He left a cold, wordless goodbye in the garage. We’ve tried making sense of it ever since.

Unanswered questions are always one cruel part of suicide’s trauma. The puzzle of intention never entirely fits together; there is no straight, unimpeachable line from A to B. In my brother’s case, we were only able to piece together the events of the fateful night from the testimony of a few friends. A pool game. A couple of drinks. Nothing out of the ordinary, they had insisted.

So why then had my mother returned home to find him in her garage, slumped over the steering wheel with the car window rolled down? He was 24 and had just enrolled at the local community college.

There are, of course, a million guesses one can reasonably make when a person takes his own life. I used to try making them. On the one hand, the story of his life seemed to inevitably point to this ending. There had been a speech impediment and remedial reading. He’d been hard to toilet train. There had been the high fever, and with it, permanently stained teeth. Always, there was a social awkwardness about my brother which, with unseen force, pushed him to the outside of social circles. He was always the last to be picked on the playground, the first to be stranded at the lunchroom. On occasion, I even denied being his sister, avoiding him in the hallways at school when I’d see him lumber around a corner alone.

And then, we’d moved from Tennessee to Ohio right before his freshman year of high school. Unlike others, who might have parlayed social awkwardness into academic achievement or theatre performance, my brother hung with the druggies. He started smoking weed at 14. Throughout high school, he was regularly abusing alcohol, even earning points on his driver’s license for driving while drunk. After he’d graduated and moved in with friends—co-workers from the neighborhood McDonalds—he was doing harder stuff. Cocaine? Heroine? Those are only guesses at the substances he’d been using on the day he disappeared, calling nearly five days later and alluding to conspiratorial threats on his life.

That was the bottom. And if ever there was a time that his suicide might have made sense, it was then, especially after his girlfriend—the mother of his infant son—broke up with him and started sleeping with the guy one bedroom over. But he didn’t end it. Not yet anyway. He moved in with my mother and stepfather. He started attending church. Then he enrolled in the local community college, deciding upon a culinary program. My mother bought him a brand new set of knives. Most of all, he had this blond-haired, blue-eyed little boy to live for, a son whom he loved so deeply. Even now, I can see James in his arms, proud papa delight in his eyes.

Suicide doesn’t make sense. That’s half the grief of it. At least when my father had unexpectedly died several years earlier, the coroner had issued an autopsy report. We had a legible reason for death. We had an explanation. But when my brother took his own life, there were only maddening questions followed by a heavy burden of shame. The questions never resolved into answers, and the shame left us with a throbbing, aching silence.

For many years, I rarely talked about my brother or his death. Sometimes, when asked if I had a sibling, I would evasively answer, “It’s just me.” Other times, I might offer a vague explanation for having lost my brother at such a young age—something too intimate, “Please don’t ask anything more.” Suicide was the blight on our family history, the telltale sign that something had gone terribly wrong. I made sure that no one but my closest friends knew about my brother, and even my mother and I tacitly agreed that he was, forever after, the “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

Twenty years later, we’ve made many critical gains in terms of our understanding of mental health, and it’s now as if I have both permission and vocabulary to name what happened to my brother. I understand—now—that substance abuse is often a form of self-medication for people struggling from depression and mental illness. I understand—now—that two-thirds of all reported suicides have had a history of chronic mental illness and depression. It wasn’t that my brother was a bad egg and our family screwed-up any more than any other family. Chances were very good that physiologically, something was askance. Had we known, something might have been different.

I no longer struggle with the guilt that every suicide survivor inevitably suffers as part of the aftermath. Having lost my brother, I know the impossibility of retracing my steps to find where I could have prevented the accident. But I can tell the story. And there’s something healing about that.

Most of all, I can remember that my brother’s life was more than the sum of his death.

His name was David.

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place. She writes widely for print and digital publications and travels to speak at churches, conferences, and retreats. Jen holds a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She is married to Ryan, and they have five school-age children. Their family attends Grace Toronto Church (Canada). You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel.

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  1. Jen, this was so heartbreaking and beautiful. Such good words to share with those who have not come close to this kind of tragedy. Thank you for helping me better understand and empathize. Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable part of your story.

  2. Beautiful story, Jen. So glad you tell the story, David’s story. May your words bring healing to many hearts. Your last sentence is powerful.

  3. Jen, thanks for this beautiful, hard piece. I pray that writing it really was healing for you, and that by sharing the story others are healed, too.

  4. Jen, I’m so sorry about your brother, David. Yes, he was much more than how he died. So much more. I’m glad you’ve been able to leave the needless guilt and shame behind. My family also has a suicide in our back story that was the family secret never spoken for decades. Thank you for your authenticity and your well-written article. I love it! People like you can help end the stigma associated with suicide and mental illness across the globe. Keep telling your story! By doing so you encourage others to tell theirs and, sadly, I believe there are many more yet to be told.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. It brought me to tears. I have no experience with suicide personally, but I’ve many friends who have. It’s so hard to overcome the misconceptions. Thank you for speaking out and giving others hope.

  6. Jen, this must have been tough, and maybe cathartic to write… I can see your brother, and identify with the family and all your questions. Thanks for making it so real.

  7. Suicide has its own rationality that doesn’t make sense from the outside, even when its logic structure actually works. One of my brother-in-law’s many attempts began when he woke up on a Monday dreading a new contract programming job. He knew he’d rather be dead than go to work. And he knew he could call his therapist and talk about it. And he also knew if he told her he was thinking about dying, she’d be obliged to hospitalize him. He knew that he’d rather be dead than be in the hospital. So he decided to die. He took all the meds on his table — 28 days worth, if I remember right. And somehow didn’t manage to die. I found him a day later and after we got him checked, we managed to bring him back home.

    On one level, there is never anything that anyone can do to prevent, with certainty, these attempts in any given case. On a different level, there are many things we can do together to reduce the odds. Japan recognized that its laws about credit and debt were promoting suicide, because life insurance policies paid off creditors in cases of suicide. Creditors were hounding people, literally, to death. Japan changed its laws. The UK recognized that men found it difficult to talk face-to-face about challenges they faced and pioneered the first text-based crisis service, significantly cutting suicides among younger men. Most of the world recognizes connections between unemployment and suicide and seeks to promote employment for public health. In the US, we blame the victim of joblessness: their putative “mental illness” of depression is the reason they are unemployed and also the reason they suicide. Excellent research going all the way back to the 19th century associates suicide with social isolation, a failed sense of belonging and a lack of purpose. Churches have the potential to engage people in these essential associations and in an important vision that gives purpose to our lives.

    Still, none but God can see into hearts. When “Katie” of the linked post died (https://churchandmentalillness.wordpress.com/life-stories/friends-suicide/) , she was at least the fourth person of my acquaintance to attempt or die by suicide. I stopped counting somewhere after 20. A lot of people live with a lot of pain. As people who know God, we can help others learn to live well in suffering. I guess part of that is living well with what we suffer from our own losses.

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