TW: This article mentions suicide, suicidal thoughts, and grief
*Names changed for privacy
When I was eight months old, my second cousin John*, who was like a brother to my mom, killed himself. I met him one time at a party on Halloween for his sister’s birthday. Five days later, he shot himself. Now, at 21, I’m older than he was when he took his own life.
Over the years, John’s death has left an echoing silence at every family gathering. Family members joke about the life choices of my great-aunt Caroline’s three other adult sons. But everyone dances around the subject of John. The fact that I didn’t know the full story of how he died until I wrote this article is a testament to that fact.
The only time John was ever really mentioned was when one of his brothers named their son after him. Even then, no one talked about John or the significance of naming one of his nephews after him.
I never got a chance to know John, not even through the memories of my family. There are no pictures of me with John, and I can’t picture what he looks like. I’ve seen photos of him at least once before, but not often enough to recall his face. At times, he feels like a ghost that my family made up. His absence is the elephant in the room we all work hard to ignore.
The first time I realized the severity of what happened was in middle school. I was sitting on the hallway floor going through old mementos. I looked up to see my mom sobbing, clutching a tribute letter someone had written to John at his funeral. Seeing her pain over the loss shattered me, and his absence suddenly felt as heavy as lead.
On Sept. 2, 2016, my mom burst into my room and shook me awake.
“Aunt Caroline is dead,” she said. “She shot herself.”
I remember that night so vividly, but it still doesn’t feel real. It feels like a dream I never woke up from. Caroline died almost a month apart from John, sixteen years later.
I couldn’t process the loss. I rolled over and went back to sleep, hoping that when I woke up in the morning it wouldn’t be true.
The next morning, my whole family sat on the patio behind Caroline’s house. We mostly sat in silence. The elephant we had worked so hard to ignore for so long had suddenly demanded its presence be known.
Caroline’s funeral is one of the last memories I have of my mom’s side of the family all together. I don’t remember the last time I saw Caroline alive. I was close enough with Caroline growing up that I called her my aunt instead of my great-aunt, but memories of her seem distant now.
Caroline was heavily involved with the school district I grew up in, and I remember watching as my teachers, my principal, and my superintendent all paid their respects. My aunt was one of the first family members I remember losing, and it struck me all at once how many people we leave behind when we go.
After the viewing, my family gathered in a church basement and ate barbeque while my great-grandma Barbara, Caroline’s mother, played the victim. Everyone was mad at Barbara for bringing her pastor, and she was mad that we didn’t let her get away with it. Caroline wasn’t religious and wouldn’t have wanted the pastor there. This family squabbling at my aunt’s funeral was the beginning of the end, even if we didn’t know it then.
My aunt was the glue of my family. Without her, we all fell apart.
A few days after the funeral, I learned for the first time that my family had a tree planted for John at his favorite fishing spot years earlier. It’s a beautiful location set off from the road and submerged in the forest. My family spread Caroline’s ashes there too, so she could be with her son again. While we never talked about mental health, the toll it took on us had clearly been there the whole time. The loss of a loved one is always hard to process, but suicide leaves you with an endless pit of questions that will never be answered. I wish I could ask my aunt why she did it, despite knowing what it was like to lose someone that way.
I wish I could ask her why she left us all behind.
In 2016, almost 45,000 died by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. My aunt is .00002 percent of that number.
“In 2019, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million attempted suicide,” the CDC reports.
Statistically speaking, it’s likely that as you sit there reading this article, there are people in your family who are among them.
Even five years later, I still cry when I think about Caroline. I’m crying while writing this article right now. Sometimes I’ll get to a point where I think I’ve made peace with what happened, and that I’ve forgiven her. Other times I acknowledge the pain and anger I still feel, and how that hole inside of me is never going to close.
Little things always seem to trigger the pain. I can talk about my aunt and be fine, but reading a poem in a class about suicide might make me sob.
I can go weeks, months without thinking about my aunt, and then all of a sudden she’s all I think about for days on end.
Over the summer, my aunt’s dog died. Lizzie was our last living thing tied to Caroline, and spreading her ashes where we spread my aunt’s forced me to confront the reality that my aunt was really gone. For the past few years, I’ve been able to mostly push off the grief of losing my aunt. Saying goodbye to that final part of her reopened the wound, and I haven’t been able to shut it since.
I want so badly to sit down and have a conversation with all of them about the grief we feel. Who better to understand the pain of living with her absence than my own family?
None of us wants to have the conversation that acknowledges that she’s gone. It’s the same
silence we went through after John killed himself.
We pretended for so long that mental illness didn’t plague our family, and it’s easier to keep pretending it’s not happening.
I talk to my mom frequently about the anger we feel, but I know my grandma would be upset if we brought that up around her. Part of the reason we avoid the conversation as a family is because we’re scared of upsetting those of us who are left.
I wonder if we had all been more open about the suffering and pain we were going through if my aunt might still be here today. The what-ifs and questions plague me, especially around the anniversary.
Part of me wants to never talk about my aunt again, to let the pain deepen the hole inside of me and never acknowledge it. But that kind of thinking got my family to the point we’ve reached today.
Ignoring mental illness and acting like everything’s fine feels like it only leads to higher suicide rates. If my aunt had talked about the pain she was feeling, and how her grief was still destroying her, maybe she wouldn’t have become a statistic on the CDC’s website.
I tell people about my aunt and my pain because I think it’s important. Even at my lowest points of struggling with depression and anxiety, I’ve never seriously contemplated killing myself because I know what it would do to the people I would leave behind. It’s something that I think people struggling with mental illness need to know, no matter how tough it is to hear.
If you killed yourself today, the people around you would undeniably suffer from your loss.
In the process of writing this article, I set out to find Caroline’s Facebook page. After her death, the page was locked and turned into a public memorial. She didn’t have many posts, and after scrolling for a little, I came across something she posted in 2014 for survivors of suicide day. While the poem in the post is a little cheesy, I find it fitting for how I feel now too:
“I still miss you
As the days and years pass
I still miss you
As the pain of grief softens
I still miss you
As new memories are made
I still miss you
As I smile and laugh
I still miss you
Today and everyday
I still miss you”
If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression, here are some resources that could help:
24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network
1-800-273-TALK (8255) (Veterans, press 1)
Crisis Text Line
Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline