Turning Away

It’s been just over 2 years since I started this blog. Two years and 165 posts on grief, life, and family. Over 60,000 words about my brother, my thoughts, and the process of living after suicide.

I provide these figures because, for the past couple of months or so, I’ve been coming to the conclusion that I don’t have much more to write. There’s a lot to learn in 2 years, but lately, almost nothing feels novel anymore. For the first year, everything was new. I’d never lived a year with a dead brother before. Last year was about learning to live in non-immediate grief. I wasn’t doing everything for the first time, and that, in itself, was new.

Now, I feel like I’ve experienced enough to give me a pretty solid handle on what life is like after death. There will be moves and jobs and new events; growing babies, and new babies that will never meet Uncle 3; songs and shows and stories that remind me forcefully of my brother and my situation, and others that I don’t think relate to me that well at all; the incredible love of friends and family, enough to carry me through interactions with those less compassionate; I’ll choose to tell some new acquaintances about my brother, but not all. Mom will still have a harder time than I do, and RJ will be the worst off of all; I’ll still ask people to pray for both of them before they pray for me.

And I will move through life with comparative ease. My brother’s suicide will have very little impact on my day-to-day activities. At night, at least for the forseeable future, I’ll still talk to him, telling him that I miss him and love him. If I have a bad day, or if I just choose to let myself really remember as I lay in bed, remember what that first week was like, from getting the phone call to giving the eulogy, I’ll cry with the same realization that brought me to tears 2 years ago: I want my brother back, and that will never happen. That desire will always be there, I think, to some extent.

This isn’t to say that new experiences won’t arise. I’m sure they will; at 28, I know I’ve only seen a very small fraction of the human experience so far. Still, I don’t know how many of these experiences will be new enough to motivate me to post again. I started this blog as my own digital Pensieve, a way to organize my scarily jumbled thoughts after my brother’s suicide. It really was only for me – my own way of coping. However, a small part of my writing was done with the hope of helping others in this same situation. After 3 died, I couldn’t find many helpful, real resources on sibling suicide. I know now that every grief process is different, but maybe someone in the same horrible, tragic place will find some solidarity in my descriptions. Of course, I also know that this blog is virtually impossible to find, even if you’re looking for blogs on brother suicide, but still. There’s always that chance.

So thank you, to the anonymous internet people and anyone who has read anything I’ve written over the past two years, especially those who have been kind enough to comment. Every single comment on this blog has been gracious and supportive, and I’m grateful for every single one. Again, I don’t know how often I’ll return here to update, if at all, but it’s been an immensely helpful part of my grief process. I don’t know if I am emotionally any more whole that I was two years ago, but I know more, and knowledge is, in fact, power.

In many ways, 3’s death is no more Real now than it was at the beginning. I know he’s not here; that’s a pretty undeniable fact, but suicide and death are so much sharper, so much harder to accept than simple absence. Still, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve lived. I’ve lived over two years without my baby brother, and I’m going to keep doing just that. In the face of such intense, personal agony, I can’t really ask more than that.

National Championship

For those of you who don’t follow college football as obsessively as I do, this past Monday was the championship game. It’s significant because it’s the first year of the playoff system, rather than the old BCS system in which a combination of rankings determined the top two teams to play for the championship. It’s also significant because the Ohio State Buckeyes were playing. Ohio State is, more or less, the home team for my family, and it’s where 3 (and various other family members) went to college, before he flunked out, of course.

Two years ago, I watched Notre Dame (another popular family team) get absolutely slaughtered in the national championship, just days after 3 died. It was not an enjoyable game to watch, but I was too overwhelmed to be too sad about it. Last year, I, as my brother-in-law would say, didn’t have a dog in the fight, so I didn’t particularly care whether or not Auburn or Florida State would win. I was already in Ireland, so I didn’t even watch the game.

This year, though, with Ohio State playing, I ordered an online subscription to ESPN, bought myself a late-in-the-day double espresso, dressed in my Buckeyes gear, and settled in front of my computer to watch the game. Oregon scored, then Ohio State scored, then Ohio State scored twice more, and it looked like it might be a runaway. In the second half, however, Oregon capitalized on way too many Ohio State turnovers and made it a 1-point game. Ohio State came back, however, and ended up dominating the 4th quarter. When the clock ran out, the Buckeyes had won, 42-20.

