The members of our family wanted to share our experiences as survivors of suicide with other families facing the trauma of a suicide of a loved one. My son Michael died five years ago after suffering a brief but severe bout with depression. My children, Nancy, Mary, Anne, and Mark, and granddaughters Kate and Sarah, describe their feelings surrounding Mike's death, and the experiences we all share as survivors.
In January of 1992 our family gathered for our second annual Vermont ski weekend. It was extremely cold, but some skied while others kept the fires going. My son Michael, 40, was being treated for clinical depression at the time, and we were hopeful that our reunion would be therapeutic and fun. On Monday morning, however, we realized his anxiety and despair had deepened. A call to his therapist resulted in his admission for treatment.
Michael was released after a few weeks and resumed his position as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn. Though the signs of hopelessness had not disappeared, he seemed to be trying to deal with his inner conflicts. On Monday, February 24, he jumped to his death from his apartment building in New York City. In a moment, my family became a "survivor" family.
The ensuing days were consumed with pain and endless questions of "why?" I was horrified by what he had done to his body, his life, and to the lives of our family who loved him. As his mother and a nurse who had dealt with other people’s pain and tragedy, should I have been more aware and astute about his depression? I believed he would get through his illness. I would review events leading to Michael’s suicide, wondering why we did not have the power to save him. I began private therapy and joined a survivor support group. The group provided me with an opportunity to tell my story and to listen to others progressing through the aftermath of suicide.
These experiences eventually led me to take an active role as a co‑facilitator of a group at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. I started volunteering with the NJ Chapter of the AFSP, and currently serve as its Chair. I am pleased with a pilot project for survivors that we have recently begun in NJ. It involves training lay volunteers who reach out to newly bereaved families, encouraging them to seek help through survivor groups. Volunteering with this project and other Foundation programs has become an important mission in my life.
My brother spent the weekend before he died visiting with my family in Boston. On Saturday, he seemed much better than he had been in the year since his struggle began with a deep depression. Sunday, he was very reluctant to drive back to New York with our sister, Mary. We took group photos on the driveway and planned our next reunion. Looking back at the photos, the strain of the last few months was etched in new lines in his face.
I was in a friend’s office when my husband called to tell me Mike was dead. I went into mental and physical shock, both denying and accepting the information. I thought at first that it couldn’t be true; he couldn’t have done what he promised not to do. Family, friends and survivors meetings helped me through the next days and weeks. My children’s school psychologist advised me to share as much of the truth with them as I could bear at the time, reserving the whole story for a point when they—and I—could deal with it. It was good advice.
The ensuing days were consumed with pain and endless questions of "why?""
Mike's funeral service was a celebration of his life, and right away we planned a scholarship fund in his name for a program he had been active with. The fund was kicked off formally on his birthday the next year, and has attracted new friends with each celebration.
My mother found a support group for suicide survivors at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and she, my brother, sister, and I all attended a meeting just three weeks after Mike’s death. We were all a bit in shock still, not knowing if we would even be able to speak. As the meeting began, I listened to each speaker’s story and felt that I was not alone. Later, we broke into groups and other survivors told us how they had coped with their own loss. In later months, I would compare my reactions to those in the group to reassure myself that they were normal. I realized that a mild aversion to heights that had recently turned into fear on bridges or airplanes was a result of the trauma of Mike’s death. Time helped to lessen such reactions and talking to my family and others helped me to realize I was working through a grieving process.
Since that time, I have joined the Board of the New England Chapter of AFSP. My goal is both to help other survivors cope with their loss, and to support research to prevent suicide. Michael’s loss will never be eased completely, but perhaps another Michael will live; another family will not know our pain. That will make all the difference for me.
Nieces Kate And Sarah
Kate was 9 when her uncle died. She is now 14.
It’s strange how I remember a lot of the small and insignificant things that happened that day, more than I remember Mike himself. Sometimes I think that the harder one tries to hold on to certain memories, the quicker they start to slip away. For example, I remember that my dad picked us up from school that day instead of my mother (who usually picks us up). I also could tell you the room at school I was sitting in, and the friend I was talking to when I saw my father’s face.
