Depression & Suicide

When a Loved One Commits Suicide

As an oldest child, I am used to fixing problems—both in my life and in the lives of my siblings. With the suicide of my brother in 2008, for the first time in my life I faced a problem that I couldn’t fix.

dan and bro

My brother lay in the hospital for a week before he died, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. He’d attempted suicide in the side yard of our house. He shot himself while I was working on my truck on the other side of the house. My mother was doing dishes and my father was working in his office. My father and I both heard something, but didn’t connect it as a gun shot. After all, why would a gun go off in the middle of the neighborhood?

It was a small-caliber gun, and the shot sounded to me like a dropped bolt or a nut. I looked around for what I had dropped and, not finding anything, went back to work. My father said it sounded like he’d dropped a pen on the hardwood floor. He too looked for what had made the noise, couldn’t find anything, and went back to his work.

My mother, however, felt prompted to go outside, ended up finding my brother, called 9-1-1, and got him to the hospital. I ran around back when the ambulances pulled up in front of our house, and my mother came out of the back yard crying. My father had gone back there the moment my mother called for him. I can still remember my father holding my brother’s head in his hands, putting pressure on his wounds until the paramedics could take over.

After three brain surgeries and many prayers, the doctors reconstructed my brother’s skull as best they could and stitched him back up. The hospital scans showed no brain activity beyond what was needed to sustain life. The pressure in his brain fluctuated dangerously, and his hypothalamus had stopped functioning all together. His body could no longer heat or cool itself properly, so the nurses heated and cooled it alternately using heated blankets and ice.

While my brother was in the hospital, our lives stood still. Neither my father nor I went to work, and my mother virtually lived at the hospital with my two sisters. Over the course of the week, we all spent time grieving in our own ways.

During my grieving and answer-seeking process, I wrote frequently. This is actually when I started my first blog, which I have continued to this day. Between that and the conversations I had with family and friends, I began to process the changes that my brother’s choice had suddenly brought into my life.

Prior to that moment, the things I had dedicated my time to were meaningless. The only thing that really mattered in my life now was family. That was it. Nothing else even held a candle to the importance of my family.

Maybe if I had been around more, this wouldn’t have happened, I thought. Maybe I would have seen the signs and been able to stop him. Maybe I could have helped him more. There had to be something I could have done–right?

As my brother lay in the hospital dying, there was nothing to do but wonder what I could have done differently. I was his older brother. Wasn’t it my responsibility to look out for him, to care for him? Wasn’t I my brother’s keeper? Wasn’t I partially at fault for what he had done? Couldn’t I have done more?

I shared these thoughts with a friend, thinking aloud about everything I could—and SHOULD—have done to save him. I couldn’t help but cry. My friend stopped me, and spoke kindly amidst my tears.

“Dan, who do you think you are? You’re not Superman. You can’t save everyone…”

And she was right.

Today I share that same message with those of you who have lost someone dear to you and blame yourselves in some way for their loss. If you’ve ever asked what you could have done differently or how you could have changed the outcome, you are asking the wrong questions. These questions only lead to pain, not healing.

In the wake of tragic events such as suicide, these kind of thoughts are inevitable to some extent. It’s what we do with the thoughts when they come that determines whether we begin to heal or whether we prolong the process of our healing by wallowing in self-blame.

In the midst of such a loss, I know it seems like healing will never come. But I promise you it will. The light of hope will again shine in your life, and you will find purpose once more.

But you are not Superman any more than I was.

Those we love have their agency—or freedom of choice. As they use this agency, they may make choices that hurt themselves and cause us great pain. And while we would do anything to save them, what becomes of them is ultimately their choice.

We cannot mitigate the effects that other people’s choices will have on our lives. None of us is at the center of the universe, but the actions of one truly can affect the lives of all around them. As you mourn a loved one’s bad choices, please recognize and accept that your reactions affect those around you, too. And though you may be in pain, recognize that there are those who need you in their lives as well. Your decision to either move forward in the healing process or wallow in self-blame will have unintended consequences on those you love as well. Please choose to heal. Please be present with those who are still with you.

We can only help those we love if they let us. In the same respect, others can only help us if we allow them the opportunity to do so.

It took me some time to realize that we cannot take responsibility for the choices and actions of others. I could not have changed what my brother did, even if the circumstances had been different—only he could have changed it.

We can—and should—love them, help them, and encourage them to make good choices in their lives, but—in the end—the choices are theirs to make.

It is a hard thing to do, but we must relinquish the responsibility for our loved ones’ actions to them. We must let them live their lives . We are not responsible for the self-destructive choices they may choose to make. To believe otherwise requires us to live our lives forever condemned to misery and self-blame.

This is not to say that we should never try to save those we love!

dans bro1In the years leading up to his death, I tried everything I could think of to help my brother, as did my parents. And I know we’d do all of it it again in a heartbeat if we could. For what is love but the desire to save those we love from pain?

But always remember, You’re not Superman. You can’t save everyone…”

Please start now to let go of any self-blame you may be hanging onto, and let your own healing process begin.

 

If you would like to read more of Joshua’s story, or what we went through as a family in the wake of his passing, please visit CaringBridge. Since Joshua’s death in 2008, my family has founded the Freeman Family Institute in his honor.
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15 replies »

  1. I am struggling accepting this same thing. There are days I simply can’t function. I miss my brother so badly. He also committed suicide in November 2013. We are devestated. My family feels like its gone forever.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I am a mother. My daughter was date raped at the age of 16. She tried to ignor what happened to her and about 7 mo. After it happened she started braking. We did everything we could to save her life but ultimatly she had to choose to want to be here and accept the help. The lsdt year and a half has been the hardest. She has finally accepted the help and I am happy to say that today she is alive and wants to be. It is an on going struggle but she is prevailing and being a living testimony to others that they to can be better. But the most important thing is they have to want the help! I am so sorry for your loss.