Tedious summaries aside, it was a very exciting game, and I found myself tearing up at the end. Two years ago, we all joked about 3’s “ability” to help Notre Dame win a national championship. This year, it felt more real, more of a “sign” than most things. Some families have connections to nature or music or places. In our family, it’s football. We all follow college football very closely, and you can find games on my parents’ giant TV every weekend from August through January. This win felt validating. My sister K posted a picture of little Angel in her OSU gear, with the caption “Uncle 3 would be proud!” Yes, he would be. Proud of his team, proud of the outcome, and proud of his family for all being so devoted to football :)

Yet Another Book that Has Nothing to Do with Me

I suppose I should say “two other books,” but I forgot I hadn’t written about the first one yet. Last year, I read a book that, despite potential surface similarities to my situation, didn’t resonate with me. Over the past 2 weeks, I finished 2 more books that were recommended to me, and I came away with the same reaction.

First, after hearing about RJ’s Christmas Eve breakdown, my two cousins suggested I read Day, the third novel in a pseudo-trilogy of writings by Elie Wiesel. Cousins were very eager, referencing the novel at nearly every juncture of RJ’s story, insisting that I would find it very meaningful.

So I read it. Mr. Wiesel, himself a Holocaust survivor, writes a fictional tale of a man obsessed with death and misery, and the friends who try to diminish that obsession. While I can certainly see Cousins’ point about the usefulness of the book (the friends consistently pushing the idea that we should not be miserable, and that our misery affects not just ourselves, but others around us), I found myself recoiling from the story. I didn’t like the implications for myself, for 3, or for RJ. For one, I don’t want to be the one to tell RJ that she should stop being bitter because it’s hurting others. I’m reasonably certain her response would contain plenty of four-letter words and plenty of martyr-ish claims (“Oh, suuuuuure! Let me just stop missing my brother and best friend so YOU feel better!”). Since I’m reasonably sure that 3 was neither morose nor obsessed with death, I didn’t like the implication that the he was like the suicidal main character. Plus, in my interpretation, the book didn’t end happily; the lead guy was still miserable and stuck in the past! As for me, I don’t think I’m obsessed with guilt over 3’s death, so I couldn’t relate to the main character, either.

Then, I read Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s death. My fabulous godfather gave it to me for Christmas, saying that, since Ms. Strayed has inspired a lot of people, he thought of how I inspire people. This dubious claim aside, I read the book as I sat through several hours of layovers last week.

And, though I’d never say it to Godfather, I kind of hated it. I don’t, at all, see how Ms. Strayed is inspiring. I think she’s an idiot who’s lucky to be alive. Not only did she fail to prepare properly for her trip (she drastically overpacks, but fails to try on her pack before actually hitting the trail, resulting in a bag she can barely lift), but she shoots heroin the day before leaving. I didn’t find her inspiring; I found her annoying. Her way of handling grief is entirely different from mine, and, thus, I got virtually nothing from the book (other than a way of passing the time in New York’s JFK airport, which is no small thing).

I’ve always been overly judgmental, so it’s not that surprising that I’m so harsh on books about grieving or tragedy. I just really don’t empathize with any of these people or characters. I suppose that goes back to one of the reasons I started this blog: in the months after my brother’s suicide, I couldn’t find anything that related well enough to my experience. Therefore, I thought I’d put my thoughts out there, just in case someone else was feeling the same and looking for affirmation, like I was. And still am.

Make Me Miserable

Spending the past couple of weeks at my parents’ house was a bit trying. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable – I got plenty of quality baby time with my nieces and nephew, I got wonderful food, and I got to enjoy the company of my siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Of course, I also got to spend a lot of time with my younger sister, RJ, which meant that I could see, up close, just how much she still struggles with 3’s death.

As I mentioned last week, RJ has a lot of rage toward our dad’s family. Honestly, she just has a lot of rage, in general. She doesn’t like Mom, she hates Dad’s family and won’t answer calls from Dad himself, and she’s still generally stuck in terms of career (her former university kept changing the rules, so she never finished her degree, and, now that she found a job that she likes, is getting paid barely above minimum wage because of said lack of degree). All of this is, of course, compounded by the death of her brother and best friend, making her a pretty bitter person.

