As Suicide awareness month comes to an end my intention was to write about what happened, especially about that time leading up to my brothers suicide.
As it turns out, it is still hard to talk about. The reasons are traumatic and complicated.
Everyone says to be available, reach out, check on people, talk to them, try to get them to get help. Sometimes I feel angry when I hear that stuff. None of that worked with my brother. People “reaching out” or checking on him would have annoyed him.
I and other family members tried to get him to go to counseling, and as things got worse, to consider checking himself in somewhere because we knew he was seriously depressed, that he was in an emotionally and financially abusive relationship with his girlfriend of that time, and that he wasn’t acting like himself. We knew things were difficult at work. He seemed paranoid, angry, agitated and unbearably anxious every day. Some of his ideas about how to fix his situation at work sounded grandiose and like more than a long shot. I asked what people at work thought about these ideas. He said, “They don’t believe me.” I worried about all of this every day. We all did.
One family member was over one day when my brother started yelling at me about something no reasonable person would have even thought was something to get mad about. The family member then took me out on the porch and said, “He sounds like a lunatic!” I was exasperated. “I KNOW!”
He never used to yell at me before all this. Never.
He seemed not to know my character anymore at times- the one person who had always understood me. He called me judgmental, insensitive. I didn’t even fight back which is not normal for me. I think I was too stunned to do so. I am not sure. I stopped telling my friends what was going on, or at least the extent of it. They have known me forever so they knew anyway.
I may have thought I was being loyal or honorable or keeping things quiet but we must have seemed more crazy to the outside world than we thought. One family member who didn’t live there said it was a house of cards. Another quipped that the house must have been built on an old Indian burial ground and was cursed.
One morning I awoke to my brothers’ alarm endlessly going off. I was scared he would be late for work so I ran up the stairs as fast as I could to wake him up. I turned off the alarm and shook the lump under the comforter. A large,strange man turned over. I had no idea who he was. My daughter was sleeping downstairs. Where was my brother? The stranger shook himself awake and said he was my brother’s girl friends’ cousin.
My brother was asleep in his “man cave.” I was very upset. How could he leave us in the house with some strange man he hardly knew? He thought I was over reacting. I thought, “Am I? Am I being crazy?”
Things would be normal between us for a while as if we were in the eye of a hurricane. He hugged me one day and said he was so sorry about how he had acted in hurting my feelings the day before. “I can’t stand to hurt your little feelings.” He said, “When I hurt you I hurt me.” Or he would send me an e-mail from work saying he was sorry we hadn’t spent more time together lately and why didn’t we go on a four wheeler ride this evening when we got home.
We did go on the four wheeler ride, laughing all the time. He kept flipping off deer. I said, “Why do you keep doing that?” He said, “Because it’s so inherently WRONG! Here are these beautiful. graceful, innocent creatures who look up at you…. and you flip them off! ha ha ha ha.” I laughed too. He was so weird and I loved it.
Then a few nights later he would be yelling saying he had asked for family support and we had said no. Which was not true. I was doing everything I could think of to be supportive. I had stopped asking questions. Ever. It seemed to upset him. Even, “Where’s the cat food.” I tried to listen and be available before and after work, to hang out with him in the evenings, to listen and be supportive.
Other family members were also trying very hard. One of them was meeting my brother for lunch every day and spending time with him each evening trying to help him get through his hard time.
My youngest daughter and I lived with him for ten months after I sold my house. He had plans for building me a new one on his land with the proceeds. I would live with him until it was ready. We were so excited. I was excited to be with my brother. I tried to be excited about the house too because he was always getting me to look at plans. He even drew a picture of my cat, Godith in the house so I would be more interested. (Clever!) He dreamed of building me a little tower to meditate in, with windows all around. He drew a place for me to sit with my friends, a special window that would look into my chicken coop.
Something went wrong after about three months. I don’t know what had changed. Nothing happened with the house and his attitude got darker and bleaker.
Sometimes he talked to me about problems at work. Some of it started to sound strange. I wondered what was really going on. I asked hesitant questions. That never went well. No questions did at that time.
Guns started showing up all over the house. I don’t know much about guns but I could tell they were big, automatic weapons. They looked like space telescopes. We were stepping over them. They were in the closet and under the bed.
I tried to ask about the guns but he wouldn’t talk to me about it. Or anything,really.
