Anatomy of a Suicide

My sister, Betty, hung herself last year.

She did it while her husband was at the dentist. My brother-in-law, Chuck, discovered her in the garage upon return. He ran shrieking across the lawn to my brother’s home. My brother and sister-in-law ran back to the garage with him, not knowing what they were about to see. Now my sister’s death, unprocessed trauma, and ugly stories stand between them. They are no longer neighbors or talking to each other.

Before Betty’s death, I knew that suicide was a sad exit that happened to other people. I didn’t know it was also a threshold. Left behind, the rest of us crossed into a haunted landscape that no one anticipated or imagined, let alone wanted to inhabit. ‘State of mind’ rationalizations aside, my sister made a noose, climbed a ladder, and free-fell to her death. A three-time cancer survivor, Betty was perceived as one of the least likely people to commit suicide. “Never in a million years” was a sentiment shared by more than one person. Slayed and sober, I was Wile E. Coyote in mid-air, trying to backpedal to the cliff — to safety — to the time before. I wanted to save her, have anyone save her. For weeks after her death, I would wake up every morning, held in those transitional seconds of oblivion, and then crash into remembrance. My sister had killed herself and was gone forever. Neither of us could ever go back.

My sister was loved by family and well-liked by others. She had close bonds with her two adult children and was a regular presence in her grandchildren’s lives, attending their basketball and soccer games and celebrating their achievements. Betty was a doer. Other common descriptors were: “kind,” “capable,” “generous,” “strong,” “a good cook” and “good with her hands.” The saddest irony is how this last skill served her to the end. She was also stubborn, a bit of a know-it-all, and unwilling or unable to show her vulnerability. Betty was also unwilling to ask anyone for help, with one notable exception that failed. Her M.O. was helping everyone else. I suspect it was how she had learned to feel loved. As her youngest sister and “the baby of the family,” it appeared difficult for her to consider me a resource.

I learned after her death, that Betty had been struggling with thyroid disease for a year. Her obvious symptoms were: hair loss, severe dry skin, weight loss, and sleep problems. No one seemed to be aware of the depression, perhaps even her. The insomnia had escalated in the last month, and for eight days prior to her death, she had survived on a few micro-naps. She sought urgent medical care on a Tuesday and they tweaked her sleep medication. On Friday, she went to see her doctor and left the office to go directly to the emergency room, seeking admittance to the hospital. She was asking for help. In the course of their standard assessment, she denied being homicidal or suicidal. They tweaked her medication again and sent her home with a checklist and a recommendation for cognitive-behavioral therapy. Chuck shared that when they drove away from the hospital, she said, “They don’t believe me. They won’t help me.” Asked if she wanted to go to another hospital, she declined, stating fears of the medical costs. Betty killed herself two and a half days later. Severe insomnia is a risk factor for suicide. Medication is not a cure-all. While I will never know, I believe that if my sister had received treatment, she would be alive.

I learned quickly that suicide is not only devastating and surreal; it is stigmatizing and awkward. At the funeral parlor, where family members convened the day after her death, the funeral director offered his (likely) standard words for crafting the initial death announcement: “How about we say she died unexpectedly at home?” It was not really a question. Glassy or teary-eyed and collectively numb, we all nodded. His sole option was the quiet nod, wink-wink, that subtly informed us of the cultural shame attached to suicide. This would be the first of many awkward interactions in which people were visibly uncomfortable or asked insensitive questions. It was no one’s fault. On the contrary, I suspect it is a natural consequence associated with tragic experiences that have been labeled taboo. Without practice, our language falters and our capacities to be authentically present shrink.

Four days after my sister’s death, we held a private, graveside service. I was asked to officiate, and her daughter, son, and three grandchildren provided the eulogy and heartfelt reflections. Betty loved the quote from a poem about what matters most in life is “how we spend the dash” (the demarcation between our birthdate and the date of our passing.) So we focused on her dash. We honored how she loved big, worked hard, gave generously, and mattered to us all. We focused on our love for her and our great grief from her passing too soon. We acknowledged that she would not have wanted us to carry her suicide as a burden, ruminating on the endless, pain-filled questions of “Why?” and “What if?” and “Why didn’t…?” Albeit a wise invitation, these questions still arrive in raw moments of grief and lingering disbelief.

I have been writing and rewriting versions of this essay since Betty’s death. It is now July 2019, one year and three months post. With proper health care, my sister would have turned 67 last week. An avid gardener, she cultivated flowers that drew hummingbirds, a winged favorite of hers. A few stone and metal hummingbirds adorn her gravesite. Their beaks are forever poised for seeking nectar; their buzzing wings are frozen in flight. And Betty? Her breathless body turned to ash rests below. We visit to honor our embrace.

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