By Brad Hearst
It has been four years and almost two months since I lost my brother to suicide. I have experienced the highs and lows of grief too many times to count at this point. During those four years I found more questions than answers. My emotions have ranged from joyful to miserable, dejected to livid and yet sometimes even unsympathetic. I’ve found outlets for my own grief and helped others find theirs. It has been a journey that I’d love to have never experienced but it has made me stronger. Looking back is something we all need to do to assess where we have come from and who we are today.
Each person that experiences a loss to suicide shares one thing in common—none of us grieve the same. There are similarities but never an identical process. My first few months were just a fog. I went from having a little brother to being the only son. I was newly married four months prior to his passing and a new father. I went from living paycheck to paycheck to being the beneficiary of a life insurance policy that paid out more than I knew what to do with. To say I had no control over my life at this point would be an understatement. Not only did I not have control, but I also had no clue what direction to go anymore. Everything I had learned up to this point seemed like complete bullshit.
I believed I was a confident, strong-willed 29-year-old male that was poised in difficult situations. The hurt and confusion associated with my brothers passing taught me that I had been feeding myself a lot of lies. I fell apart the day he passed away and months to follow. My confidence in my ability to make the right decision and provide the correct advice to others disappeared in an instant. Daily tasks were like moving mountains. The loss of my brother was debilitating. I didn’t want to function as a husband, father, brother, son or friend. I was so mad at the world I had essentially lost the capacity to function in it.
Some people may turn to their immediate family for support, but this passing was different than others. My parents had just lost their son. The excruciating distress they were experiencing is something to this day I pray I will never have to experience. My siblings and I shared a similar standpoint in my brother’s life but each of us were in drastically different positions when it came to our ability to discuss our grief. It was their distress that pushed me away from confiding in them. That inability to confide in them only made me feel lonelier. I don’t hold any of them responsible at all. What I’d like for survivors to understand is that this type of loss took away my longest support structure. To this day we still have never truly sat down and discussed my brothers passing. The memories bring smiles to our face but the tears it draws up is like losing a piece of our soul again.
Up to this point, I hated my brother and thought he was a selfish bastard for taking his own life. I was angry at him for not saying anything beforehand. I was mad at myself for the prior conversations we had and how I handled them. The “what ifs” and “whys” pushed me to the brink of insanity. I constantly asked myself what was so bad that he had to pull the damn trigger and end his own life? As a parent, I did not understand how suicide was even an option which made me even more frustrated. Thinking of his son growing up without a father was infuriating.
The fuel to my internal fire just kept growing which was spilling over into my personal life. I was treating my wife and son different. I could feel myself taking my rage out on them. They didn’t deserve it, but they were the only ones up to this point with whom I was willing to share my emotions. Everyone else I shared them with were either to immature or lacked the understanding of suicide to even begin discussing it. Then there were those that would literally turn and run the minute I started talking about my brother. The ugly face of the stigma surrounding suicide had revealed itself to me and I was stuck in an endless loop of fear, anger and loneliness.
I’ve mentioned this in my prior posts, but it wasn’t until I met other survivors that I truly started to find my footing back. I’ll never forget the first training I went through with the South Dakota Helpline. We met in Brookings, South Dakota for two days. The purpose was to teach us how to share our stories in public. For me, it had a different meaning. It was my first opportunity to meet three other survivors who had recently suffered a loss. There were two mothers and a sister along with myself. We spent the next 12 hours roughly piecing together memories of our lost loved ones, sharing them out loud and supporting one another as our grief bubbled to the surface.
Honestly, I can’t remember what I shared but I will never forget the stories these three women shared. It may have seemed insignificant to them but for me it was a chance to realize I wasn’t alone. I learned that the emotional rollercoaster ride I had been on was something others experienced. There were people out there that I could now talk to and share my feelings with that had a bit of perspective into what I was experiencing. It was like a huge weight had been removed from my shoulders and I was able to begin walking upright again.
After coming to grips with the reality that my brother was never coming back I still found myself a bit lost. I had found other survivors, but something was still absent. One of the best recommendations throughout my grief process was by my wife. She sat me down one day and made it clear that I needed to do something for myself. A hobby or activity that allowed me to find myself again. My go to in the past had always been hitting the gym. For some reason, the gym was now a very difficult place to go back to for solace. The time alone with my thoughts, the weights and music were too much for me to handle. The right song would come on and I would lose all control of my emotions. That stress release was now gone, I had gained nearly 100 pounds and building up inside of me was stress and anger. My wife began to mention how I was deflecting that stress on her, our son, family and friends—which needed to stop.
