My story: Inge
It was the ten year anniversary of my brother’s suicide and we had gathered together old friends and family at the local where he used to drink and play pool. Things had changed in those ten years - I’d been married, had two kids and had recently split up from my husband; friends had aged, losing hair, changing jobs, gaining weight and wives and families. We shared drinks and greetings and a few tears, even locating the graffiti in the bathroom that had been there since his wake “RIP MR X”.
It was cold outside, but the pub was warmly alive with anecdotes and stories of the erratic and sometimes crazy behaviour of the young man that had been our brother, son and friend. I still remember at the funeral the number of people who came forward to talk about how my brother had stuck with them when others had turned their backs, how he’d lent them money out of his meagre earnings or shared a sympathetic ear. These stories were often the first we’d heard about this behaviour and were like a balm in the midst of raw and raging pain.
At 21, I really hadn’t known how to handle such pain and grief. Grief pain is physical, exhausting and endless. My friends and I were in our last year of university and our focus had been studying, punctuated with drunken all nighters dancing around to bands, followed by watching Rage, sprawled across my bed, drinking bad instant coffee while the sun came up outside. We didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to deal with this sudden crazy world that I occupied - full of seriousness and darkness and tears and responsibility. We stared helplessly at each other across a new, grown up divide until many of them slipped away, unable to deal with me. For my part, I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I punished my body, wanting the world to see how much I loved my brother and what his death had meant to me - I doubled the drinking, smoked, wore his shirt and refused to sleep. I wore the grief on my face, not bothering to brush my hair or eat, shuffling to university and sitting listlessly through lectures that didn’t mean anything to me. Finally one of my tutors sent me to a counsellor who sent me to a GP, who promptly prescribed anti-depressants. The shock of being prescribed medication shook me out of my stupor and I started to pull myself together with the love and help of my sister and parents and the few friends that remained. We had managed it, in the end, shaken and broken and scarred, we each pushed the pain into our own boxes and had pulled together and gotten through.
At the pub on the day that marked the anniversary of his death, so many of us opened that secretly sealed box that contained all that pain. But it was also the day that marked an enormous realisation for me. I was nursing a lemonade, watching over my kids when a close friend of my brother’s approached. “I’m so sorry, Inge” he said “It was my fault. I’m so sorry”. As I marshalled words of comfort for this poor young man, I recalled that earlier, another mate had also apologised, blaming himself for sharing a bit of pot and speed with my brother now and then. Both times I had told them that it wasn’t their fault, because I knew - like I had known for the last ten years - that it was my fault. Hadn’t I been remiss as a sister? Hadn’t I, who was the closest to him in many ways, let him down by not telling him when to stop drinking? By moving to Sydney to go to University? By not noticing how down he was? How he was calling out for help?
I thought about my mother and my father and my sister and myself and the realisation flooded me. We had all carried this burden of guilt for ten years. Each and every person at that memorial wake thought that we were somehow responsible for his death. I recalled a conversation with my mother where she was wondering whether her decision to put him on formula at 8 months was the reason that he had died. My father was certain that his decision to leave the area - or perhaps his amicable split with my mother - was the reason he had died. My sister blamed years of sibling fighting, only recently reconciled, for his death.
It was on that day, telling others that it wasn’t their fault, that I started to alleviate myself of this burden. My mother, being a Psychologist, had always been aware of the fatality statistics for young men - that they were most likely to die between 18 and 25 – and she had been holding out for him to turn 25 before she could breathe out. He chose to take his own life at 24 and a half. And that was the realisation; this was his life and his choice. It was an awful choice for those of us left behind, but it was his journey and the pain of life was, for him, to great to continue to bear.
Those of us that now cherish his memory and smile at his name, we can be proud that we kept him alive for those 24 and a half years. Every year on his birthday or on the anniversary of his death, a part of me gets angry at what he has missed out on - on being an uncle and perhaps a father. I pushed the pram of my new daughter up to his grave when she was first born and I realised the strength of parental love. “How could you do this to our parents?” I yelled at him “How can my daughter not know you? How could you do this to all of us? To me?”
The question still haunts me at times. Could we have changed this outcome somehow? With the right help? With a better understanding of what he was suffering? I guess the answer is that we will never know. But I’d like to believe that the more we communicate about this kind of death, the less stigmatised it would be. Maybe we could not have saved him, but surely those of us left behind would have suffered less in our feelings of being isolated and misunderstood, by feeling less guilty, perhaps, or more supported, or less to blame? I applaud any attempts now at suicide prevention, raising the profile of suicide and lessening the ignorance. Surely there can be nothing more important than preventing unnecessary death? Surely this has to be a priority in our society. Like all those that are left behind, I would not wish this on anyone.
I often wondered whether if he had paused to consider what he was doing to us, whether he had stopped to write a note, whether he would have gone through with dying that day. But his impulsivity was part of his gorgeous personality - part of what made his antics so funny and his company so sought after. It was as much a part of him as the struggle he had with staying alive.
Now, with a better understanding of how some people struggle with life, I can let my brother go. Not totally, but just a bit. RIP MR X, indeed.
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