Of course, when it happened I was too young to be told that my uncle had committed suicide, so that piece didn’t fit in until much later. When I did learn that, though, I had a hard time with it. I couldn’t figure out why Mike would want to leave me. I was pretty sure that he loved me, I never did anything to make him feel otherwise, and I knew for certain that I loved him. I knew that he was sick, but what I didn’t understand until now is that his kind of sickness could cause him to kill himself.
Even though Sarah was 5 when her uncle died, she recalls being told about his death.
I was in the car, all excited about school, when my father told me that my uncle had died. I stopped and thought, and I think I started to cry. I remember going home and seeing my Mom sitting on the couch, sobbing. So my sister and I and my father all joined her.
On the first morning following my brother’s death I was barely able to distinguish the difference between true depression and the pain of a broken heart. Although the events surrounding his death were shockingly horrific, painful, and frightening, I awoke the next day feeling as though I might just make it, knowing that my own feelings of despair had subsided just enough to allow me to carry on. Many months later I came to realize this as the difference between those who are seriously depressed like Mike was, and those with a fairly healthy psyche. That is probably when I began to forgive my brother for what he had done. I, fortunately, had the tools to get through what life handed me, but his depression stole that ability from him. Michael had no hope. That is how he was able to end his life that day.
I will never know exactly what happened to Michael that day, of course. Was he going to go to work and something stopped him? I spoke to him that morning, and may very well have been the last person he spoke with. I thank God that I told him how much I loved him. Although it has brought me some comfort to know that I said that, still I will always feel as though there was something else I could have said or done to stop him. Through the help of support groups and endless hours of discussion with family members and friends, I now know that you can be responsible to someone, but not for them.
On the day before Mike died, he gave me a hug that I will never forget. He squeezed me so hard (he never let go first). And sometimes if I try really hard, I can conjure up the memory of that powerful hug.
I never could have imagined that one event would abruptly change the course of my life and the lives of my family. That’s the impact suicide has—it alters your entire life. You try to live through the incredible pain, sorrow, and confusion that this irreversible act creates. You ponder the "what ifs," and how your loved one cheated himself and you of the wonderful gift of life.
How does one become a "survivor?" Simply, but extremely arduously, by just surviving. Survive by seeking professional therapy, guidance, and support. Most importantly, exercise your emotions: cry, scream, talk, write, etc., and use any and all coping mechanisms that will benefit you. Be certain to verbalize your feelings, positive or negative. And take one day at a time.
Life is different for me since the death of my brother five years ago. The things that helped me cope may not necessarily benefit you, but you will ultimately find something that helps you through your grief. Promise to love your family and friends, and most importantly, yourself.
My brother Michael’s suicide left me unprepared. You see, I am always prepared. The year he died, I was working two jobs, writing my dissertation and settling into a marriage. For many people one of these activities would have been a full‑time pursuit. For me, it was business as usual.
When Michael died I was not ready for my own horror, sadness, guilt, anger and shame. I didn’t know what or how much to tell others; many did not know what to say to me. As a family, we knew very quickly that we would not hide the truth; hiding just "wasn’t us." We were quickly overwhelmed by the support our friends and family gave. They shared their memories, they cried, they comforted, they made us laugh. They sustained us. They confirmed that sharing our sorrow was the only way to move toward hope.
Yet, there were questions left unasked by polite friends, intrusions imposed by others. I did not want to consider whether the truth would hurt Michael’s good name, my family or me. As I left my family to return to my life, I found myself unprepared again. I took a deep breath, put my life on auto‑pilot, and told the truth: about Michael’s suicide; about my horror, my sadness, my anger.
An unexpected source of comfort came from friends, co‑workers, and even casual acquaintances. It was the sharing of secrets. While expressing condolences, people told me stories they had never told anyone. I heard about other suicides, miscarriages, illegal activities, and mental illnesses that really were not my business. People mentioned them to provide comfort, connecting with me through their own complicated losses and hardships. Sharing eased their sorrow and mine. You see, I was not prepared, but I was not alone.
My family’s journey through grief these past five years has taught us many things. Now, we try to remember Michael with more joy than sadness. We cherish the memories of his extraordinary life, and I know we will keep his smile in our hearts forever.