Life as an Attempter Survivor and Suicide Loss Survivor
By Heidi Bryan, the founder of Feeling Blue Suicide Prevention Council, a nonprofit organization based in Pennsylvania, after losing her brother Jeff to suicide. She created the booklet, After an Attempt: The Emotional Impact of a Suicide Attempt on Families.
It only took about a minute for my brother to die, maybe even less, I don’t really know, but suddenly my life was forever changed. Two weeks after Christmas, just weeks before his forty-first birthday, my older brother Jeff killed himself. He left behind a wife with two small children aged seven and eight. His wife’s mother had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and was given only weeks to live. She passed away a few weeks after my brother’s death so within a two-month period, my sister-in-law lost her mother and her husband, and my niece and nephew lost their father and a grandmother. As long as I live, I will never forget my nephew and niece’s pale, stunned faces and their silence, and my sister-in-law crying, saying she was a jinx, she was a jinx. She had been married previously and her husband died in a tragic accident. Now she wasn’t even forty and had already lost two husbands.
I was surprised that his death impacted me so strongly; it caught me off-guard. We had a difficult, complicated relationship. Jeff was four years older than me and for the first eight to ten years of my life, we were as close as we could be and I idolized him. We were together all the time and he taught me a lot of things about nature and history. But then the darkness began to settle in on him and he began to change. He became angry, sullen, and abusive. I began to fear him and withdrew from him. From time to time we would have glimpses of our old relationship but they were fleeting. I never knew which Jeff would show up when my husband and I would visit, the “old” Jeff, the angry Jeff, or the sullen, withdrawn Jeff. We drifted further apart but eventually we began to take baby steps towards each other again. The last time I saw him was Christmas and we had a good visit, laughing and even hugging each other goodbye. When he died, though, I wasn’t sure if I even loved him anymore. His death, and the impact it had on me, showed me I did still love him.
I was outside with a high school friend the next day and told her that, well at least now I won’t be killing myself, not after seeing the effect it has on everybody. Actually, it was an epiphany. Suddenly, time stopped for less than a second, and it hit me. He probably thought we’d get over it, we’d be better off without him, who cares anyway, if he lived or died, that’s probably what he was thinking when he wrote the note and pulled the trigger. And HE WAS WRONG. He was wrong. It wasn’t the truth; it was his disease, his bipolar disorder, his depression, talking to him, much like my alcoholism can talk to me. (You’re not really an alcoholic, you can control your drinking, or else it’s the waking in the middle of the night, “Ah, I’m glad you’re awake, there are some things I’d like to discuss with you,” in an effort to get me into such a state of mind that I’d want to take a drink.) And if he were still alive, I could tell him that. I didn’t tell my friend all that, just that I couldn’t kill myself and she said, “Good, I’m glad to finally hear that.”
Because if anything, I understood how Jeff could do it. About six weeks before his death I was writing my will, planning my own death, and thinking those same thoughts. (As a matter of fact, we once had a conversation on how to kill oneself and the mistakes people who survived attempts had made. He was a nurse and I was recovering from an accident where I cut the tendon to my thumb.) I had been suicidal most, if not all, of my life, and had aborted an attempt in my twenties because I knew I’d be found in time. I wasn’t going to survive an attempt. I decided I would know when I had had enough, when I had given it my best but I couldn’t go on anymore. One day I reached that point. We were having marital problems, I was disabled with Lyme disease; I wrote my will and was waiting for the right time. had a plan and a backup plan and a backup plan to the backup plan. But now Jeff killed himself and I felt like I had been leveled, that someone came up behind me and hit me on the back of my head with a two-by-four piece of wood.
I was angry that my safety net (I can always kill myself) was taken away and now I felt like I was in purgatory. I hated my life but I couldn’t kill myself. I felt, as William Styron wrote in Darkness Visible, “sentenced to life.” I sank deeper and deeper into a depression. My husband, who knew me very well, finally said, in response to me bursting into tears after he asked how my day was going, “I can’t stand to see you in such pain. It hurts me to see you this way. Will you please, please go for help?” He knew I didn’t care enough about myself to do anything– that’s part of the disease of depression– but I did care about him and I’d do anything for him. So I began my journey of recovery and it was a journey. Several different doctors, different medications, various side effects. But I stuck with it; after all, I had no choice. I couldn’t live the way I was and I couldn’t kill myself. It wasn’t this miraculous overnight change, just like you don’t wake up one day with a full-blown major depressive episode, but gradually I felt better. My anxiety decreased– I didn’t even know I had an anxiety problem until it started to go away– and my thinking changed. The world wasn’t gray, the glass was half-full, not half-empty, and the negativity was being replaced with positive energy. I’ll never forget waking up one morning thinking, “What am I going to do today? What adventure does today hold?” and being amazed to have those thoughts and not be waking up wondering if today’s the day I’m going to die. I also can’t believe it’s been over ten years that I began this new lease on life.
My husband helped me to recognize that depression is an illness and for me it’s a chronic condition. I have to be vigilant about it and do whatever I can do to maintain my recovery. Exercise, plenty of sleep, eating right, having a routine, are all part of my recovery. Do I have bad days? Yes, but I’ve learned to accept them, wait for it to pass because it always will. Also during one of my better days I developed my own safety plan just in case I might ever need it.
My brother Jeff and I had a difficult relationship, sometimes close and sometimes destructive. But his death saved my life and gave me life and for that, I will be eternally grateful.