Friday, March 25, 2011

Tsunami: The Aftermath of a Suicide Crisis

My brother Carson died by suicide December 7, 2004 -- the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, two weeks before Christmas, and two weeks before his 35th birthday. It was also two weeks before the Asian tsunami. As the world reacted to that disaster, the aftermath of Carson’s death similarly hit our family, as we too were flooded, overwhelmed, and left helpless. The news of his suicide crashed tsunami-like around us – totally engulfing us in despair and darkness. Frozen and in shock, we fought for every breath, thinking “This cannot be happening.” I confused night with day, day with night. I remember feeling very, very vulnerable. I would be driving to the airport to pick up a guest for Carson’s memorial service and I would look up and have no idea where I was or what I was doing. Then I would be hit by a wave of panic as I were sure everyone on the road was going to hit my car.

After the birth of my third child in September, I had been on maternity leave for the months leading up to Carson’s death. I had burned up all my sick and vacation time, and the three days we are given to grieve a first degree relative. I needed to resurface and go back to work. I remember coming up for air and looking around; the landscape had changed because my brother was no longer in it. Everything looked and felt different. Things that were so desperately important at work before no longer mattered. I both dreaded and welcomed my first day back to the office. Dread because I just didn’t care anymore; desired because I missed the structure and sense of purpose my workplace provided me. I remember the first day back. I opened my office door to see a pile of cards and flowers on my desk. My inbox was filled with well-wishes, many from people I didn’t even know. I knew with this level of support that I would be okay. My workplace gave me the flextime to access our Employee Assistance Program and attend support groups, which I did. They told me to do what needed to do to get back on my feet, and I am forever grateful for their kindness during this very trying time in my life.

Just like the tsunami, the ripple effects of Carson’s death spread deep and wide, and to this day still continue to affect others. Thanks to social media, I am still connecting with people Carson knew who are just now learning of his passing. His co-workers and business partners established a scholarship in his memory designed to help young entrepreneurs get to college. This loving affirmation of my brother’s life carries on his gift of helping others and gave many of those connected through his work a chance to honor his life.

The aftershocks of the trauma were severe at first, some of them predictable like on Father’s Day, his wedding anniversary, his birthday, and certainly his death anniversary. Others caught us off guard, like the time I was digging through a box of photos. I found a picture that I had forgotten about, of us dancing at my wedding. Not many brothers and sisters dance to their own song when they get married to another person, but Carson and I had a song: Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Whenever we heard it on the radio we would belt it out to each other at the top of our lungs as silly as possible. At my wedding, Carson and I twirled around the dance floor – my hair coming out of the up-do, his shirt hanging untucked from his tuxedo. And someone snapped a picture as we joyously sang the chorus, eyes locked and laughing. When I found this picture, I wept and wept. Then I made a copy of it to hang next to my computer at work, so I would never forget.

As with the tsunami, the rebuilding process has been long and hard, requiring many systems of support. In this sense I often feel lucky, because unlike many survivors of suicide I had a workplace that was supportive, a faith community that understood his suicide as the fatal outcome of a mental illness (not a crime against God), and a network of friends and co-workers who did all the right things.

I don’t tell this story because I want pity or because I need sympathy. While losing Carson has clearly been the most difficult experience of my life, I have been given many gifts along my grief journey. I was reminded of this by the leader of the rock group Seether, who lost his younger brother to suicide and wrote a song called “Rise Above This” on the album Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces. This too has been my experience in grief. I have found depth in relationships and spirituality and an unwavering calling of vocation. No, I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I tell this story because so few families do, and thus, people think it can never happen to them. While I am humbled by this experience, I am also hopeful. Suicide is arguably one of the more preventable causes of death, so I also share this story in hopes that others will come forward and say, “I too have been affected, and I want to make a difference - how can I get involved?” And finally, I share this story because people who are in a suicidal crisis often think they those who love them will be better off without them. I am here to tell them that suicide causes a legacy of trauma and pain that continues for generations. No matter how hard it gets, you never know what is waiting for you around the corner.

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