This month, it has been a year since my brother’s suicide. I am a woman much acquainted with grief. But this has been a different kind of grief than I’ve ever experienced before. The shock and constant sense of horror didn’t start to wear off until recently and much of it is still in place. My grief is complicated by the situations surrounding my brother’s suicide. I have felt frozen.
There is deep trauma emanating from that six month nightmarish period of our lives like some evil, unraveling force. It has felt as if whatever drove my brother to suicide were still lurking like a malevolent curse.
The horror of that day, and its painful aftermath are like a heavy iron cloak I carry even when I am not thinking about what happened. I’m traumatized by every aspect of it to the point I feel I have been unable even to miss my profoundly beloved brother, or get close to what I would normally recognize as actual grief for the loss of him as a person.
As might be expected, it is very hard for me to go to The Eagle, the newspaper where my brother and I worked, or to the house we were living in together at the time his suicide. I still have panic attacks now and then, especially at night, and sleeping normally is very difficult.
It is deeply upsetting to me that I was not able to hold him when he died, or even say anything to comfort him. It’s like we stepped on an I.E.D. and everything is just gone, even myself. However, I still have to walk around and function somehow in a world that no longer makes sense to me.
A year ago, around this moment one of my best friends I’ve ever had took his own life. Those who know him and love him still miss him dearly and we all would do anything to go back in time and change things. Please, if you are considering life would be better for everyone else without you, it’s not true. We choose YOU!
~ a social media post, on the anniversary of my brother’s suicide, from one of his best friends, Tammy Zimmerman Marley
I have had some strange “side effects” from my brother’s suicide that differ from how I experienced grief in the past. In spite of my incomparable group of friends, and all those who I know love me, when I am around people, I feel like I have no skin. It’s hard for me to go anywhere at all, especially to be around people I don’t know. I often, irrationally, feel unwanted and in the way, around people I am close to. It’s easy for me to start feeling mistrustful as well. I can’t feel I connect with anyone, though that is slowly getting better. I am surprised how seldom I cry. I feel like I have very little love to give, and sometimes I shock myself by being mean. It’s strange. I hardly know myself. I never used to be like this.
I wonder if my brother felt similarly. Perhaps I am getting a small taste of what he felt near the end of his life. Maybe he felt cut off and alone even though he was not. Maybe, in spite of our love for him, and our support, he could not feel it. Maybe he, too, shocked himself by being uncharacteristically mean.
I remember him telling me he was sorry about how he had been treating me. “I feel terrible,” he had said. “I hate hurting you. When I hurt you, I hurt me.”
Lately I have been starting to feel connected to my friends again sometimes. I can feel they are glad to see me and spend time with me. I can feel their love at times. I can tell people how I feel now, though it is still hard to know, and hard to do. But I am able more often.
I think these are good signs.
My friends have been long suffering and patient with me and my withdrawal. I am very grateful for each of them. They just keep loving me.
The strong, loving support of my boyfriend, Mark, has been a constant through this year, too. I can’t believe the guy I was only just beginning to date when my world fell apart is still faithfully by my side.
It has not been easy. I realize at times that he has been traumatized, himself, by experiencing this with me and being my primary support at the front lines of all the destruction. It has been hard for me to carry my end of a relationship at a time like this, too. But somehow we have made it.
I wish I could tell you that I am OK now, Reader. I wish I could say I have a sense that I will be OK at some point.
But I don’t have that.
What I do have is the absolutely solid, and central interior reality of naked faith; faith that God is here leading me where He wants me to go. God is present and guiding, both in my inner world and the world of people to love, decisions to make and things to do. I may feel like I am broken beyond recognition, that I lost my heart when my brother died in such a horrible way. But I do believe that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
I believe Jesus, that He came that I might have life, and have it to the full.
So when I worry that I am just going to feel like this forever, I remember these things.
When I worry about my daughters and all the loss and trauma they have had to endure in spite of my best efforts, I remember God already knew all this would happen. My daughter’s faith is deep. I believe God will turn their suffering into glory as only He can.
When I cry for my poor father, and for what this has done to my sister-in-law, I remember that God knows what to do for them, even though I do not.
When I worried about my brother’s soul, which I couldn’t help doing for a while, I asked my friends for reassurance, and I tried to remember the unfathomable mercy of God. I remembered, too, that my mother offered her life and her suffering to God for my brother and for my family when she found out she had early onset dementia and cancer. She told me she felt that God had accepted her offering.
I remember the holy and love filled death of my second husband, Bob, and how my brother was there holding him with me. Bob was my brother’s best friend for twenty-four years. I am sure he would have been present to my brother to help him at the moment of his death. Of course he would.
During this Year of Mercy, I made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Little Flower in San Antonio. I walked through the Holy Door there with my friend and brother in Carmel, Fr. Gregory Ross, O.C.D., and my boyfriend, Mark.
Together we recited the Creed and reflected on the beautiful mercy of God.
I prayed for the intentions of Pope Francis, and went to Confession. I joyfully carried out a simple work of mercy, and later that day, I received Jesus in Holy Communion.
After my reception of the Eucharist, I was able to cry, really cry. Mark hugged me. He knew how important gaining a plenary indulgence in the Year of Mercy and offering it for my brother’s soul was to me, even though Mark is Methodist and it must have seemed strange to him. Doing this dispelled any lingering, involuntary fears I may have had about my brother’s journey through eternity. It was something God gave me that I could still do for him.
One evening, I saw a homeless man on a bench in the small garden near my apartment. I fell into conversation with him when my dog, Flower, went up to him to be petted. I ended up making him some dinner and taking it over to him. When I did, I remembered that I had prayed earlier that day that God would send me a stranger He wanted me to do something for.
