18 years ago my brother's struggle ended and my life changed forever. Lee was someone who seemed so full of life and yet never quite understood where he fitted in to the narrative of it all.
It still seems surreal to me, even now, being sat down in my mother's lounge and informed that he had taken his own life. That whole period between knowing he was gone and laying him to rest, remains still, a jumble of images and feelings in my head that I can't quite put together, like shards of glass that slice away at me whenever I try.
Being Left Behind
Living with death of a loved one who could no longer take life anymore, who was just too tired with the everyday battle that was life for them, is a very personal one and is different for everyone.
Over the years, I have made a point of bringing Lee and his passing into conversations, sometimes none too gracefully in the early days, so as to show the world that it's nothing to be ashamed of. What I found, to my disbelief and sadness, was that my story was not as unique as I first thought. Many of our friends, family and acquaintances have felt that the burden of living was too much to bear.
What I did learn is that it is dealt with differently by everyone and that, day to day, year upon year, there are great shifts of emotion, finally coming to the realisation that there is no right or wrong way mourn and move forward.
The one over-riding feeling I encountered, both in myself and others, who had suffered this tragedy, is guilt. It comes in the form of a huge tidal wave that threatens to drown you in its unrelenting torment. Even 18 years later I still have times when I can feel it coming and have to use all my love for him as the only barrier that keeps it from engulfing me. Most of the time it's there in the background, like damp soaking into my soul. It's a feeling that is never far away but one that doesn't do anyone any good. I cope by putting it away in its box and only let myself feel it's barbarous stings when I just can't keep that box shut any longer. That way I can move forward with my life as he would want me to.
For those who cling to that eternal question that hangs there in the air, spoken, unspoken, screamed even - WHY? - you need to stop tormenting yourself with it, eventually. In the early days, I was consumed with it, engulfed with it, weighed down with it. Like Marley's chains, it is a punishment, a punishment that you inflict upon yourself. Even if you had your loved one standing in front of you and you could ask them, I doubt they could put it down to one thing, one issue or one moment that defined their decision. For it was as far from a decision as you can get. There was no rationale behind it, no choice at all, just a need to make the feeling of not feeling or feeling too much stop. Instead I focus on his smile, his obsession with his hair or the fact that he would cook and eat copious amounts of burgers for lunch. Anything that brings him into focus, leaving his death as a footnote in my memory.
Even now there are times when I feel angry with him, for missing important events, for leaving me behind to deal with stuff on my own, for cutting the ties of our beautiful relationship. There was a time when I felt guilty about the anger, now I realise that it's, dare I say it, normal. I try to rationalise it that, if he were still with me, I would probably have gotten angry with him far more often.
I personally prefer the term moving forward. It implies the need to put one foot in front of the other and keep on keeping on.
Moving forward after suicide is a minefield, or was in my case, as I felt not only my pain and his but also I felt a duty to his memory, to defend his passing to those who had strong opinions about suicide.
Initially I was waiting for the comments about attention seeking, cowards, easy way out or even that my brother was going to hell (even though my beliefs don't include that particular concept). I was on guard, ready to attack ,albeit verbally, anyone who had the audacity or ignorance to share their opinions with me.
Looking back my 21 year old self I can smile at, what I thought was, my fearless defence of my brother. My 39 year old self now knows that I don't need to engage with those individuals, in order to prove my love for him. My 39 year old self now knows that you don't come across that type of unempathetic person if you don't surround yourself with them. I can also understand that those individuals have their own issues that they are dealing with, their own set of beliefs, that come from a place that I don't know about. Who am I to judge?
All I can do is focus on who my brother was and is to me, for each relationship you have is like a snowflake that cannot be replicated. The way he died is a very small part of who he is and I choose to define who he was by his life and not by how he died.
No matter how we manage the process of moving forward after such a loss, as long as we continue to put one foot in front of the other, at least we are going in the right direction.