I asked a family member to come get the guns away, someone I thought he would let do it. He said he was working on it. Apparently it was a touchy subject for my brother with the rest of the family too.
We were not allowed to act worried. We were not supposed to notice how crazy things seemed.
It was very strange about the guns. I don’t know why he was doing that. He had always been obsessed with something. Making home made rockets. Chess. Building beautiful speakers. He would do that thing all the time and get everyone else into it. Then he would drop it and move on to the next thing. I thought maybe moving out into the country had gotten him interested in guns. Maybe it was a neighbor that got him into it. I hate guns. I didn’t like it at all. But it was his house, as he was quick to point out those days.
He became hyper critical of me and my daughters. He had never been that way.
He was mean to my daughter and seemed to pick on her all the time. He rebuffed my attempts to stop his griping at her. She said I was just making it worse. She and I talked about it in our room at night. We would just leave the scene, we decided, when he got like that.
At some point he stopped answering my texts and e-mails. I just sent them anyway. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t just let him go without a peep.
He liked Buddha quotes so I started e-mailing him Buddha quotes every day. He said he appreciated them one time and that he often passed them on.
I prayed for him every day in an agonized way, walking with my rosary. I wondered how I could be a good sister in this situation.
Sometimes I got so worried about him I had panic attacks.
I was severely depressed myself at the time, and so was my daughter. We had lost my second husband to brain cancer three years before. Bob had also been my brother’s best friend and co-worker for 24 years. And we lost my mom six months later. She was only 63. Nobody had really recovered from that. And my brother seemed to be going under.
I used to ask him, “How was work?” when he got home, or “How was your day?” One day he said, “Don’t ask me that anymore.” So I started meeting him at the door with a glass of iced tea. “Here.” “Thanks.” “Hey look at you! You made it through the day!”
On Holy Thursday at my own house, the girls and I always washed each others’ feet. My eldest had moved to Oregon and my youngest was out that evening. I knew he wouldn’t want to do anything like that so I just stopped him in the kitchen and told him how much we all loved and appreciated him. I had a bowl of soapy water and I bent and washed his feet. “What are you doing?!”
“That made me feel really good. That was cool.” He mentioned somebody at work who was fighting cancer and that I should go and do that for her.
He started disappearing for days at a time, usually the weekends, and refusing to answer his phone. It was frightening. Sometimes I was so scared I searched his room for clues about where he might be. (Did he take his suit case? Was his toothbrush there?) I was getting a little crazy myself. Sometimes my daughter and I,along with other family members, were super angry when he got back. We asked what the hell was going on. We had been worried and so was everyone else. He was offended. He felt intruded on. He thought he should not have to answer to us and we were over reacting.
I was scared he was drinking.(He had been in recovery.) I was scared that his girlfriend would kill him one day. He moved her into the house with us and I could hear her angry screaming at him at night and what sounded like furniture being thrown around. He never said anything back.
I wanted to beat her up like I had beat up his bullies when we were kids or at least confront her but someone pointed out she had scary friends and that might not be a good idea for our family for me to do anything stupid or confront her. (One of her cousins had threatened someone working on the house, saying he was calling his gang members right then and that he would kill the man.)
I thought I should get my daughter out of there. I thought, “I should have done that months ago.” She ran away twice while we were there. It was scary and painful but I tell her now that I don’t blame her for it. The emotional climate of that house was not safe for her. I should never have stayed so long.
By this time we were locked out of the main part of the house all the time. I was able to cook for us but I had to wash dishes outside with the hose. My brother hardly ever spoke to me. He seemed brooding and angry, agitated, and not like himself.
He yelled at me because he could tell I was upset about his girlfriend though I was always polite to her. I was incredulous.
It seemed like I couldn’t do anything right.
Then some mornings he would gently wake me up, having gone and gotten me a special coffee, and invited me to come have coffee with him like when things had been normal. He would smoke and we drank our coffee like things were OK. I hugged him goodbye and after he went to work, I did too. Life seemed almost OK.
One evening I went to check on him upstairs in the loft. I told him he was looking a little better. He said that someone else had told him that that day too. He said he was trying to do some self care stuff and get into a routine again. He had gotten some movies to watch. He said maybe he was feeling a little better. He just didn’t have a sense of well being yet. He was going to up his medication he said. I was worried. “Does your doctor know you are doing that?” He didn’t answer me. Oh yeah, no questions.