I then went through all the requirements to gain another Jubilee of Mercy plenary indulgence based on a work of mercy. This time I offered it for myself.
I did this because of my brother’s suicide. No matter what anybody says, part of me will always feel responsibility for my brother/best friend/other self committing suicide. I very often think, “He would have never let this happen to me. Never.” It doesn’t matter that my guilt does not make sense to some. I still feel it; guilt and shame. I haven’t been able to help that.
By offering the plenary indulgence in this Holy Year of Mercy on my own behalf, I found healing grace about that sense of guilt. My Catholic faith tells me that, because of the grace of the indulgence and the Jubilee of Mercy, I am completely absolved from any possible sin I may have committed then. Thanks be to God for the sacrifice of Jesus, for the grace He won, entrusting it into heart of His Church. I believe it.
It is of deep significance to me, as well, that my brother’s suicide took place at three O’clock in the afternoon, the Hour of Divine Mercy. I am not certain if he intended this, though I know I mentioned the Hour of Mercy to him before, several times, over the years. However, I do think perhaps God intended that time of day to be a message to me. He knew what I would have heard in my brother choosing that time of day for his death, and on a Friday, too, the day Jesus died. I heard, “Shawn, don’t be afraid, because great is my mercy!” Jesus knows that the first thing I would have thought of is His promise to the Good Thief in his last moments, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
I know the teaching of the Catholic Church about suicide is very merciful, understanding, and kind. I am deeply grateful God goes out of His way for me, His lost, frightened sheep, and reminds me that His heart is mercy and love, as many times as I need to hear it.
Little by little I find myself able to give and receive love again.
I am starting to have other emotions besides shock and self blame. I have been able to be angry lately. I mean directly angry, and to recognize the darkness and cruelty inhabiting this whole horrible event. I see how it still is present, though it is slowly being overcome.
I have faith that God has hope and a future for my family and me.
Even though we also lost my much loved step dad in a house fire a few months after my brother’s suicide, I feel like “Grandpa Tom,” as the kids called him, is gently helping us back to peace with one another, and to healing. It is as if his kindly prayers began to lift the “curse,” so to speak, from my family. That feeling of Tom’s loving, helpful presence began at his funeral mass. There was a new sense of calm quiet felt by us all as soon as we stepped into the vestibule of St. Francis Catholic Church.
God has brought me my first granddaughter this year, Arelani, about whom I am just plain silly goofy. My eldest daughter is pregnant and due to deliver my first grandson, Blaze, in December. He is named for my beloved first husband, the father of my children. The due date is my late second husband’s birthday. I think that is pretty cool.
My steadfast boyfriend, Mark, and I are now discerning whether we might be called to marriage.
God is re-building our family.
It’s beautiful how the Lord has given us these gifts of new life.
My brother would have loved Arelani. I know he must be happy for us about these new developments.
My brother called me, “Sister,” and I called him, “Brother.” He completely accepted me in my entirety. He not only knew my inner workings but cherished them. Even my faults endeared me to him. He not only deeply understood all my history, but shared it. He was my strong support, always, in everything.
I was that same way toward him. We were best friends, each the others’ other self. “The core,” we called ourselves.
We had family, parents, the kids, friends. But we were back to back in our love for them and our dealings with them. In times of fear and loss, we reminded one another; “We’re the core.” “Yes,” the other would say. “No matter what we’ll always have each other.”
It’s not that we never fought. We certainly did. Our fights were intense, but over quickly and soon sorted out.
I always knew, no matter what might temporarily come between us, that he would always come back to me. And he always did. It was impossible that we would ever live without each other or the special bond that was central in both our lives.
A year after his suicide, I still don’t understand what happened, really; no matter what I find out. It will never make sense. Somehow answers don’t help. I have found that the few answers we do have do not heal.
I will have to live with the cruelty of that ending, and with its mystery.
I have to find a way to open my heart to the actual grief because I am beginning to think that the frozen-ness of the trauma I feel is starting to hold me back from being able to love fully.
On the bright side, any love or inspiration I have been able to give or communicate is surely the Holy Spirit working in and through me.
At present there is very little left of Shawn to get in God’s way. I am hollowed out, it seems. I have become a space God can fill with Himself if He wants to.
I have faith that God is at work in me, in my family, and in everyone wounded by this tragedy, guiding and healing us in ways we can deal with; gently, and in His time.
In this great Jubilee Year, I have faith that the mercy of Jesus has set my brother free and allowed him to be touched by his sister’s love after all.
I trust that.
A new phase of things.
And I remember this-
this standing at the cliff no one can save me from.
Wrapping myself in God now -I wait to fall in-
It’s a chasm- but I tell myself it’s OK.
I’ve been down there. It’s terrible and it’s ugly. It will kill me.
But I win.
I will come out still without all I have lost.
But I will come out.
I just hate this place. I wish it was different. But the only way out is through.
And the only way to meet God is in the truth.
Even if the truth is harder than harder than hard could possibly be.
That is the distillation of grief. Falling into its deep.
Meeting God meeting me.
Remembering that crucified love leads to life
But the now – the now is being present in the heart of destruction, fully present and meeting it,
I have set my face like flint.
And I have opened my heart.*
* I wrote this poem in August 2012, the year of the death of my second husband, Bob, and of my mother, Delphia.
How to gain a Jubilee Year of Mercy plenary indulgence: http://www.archindy.org/holyyearofmercy/indulgence.html
My post about this issue from about a year ago: Soul surviving in the wake of a family suicide http://atxcatholic.com/index.php/2015/09/soul-surving-in-the-wake-of-a-family-suicide/#.V7VH8yMrIy4
My song right now: https://youtu.be/hdw1uKiTI5c