And I hate it. I just hate it. RJ is so angry, so volatile, that most efforts to help her are met with, at best, an eye roll, and at worst, indignant fury that leads to months of no contact. I try to balance sympathy and non-threatening agreement with hesitant, carefully-couched advice and expressions of concern. I don’t know how successful I’ve been. I certainly don’t think I’m helping, but she also doesn’t seem to outright hate me, so I guess that’s something, right?

One night this past week, as I was having my nightly chat with 3, I begged him (and God) to give RJ peace (asking to make her happy seemed a bit shallow, in my opinion). “Make me miserable,” I prayed. Take her rage, her agony, and give it to me. I mean, come on. I have virtually no other struggles. I’m at the airport as I type this, on my way to Ireland for the second time, with generous, kind coworkers waiting to meet me, spectacular friends in the UK planning vacations for me, and a brand-new Kindle in my bag for endless reading adventures. I can afford plenty of misery at this point.

Of course, this desire may have as much to do with my need for control as it does with my desperation to fix my sister. I told RJ (which may or may not have been a terrible idea) that, for me, the hardest part of 3’s death has been her – watching her feel so awful and not being able to fix it. Over the past few weeks, everyone from Grandpa to my sister J to my cousin has expressed the same hope – that RJ be happy.  We all want it, but none of us have any idea how to make it happen. It’s the majority of what I’ve felt for the past 2 years consolidating; I’ve had such an easy time with 3’s death, but I can’t seem to pass along that ease to those who need it most.

Two Years

My family members are all memorializing the day of 3’s death differently. RJ got a hotel room to spend some time alone; SL bought a few of 3’s favorite books and movies. Mom and Stepdad made a steak dinner and are watching Star Wars (3’s favorite film). Last year, I posted my eulogy for my brother. This year, I’m sharing the essay I wrote for my university magazine, as a reminder of what we went through and how much we survived.

7:30 a.m. is way too early to be answering the phone on a Sunday morning. I hear my sister’s voice on the other end of the line: “Mom has something to tell you.”

Now I’m wide awake, with just enough time to think of every horrible possibility except what Mom says next.

“3 shot himself.” No, he didn’t. “He’s dead.” No, he’s not. It’s December 30th.

I’m on the floor, because standing isn’t an option right now. Mom is still talking, but I can’t listen. I’m too busy trying to form words. It seems really important to tell her that 3’s car was impounded last night. I know; I talked to him less than 10 hours ago. I still have the texts on my phone he later sent.

I say “I love you” and hang up the phone, acutely aware of my own breathing. My thoughts are oddly action-focused: I have to get home. It’s a nine-hour drive from my apartment, so I should probably get some more sleep before I get back in the car. Okay.

It only takes about 15 minutes in bed for me to realize I’m not going to get back to sleep. I’ll figure out something else. My brother is dead.

I get online to search flights back to my parents’ house. I have some Christmas money that will cover a one-way flight. I don’t know how long I’ll stay, so I don’t plan for a trip back. The airline website doesn’t work, so I have to call the hotline. The man on the phone is very nice. I wonder if they get sensitivity training for people booking last-minute flights.

Now I have three hours before I have to leave for the airport. I call O, even though it’s only 7 a.m. where he is.

“Tell me it’s going to be OK,” I whisper, before even saying hello, because that’s all I want right now.

“It’s going to be OK,” he says, without hesitation.

I got what I needed. I hang up and let O go back to sleep.

I repack my bags, still open on the floor from my trip home for Christmas. Have you ever noticed how many people at the airport tell you to have a nice day? It’s a lot. I hope I’m responding civilly. I’m not really sure.

I have a layover in Detroit. I buy coffee, purely out of a sense of obligation, and I call another friend, JMo. I ask her to tell people. I don’t want to bother telling anyone else, but I know that dozens of extra prayers can’t hurt at this point, and JMo knows plenty of people who are really good at praying. It seems like an efficient plan.

At my parent’s house, three of my mom’s five siblings and their families, four of my eight siblings and their families, and a few neighbors and friends crowd the kitchen and living room, because that’s apparently what you do when someone dies. I make my way through the crowd, hugging lots of people and trying to come up with an honest answer when they ask how I am. How am I supposed to know how I am? My brother’s never died before. I settle for telling them I’m in denial.

As usual, I am the last one to go to bed. Somehow, in a house full of people, I end up with a room to myself. Alone, I cry harder than I have all day, mentally screaming at my idiot of a brother. His responses are so clear, it’s as if he’s sitting on the bed with me.

