My older brother Andy was 47 when he killed himself in November 2002. None of us saw it coming; he had no history of being suicidal. There were no clues beforehand, only afterwards: the suicide itself had turned them into clues, working backwards and putting everything in a new light—or, rather, a new darkness. The fact of his suicide threatened to contaminate his entire life, bleeding into the past like a massive stain. It was hard to keep it from spreading.
The call from my father had come in the middle of the night. My mother's wailing in the background was the most awful noise I had ever heard. Not wanting to upset her further, my father made me guess when I asked how my brother had done it. I got it on my second guess.
That was the longest night of my life. Eventually, my wife and I got back in bed. We could not get ourselves warm. We cried and listened to the wind rattling the windows and the freezing rain hitting the panes.
It seemed like three days later when morning finally came. We knew we had to tell the kids, but we didn't do it right away. It was Sunday, and we let them eat breakfast and read the funnies and sports page. I kept looking at them—William was 10, and Eliza was eight—thinking I would never see them like this again, this innocent. Andy was their favorite uncle, as he had been to all nine of his nieces and nephews, who ranged in age from seven to 15 at the time of his death. He was always devising games and plays for them, or scavenger hunts with silly rhyming clues. (My father found one of these in a plastic goose weeks after he died). Not having any children himself, he was the most childlike of any of us.
We decided we would tell them in stages. That day, we would tell them only that Andy had died; later, we'd tell them that it had been a suicide. We asked them to come and sit with us in the living room. It was awful. They sobbed convulsively for half an hour or more. When they asked how he had died, we said we were still trying to find out.
I flew to Cincinnati the next day. My wife and children followed a few days later. In the interim, I made phone calls to Chicago, where my brother had lived. I talked to his doctor, his psychiatrist, the coroner and the detective (who had to be called in the middle of the night, while he was on duty), trying to piece things together. I knew that we would never understand, but I wanted to find out as much as I could. The detective had confiscate the suicide note as evidence (suicide was a crime, we learned), but the coroner had a photocopy and said he would fax it to us. The strange thing was that my father's office is in my brother's old bedroom, so I watched my brother's suicide note, like a message from another world, feed through the fax machine in the room he had lived in until he left for college.
It said, in his big, childlike lettering, "I've had a really good life. Thank you to everyone who was a part of it." This seemed both sweet and disturbingly evasive. It implied that his life would be untouched by his suicide, and it raised more questions than it answered. How could we believe he really felt this way when he had chosen to end the very life he said was good? Was it our duty to try to take him at his word, or was that a form of denial? And how could we keep his death from overshadowing his life?
One thing I found and kept was his wedding ring. He had divorced 12 years earlier. I wear it as the symbol of a kind of vow, to cherish his memory as best I can."
It was our mother who most tenaciously tried to preserve the purity of his life, to protect it from the darkness that his suicide cast on it. In those first weeks, during the periods when she was not crying, she talked about how gentle Andy was, how innocent, how he would never hurt anyone. How he loved children, and dogs. He had been a volunteer at the pediatric wing of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and regularly went in on the evenings that dogs were brought in to visit the children.
This was all true. But our mother's need to paint Andy as a saint sometimes struck my sister, other brother and me as a coping mechanism that went too far. It was almost as if—and she may have even said this out loud at one point—Andy had died for our sins, like Jesus, sacrificing himself so that we could go on. I could see how she could believe this; there were moments when I believed it myself.
But then there was the stark fact of his suicide, something that could be walled out only temporarily.
She tried, though. She insisted, for instance, that we not tell the children that Andy's death was a suicide. She wanted to protect them, which was understandable. But this approach felt utterly wrong-headed to me and my remaining siblings, another form of denial or WASP repression. Every book we looked at and every psychologist we spoke to said it was a bad idea to keep the suicide secret: the children would find out some other way, which would hurt them more in the end. But our mother would not back down. This became a crisis within the larger crisis. Finally, my sister and brother and I overrode her—they were our kids, after all—and we each took our children off in different directions to tell them.
Our group ended up in the hayloft of my parents' barn, the four of us sitting on bales of hay. I was dreading this, but it turned out not to be a big deal. I spoke slowly and was careful to use expressions like "ended his own life" and "took his life." When I wrapped upby saying, "We wish Andy hadn't done this, but we still love him," Eliza, who had just turned eight, said, "Done what?" and I realized she didn't get it. So I finally said it: "killed himself." Still, nobody cried. The big deal for them was that he was dead, not how it had happened. For them, the idea of suicide did not have the toxic quality that it did for adults.
Afterwards, we all felt some small relief within the larger trauma. Our mother saw very quickly that we had been right.
A week or so after the funeral, my father and I flew to Chicago to empty out Andy's apartment. We weren't prepared for how disoriented and agitated we would feel when we entered that space, the ground zero of his death. The first thing we noticed was small piles of black powder on the beige carpet. What was this stuff, something forensic the police hadn't cleaned up? These black mounds seemed malignant somehow, darkly emblematic of his suicide. The first thing I did was vacuum them up. Later, we learned that they were piles of coffee grounds, intended to mask the smell.
We worked hard and too quickly for three days. We threw too much away—I still feel bad about that. But at that point everything seemed stained by the fact of Andy's suicide. Even innocent details seemed tainted, as if by that black powder. We found socks everywhere—more socks than anyone would ever need. Had Andy been alive, this would have seemed like one of his endearing quirks—something we would have teased him about. But now, distorted by his suicide, it seemed like an obsession, one more thing about him we would never understand.
One thing I found and kept was his wedding ring. He had divorced 12 years earlier. When I got home, I had the ring altered to fit my own finger. I wear it as the symbol of a kind of vow, to cherish his memory as best I can.
The question "Why?," which sounds so much like a cry, will never be answered. That is the reason his suicide has so much power: because we will never understand it. That is why, though the stain diffuses somewhat over time, it never disappears. It has been five years now. We are able to cherish our memories of Andy, to tell the children funny stories about him, but the stories and memories remain darkened by the act of self-violence that ended his life.
Several months after Andy's death, I began writing poems about the aftermath of his suicide. I have always been a poet, and I had already published three books of poetry when Andy killed himself. But my feelings were very complicated in this case. I asked myselffor instance, if it was wrong to try to make "art" out of a tragedy. Was it somehow a betrayal of Andy's privacy? I also worried about what my parents and siblings were going to think, especially my mother. But writing poems is what I know how to do, and it's how I make sense of life, so I kept going. I think it was an important part of my grieving process, but not in some tidy way that could be reduced to the notion of art as therapy. Like everything else surrounding suicide, it's much more complicated than that. In any case, the poems feel much truer to the way I see the world, and to the way I express myself, than this prose account. The poems are the account I wanted to write, the one I had to write. For a long time, my mother was afraid to read them, but now she is glad that I wrote them. They can be found in my fourth book, Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, New York, 2006).
Jeffrey lives in Dover, Mass.