  3. a few years ago, one of my friends killed himself. I have experienced loss before, including the death of my parents and two siblings. Yet somehow, the death of my friend Jeff impacted differently and continues to hurt to this day. I think it was because it was suicide, and knowing that he felt so badly that he planned and deliberately took his own life makes it so much worse. Perhaps I am not superman, and I couldn’t have made a difference. But I would so much like to have been given the chance.

  4. Thank you so much for these reminders! Suicide has touched my life (two cousins and one uncle took their lives), and as a mom I have a nagging fear that one day one of my children will do the same. I have to constantly remind myself that I cannot be with them at all times, nor can I make their own decisions. But, depression is a tricky thing to see how it affects others, and it leaves a person feeling that somehow, some way we should be able to “take away the pain of depression” from those we love. Sadly, that’s not always possible.

    I’m so very sorry for the loss of your brother. Thanks so much for the courage it took to write this.

  5. My brother committed suicide Easter Sunday 2011 & we burried him on his 34th birthday the following Friday. He left behind 3 amazing young children who are an example of what you speak of. My brothers, 2, & I have each mourned differently and I wish we could come together and understand & be there for each other and be close…but it looks like it isn’t possible cos none of us seems to understand and in some cases just be accepting of how we each comprehend, deal with, feel, and find ways to cope. I’m more emotional and find both younger brothers more aloof & unable to understand me. Its truly a process to mourn and we all go through it different. My wish is for us to all come together and be close but it doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon. Everyone has an opinion in my family if how we are to behave and accept his passing. I’m still full of massive pain and miss him every day…apparently I’m inappropriately mourning in accord with our religion. I can’t understand how regardless if where he is now how does my judging brother just put him in a box and seemingly that’s that…

  6. Dan, thank you for your poignant thoughts on such a sensitive topic. As I was reading your words, many thoughts came to mind.

    Unless you understand (and by understand, I mean, have experienced, or have been trained in) depression or disordered thinking, you sadly cannot fully understand the actions of one who has it.

    A normal person would not do what your brother did. A normal person does not seek to end his life; a person in pain does.

    Obviously, your brother was not thinking normally. Mental illness is, in my opinion, JUST AS PREVALENT as physical illness. One is of the body and one is of the mind. Our society, unfortunately even today, does not recognize mental illness enough to help all who are suffering from it.

    In addition, even when one is aware that there is something “wrong” with the way another family member is thinking/acting, one often has no idea how to treat it. This may be part of your grief and sorrow, too; that you did not know HOW to intervene or WHAT you could have done for your brother.

    Perhaps it will help you to think of your brother as having had a “chronic disease”; one that would ultimately take his life. And that you were NOT trained as a Medical Doctor, and could not intervene based on your lack of training.

    You may also have unaddressed fears about how mental illness might affect other members of your family, or even yourself. Recognizing and overcoming these fears can be done through talking with a mental health professional or even with a trusted friend.

    Very best wishes to you, Dan. Thank you again for sharing.

  7. Thank you so so much fro sharing your story. My brother, whom was my hero passed away at the will of his own hands close to three weeks ago. I am much like you.. I’m research driven and want to know why the heck he chose this path.
    I have to say, both our brothers were bright shining lights in the world. Thank you for sharing his love.

  8. I lost my brother to suicide July 2, 1014, 3 months prior I had a dream that he had shot himself, the pain was so real in the dream, Just as it was when I was told the actual night that he done it, He was suffering from depression for years, he was my rock, the one who I looked up too even though I knew he was weak, his heart ached for every family member we ever lost and loved, my brother loved everyone, he had a very gentle heart, he was just as gentle as they come, my heart ached every time I seen him cry, I could feel every inch of his pain because I too suffer from depression, I do control mine with medication, he tried to self medicate himself with alcohol with alcohol with only intensified his pain, he was in rehab on two diff occasions, he checked himself out the second time when his first granddaughter was born two yrs ago, I figured after he got his lil granddaughter then got a new grandson now 6 months old that that would give him the will to live, but now I understand that nothing or none can keep you here if your heart is hurting from depression, he had hit rock bottom, I just wish he would have called me, he always called me and I could stop him, I did on several diff occasions, In the back of my mind I knew that one day he would probably take his life as my grandfather did the same thing at the age of 84 on my brothers birthday that committed suicide, which was another thing that my brothers never understood, we tried to explain to him that grandpa didn’t know what he was doing and didn’t even know the date that he was doing it on, but that never mattered to him, I also lost my other brothers ar 23 yrs old in a tragic accident, that was 20 yrs ago and we have struggled with that also, its just a pain that u have to learn to live with, I do try to be happy around the people that care for me so that I don’t make them miserable, but I do have to talk to someone at times to get it off my chest, My heart is aching, I have anxiety attacks in the middle of the night at least 3-3 times a night, I will always love and miss both my brothers, this is a cruel, cruel world we live in and times are getting worse, we each have to deal in our own way, As for me I am researching all I can and looking for support groups !! I am a strong person that is always there for everyone else, the family is torn apart and it has cause a lot of stress on the whole family, all prayers accepted for me and my family thank you, Debbie

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