped it from happening. I have only one: The night before my sister died, we had dinner together at a local Thai restaurant. She didn’t finish her meal. But when the waiter wrapped it up for her, she instead offered the leftovers to me, explaining that she probably wouldn’t get the chance to eat them later.

Things like that will drive you crazy if you let them.

There are many nuances unique to dealing with suicide.

In the months after my sister died, my mother scanned her social media accounts, staying up all night to read what people wrote on a Facebook memorial page. She kept my sister’s phone and listened to her old voicemails and re-read her text messages over and over. She ached to find a clue. And for a while, it seemed like everything was a clue.

This search for the reason, for any reason, is a desperate attempt to explain the inexplicable. It’s easy to wonder if there was, perhaps, something my mom and I didn’t know about — money problems, a stalker, or an undiagnosed mental illness, maybe. Anything would have brought us a tiny step forward toward closure. Over the years since her death, I’ve come to the conclusion that my sister, the one person on the planet with whom I was closer than anyone else, was simply sad and angry. And maybe more so on that particular day. It was her boyfriend’s 21st birthday, and they’d gotten into a fight about their plans for that night. That’s all I know, but I wonder: Could something that simple have pushed her over the edge?

Maybe there’s no person or thing to blame.

This search for the reason, for any reason, is a desperate attempt to explain the inexplicable.

There’s a shock factor to suicide: You should see the look on people’s faces when I tell them my story. And later, how they grimace when they accidentally make a flippant remark in my presence, usually something like, “I want to kill myself today.”

There’s also still stigma, despite wonderful initiatives like National Suicide Awareness Month. I think that’s the reason suicide survivors tend to find each other. I can’t help but feel a connection with other people who’ve gone through this. Friends and acquaintances are quick to introduce me to someone they know who is also a survivor. Safe from shame, we share the details that are too dark to tell anyone else, like how it was done and who was unlucky enough to find our sister or mother or uncle or friend. It’s like swapping war stories with a secret club.

Let me be clear: All death breaks us down, and apart, in ways we can’t imagine. But suicide does something worse in the way it forces us to question everything. We search for answers in old emails, in diaries, in CD collections, and even in the contents of someone’s fridge: Why would she have bought milk yesterday? Eight years after my sister’s suicide, I still have no real explanation for why she’s not here. That’s something else no one tells you about suicide — that one day, you’ll have to find peace in not really knowing why someone you love is gone.

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