To make sure this didn’t continue, I found something that allowed me to address both my stress and grief in one. Much to my wife’s surprise, I started a nonprofit organization called Survivors Joining for Hope (This isn’t a plug for our organization, it truly has become a piece of my own grief process). SJ4H allowed me to help people who experienced a loss to suicide and meet new survivors one on one through our outreach program. Sitting down with these individuals and families allowed me to share my story in a healthy manner while giving me a sense of self-worth again. Soon after, I found myself so comfortable with the discussion of suicide that it was like any other conversation. The stigma had basically been eliminated from my own world.
Since the inception of the organization we have helped a great deal of families. Whether through financial assistance, our survivor outreach program, support group, Survivor Day (partnered with American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) and various events throughout the community. Unfortunately, all this work and preparation didn’t prepare me for the second time my life would be touched by suicide.
There was probably nothing that could have prepared me for the second time I was impacted. I’ll never forget the day. I was sitting in the SJ4H board room when my phone rang. It was my wife and just by her breathing pattern I could tell something was wrong. Her best friend, and maid of honor in our wedding, had just passed away by suicide. All the training I had gone through and experience I had accumulated didn’t prepare me for this moment.
Her best friend had a personality that was one of a kind. It lit up a room and brought a smile to everyone’s face in range. Even if you tried to resist her, eventually you would be sucked in. We shared drastically different perspectives at times, but she was one of the best people to ever come into to my wife’s life. She provided guidance and perception that is so rare in this world. The pain and grief I carry for her, her family and my wife match that of my own brother’s passing.
Having to watch my wife experience the same agony I endured not three years prior was the second most difficult moment in my life. Not only did I observe her struggle, I understood it. I knew there were no words I could say that would make it any easier. As a husband, your job is to support and care for your wife during difficult times. Despite all I’ve experienced it frustrated me to my core knowing there was so little I could do. All I could do was hold her when she was upset, listen when she was open to talking and be there for her whenever she asked for me.
Another side effect was my wife’s own emotions brought back memories I had suppressed. Watching her struggle with grief created a battle within myself. I caught myself randomly crying as memories came flooding back. While the struggle was not as intense as it was prior, trying to balance my own recurring grief with my wife’s was a challenge that took time for me to balance. To an extent, this was my wife’s first time being impacted. It was a priority for me to make sure she had the proper time and environment to handle her grief.
It has been four years now and coming to terms with his passing is still a bit of a struggle. I have learned that suicide is often associated to a mental health disorder. I personally feel that associating every suicide to mental health is just simply ignorant. My brother struggled with depression, alcohol and had one of the most difficult childhoods I’ve ever heard of but in this situation, I believe it was a snap decision. A lapse of judgement compounded by the stress of life that eventually led to him using the firearm.
I’m sure you are thinking that I just admitted to him essentially having two mental health issues and you would be correct. Isn’t it possible that life just becomes too difficult and we need to let go? Can it be believed that some of these passings are a quick decision made in the heat of the moment without proper consideration for consequences? I personally believe that it is and that was my brother’s situation. This may be my own coping mechanism because the thought of my brother truly having a mental health issue and not talking about it with me is hard fathom. Our society is so focused on putting labels on everything that we forget—life is just hard.
I’m not sure I will ever come to terms with my brothers passing. I may never forgive myself for not being there for him when he needed me most. I will say that time has made it easier to cope. Surrounding myself with my family, friends and other survivors has put me in a position to continue down the long road of life.
I’m sorry I can’t tell you that it gets easier because that would simply be a lie. If I could make a recommendation for new survivors reading this, it would to be patient with yourself. Life is difficult and suicide compounds that ten fold. Look down the road one day at a time. Allow yourself to grieve. Feel the tears stream down your cheeks, and simply sob. Scream as loud as you can to release the anger inside. Allow the ones that love you to support you when you are on your knees and unsure how to stand. Smile when it seems like the last possible thing you should be doing. Step away from the stress of life and just focus on you. Remember grief is never easy but if you just put one foot in front of the other you’ll eventually find your way. Trust me.