What I Wish More People Understood About Losing A Loved One To Suicide
If you or someone you know is depressed and needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Every year, more than 41,000 people die from suicide. Eighteen years ago, a week before her 22nd birthday, my sister was one of them.
Her name was Meredith. She had short, curly hair, styled like a brunette Marilyn Monroe. She studied communications at New York University, where she interned for Howard Stern and 20/20. One of her many claims to fame was that Stern talked about her on the show one day, noting his scantily clad intern. She was skinny with big boobs and not afraid to show it.
Meredith loved to act, and maybe she idolized Monroe, styling her hair as an ill-fated ode. But I honestly didn’t know her well enough to say. And that is my biggest regret.
I never talk about my sister. Suicide has a stigma, because of the incredibly sad energy surrounding it. As this month is National Suicide Prevention Month, it seemed like the right time to share my story.
I was seven years younger than Meredith. At 15, I was a freshman in high school while she was almost finished with college. Our relationship wasn’t that close, our family not the tight-knit kind. When she died, were just beginning to develop a relationship beyond the “I’ll-strangle-you-and-tell-on-you” dynamic.
She had invited me to New York City to see Saturday Night Live, where her boyfriend interned, but I backed out at the last minute because my high school self feared missing excitement at home.
That March evening when the police knocked at the door, I knew why they were there. This was not her first attempt.
A year earlier, our father was dying of cancer. Meredith intentionally overdosed on his pain medication. My parents found her slumped over on the bathroom floor.
The Christmas before she died, I saw cuts on her wrist and made her promise she wouldn’t do anything like that again. I was depressed too, and we made a pact: "I won’t do it if you won’t do it." I was young and didn’t realize the severity of her situation.
When we found out that she'd actually taken her life, it wasn’t really a shock. I knew she had been suffering, and I understood because I had felt the same way.
People call suicide "the ultimate selfish act." But it’s not. When you want to die, you honestly believe the world will be better off without you. You feel worthless.
That’s never true. Not ever. Not for anyone.
Because our society doesn’t know how to deal with pain, sadness can feel like a failure. People feel alienated by depression — isolated and unsure of how to find a way out. But there's always a way out. As long as you’re alive, you have the chance to find peace.
The thing that’s helped me most over the years is allowing myself to feel. My family wasn’t very good at dealing with emotions. My sister looked for love and affection everywhere — men, alcohol, friends — except the one place that would have made a difference: inside her heart.
Over the years, the pain of losing her has lessened. But the hole she has left in my life will never be filled.
The thing that hurts the most is knowing my sister felt like she was worthless. Because she wasn’t. She was smart and beautiful and talented. I miss her every day, and I know that whatever problems haunted her then, at 21, would not matter to her today, as a 40-year-old woman.
In the face of tragedy, people always ask why. It’s human nature to look for answers. But there is no good reason. She felt sad and didn’t see a way out.
Maybe she was too brittle for the world or didn’t have access to the resources she needed. For a long time after she died, I played the blame game, but ultimately, she was the one who did it. I’ve worked to forgive those I felt could have done more, and accept her absence as part of my life story.
In her death, Meredith has taught me that it’s OK to ask for affection. And, though it took me years to learn it, that the most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves. Because of her, I devote my life to de-stigmatizing depression, helping people heal through their pain instead of resisting it, and spreading the message that it’s OK to be sad sometimes. Everybody feels that way. The most important thing is to reach out and connect. You’re never truly alone.
If I could talk to her now, I would want to tell Meredith that I’m sorry. I’m sorry I always pushed you away when you wanted to hug me. I’m sorry I didn’t go visit you in New York. I’m sorry I didn’t call you more. I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to know you better.
I’ll always love you. I miss you.
Photo courtesy of the author