“Sorry again.”
“What were you thinking?!?”
“My bad.”
“That was really stupid.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”

The next day, I start receiving phone calls. Each time, I am humbled and grateful for people taking the time to offer their condolences. Most of the conversations are short; no one knows what to say, myself included.

Then one more friend calls, direct from the seminary. For the first time, I want to continue the conversation beyond just thanking him for his thoughts.

“Tell me he’s in heaven,” I beg, because if a seminarian says it, it must be true.

His response is beautiful and compassionate, and I share his words with family countless times over the next few days: “God reaches out to all of us in our darkest times. Sometimes he doesn’t catch us until we’re on the other side of this life.”

On New Year’s Day, two of my friends drive down to take me to lunch. I’m still not hungry, but watching bowl games seems like a reasonable distraction technique, only I want to hear something else first.

“Tell me he’s in heaven,” I ask again, more calmly this time, because Not-Father-Pete is a theology doctoral student, and if a theologian says it, it must be true. Pete’s response is logical and educated, with facts, history and quotes. I am now armed with assurance that neither God nor the Catholic Church is sending my brother to hell for killing himself, in case anyone tries to tell me otherwise.

That night in my room, 3’s voice isn’t as clear as before. For some reason, this is nearly as wrenching as the initial phone call. “Don’t go!” I sob. “Please don’t go. Your voice is all that’s left. Please let me keep it.”

The calling hours are on Thursday. We decide to hold them at the high school to accommodate the expected crowd. My family arrives an hour early. I can see the coffin through the glass doors. Not yet. Instead, I help set up the displays and pictures.

I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this. If I choose to hide in the car all night, everyone would probably let me. I don’t want to do this. I do anyway.

I walk in the chapel and force myself to look at my baby brother’s body. Every muscle in my body tenses against this unnatural sight. My 21-year-old brother is dead and his body is lying in a coffin in front of me and WHY IS NO ONE HUGGING ME?!?!?

I try to moderate my tears as Mom comes over. The second-worst moment of my life passes, and I tell her that his makeup looks funny. I can’t imagine there are many ways to make a dead 21-year-old look good, anyway. In my mind, God tells me that 3 doesn’t need his body any more. 3 tells me he’s even better looking in heaven. I’m inclined to stick my tongue out at both of them.

The babies are running around before the crowds arrive. Mom asks my niece Princess if she’s said goodbye to Uncle 3 yet. Princess nods and, in her perfect, little 3-year-old voice, repeats what her wonderful parents told her: “Him’s gone to a place to be with baby Jesus!” It’s the most beautiful and horrible sentence I’ve ever heard. On the chairs along the walls, 18-month-old Munchkin gleefully points to the picture on the prayer cards, then to the coffin. She’s proud that she recognizes Uncle 3, even though she won’t remember him.

The calling hours are scheduled from 4 to 7; they last until 9:30. Friends, co-workers and distant relatives all wait for hours in line. Someone comments, “It’s like he’s a rock star.” 3’s classmates from elementary school hug me, and I nearly break down at seeing these boys’ devastation. In my mind, they’re still 6 years old, throwing water balloons in our yard.

The church is full for the funeral. The procession arrives just in time to hear my sisters singing “Fire and Rain,” 3’s dreadfully appropriate favorite song. I’m holding the words to the eulogy in my hand, because I have to give a eulogy for my little brother. My stepbrother and cousins are the pallbearers; none is older than 25.

3’s friends take up the gifts, their sobs incongruous against their bearded faces. I barely know most of them, but they are in as much pain as I am.

It’s after Communion, and my sisters are singing “I Can Only Imagine.” I sing along, possibly out of key and definitely too loud, because I have to stand up and speak in a few minutes, and if I can sing the song maybe I’ll be able to make it through the eulogy. He’s in heaven. He’s in heaven. That’s all I have to hold on to right now.

Father D introduces me, and I start talking, giving less of a eulogy than a collection of stories. 3 made for a lot of great stories. I talk for more than the suggested five minutes, but no one seems to mind. I try to end with something conclusive:

“3 could be a lot of things. But he is and always will be a son, a grandson, a cousin, a nephew, an uncle, a friend, a brother and a rock star.” And now, he’s in heaven.