He told me he was scared about what might be wrong with him. I remember the frightened look he gave me when he said that maybe he was mentally ill. This is when I dropped a very important ball he had thrown me but I didn’t know it. I did what I always did, I tried to reassure him, saying, “You’re not mentally ill! you’ve just been really really depressed and upset about a lot of things. But you’re not crazy. You’re going to be OK.”
He said, “I hope so, Shawn.” I said that I believed he was digging out of it little by little.
I am not sure if anything would be different if I had asked him more about why he thought he might be mentally ill, and what he was scared of about that. I don’t know. That was the last one on one conversation we ever had. I will never know if I should have handled it differently.
I often think, “He would have never let this happen to me.” Had our roles been switched he would have been intrusive and controlling. He would have insisted. He wouldn’t have worried what the rules were or what anybody else thought. He would have tied me to a chair if he had to.
I suppose in my defense I could say I didn’t understand. I was following my own role of being nurturing, being his defender, the person who believed in him. I had utter faith that whatever bizarre thing was going on with our relationship, it would never stand. He would come around. Things would straighten out like they always did, no matter what. I knew how necessary I was to him, and he was to me. I had complete faith in him. It was the wrong thing to do. But I didn’t know that then. If I had it to do over, I would have been mean and pushy instead. I would have hidden his car keys, taken the guns to the city dump, refused to cooperate with anything until he got the help I knew he needed. I respected him too much. More than he actually needed me to. Never do that if you know someone is in trouble. Then again, if someone is in this much trouble you may have slid down into the pit right along with them. I think this was the case. Looking back on it I don’t understand why I put up with any of what was going on at all. But that’s how it is. Everyone falls into their roles. And things get worse and worse before you realize.
He was almost never home. My seventeen year old was staying away as much as possible, always with friends. I didn’t blame her.
I had just started dating a kind, interesting (and cute!) man from Austin. We talked on the phone about every day and he was a nice break in all the chaos I was going through. Somehow we managed to fall in love in the middle of all this.
He was worried about me in this situation and he didn’t even know the half of it.
At confession, rather late in the game, I talked to a priest about the situation. I didn’t tell him much, only a few things. He asked if I had the money to support myself and my daughter on my own. I said I did and he said he would have told me to get my kid and myself out of there right away even if I hadn’t had the money. I promised him I would.
I felt guilty about leaving. I don’t know why because my brother didn’t seem to like having us around very much in those days. But I knew it made more sense for us to leave temporarily.
I started looking around for a place to live at least until my house was ready. I had lived there at my brother’s for ten months. My youngest was seventeen. This was an important year for her and me.Maybe this last year we knew we would be together we should get our own place in our old neighborhood near her friends again.
I found a place to go and quietly started making arrangements, not knowing what I would say to him about it with him seeming to be so fragile. I heard he had found out about it so I sent him an e-mail about what I was trying to do, that I would only be 15 minutes away, and maybe everyone would get along better like this until my house was ready. Maybe he could stop by on his way home from work like he always used to do.
But when I went to get money out of the bank, the account where the proceeds of my house was, in order to get deposits and other moving expenses taken care of, I discovered my account was nearly empty. To this day I don’t know what happened to it.
I don’t know if his girl friend or one of her scary friends or my brother did it. I had him on my account so he could get building materials and so on.
My eldest daughter had entrusted my brother with some money from a settlement she had from the death of her father when she was little. I called her and got her to check her account too. She only had $1000 left. We decided to close both accounts right away. We could not get much information about what had happened. There were extra accounts started in our names that we had not known about. Money had been moved between them over and over. It didn’t make any sense.
I didn’t even want to bring it up to my brother because I knew he was in such bad shape. So I didn’t. I was scared so I called a family member. This was so wildly out of character for my brother to do this or to have allowed someone else to. Doing anything that would harm me this much was so not him I was scared for him.
I was in shock. I went to stay with a friend until I could get a grip.
The family member I had told about the money tried to talk with my brother, but couldn’t get much out of him about the what had happened. I was surprised they talked about it. My instinct was to protect him for now until he was better. I wrote him an e-mail that I was OK and what I cared about was him getting better. We would work it out like we always worked out everything when the time was right. I told him I was just freaked out and would be staying with my friend for a few days. He didn’t answer but at that point he never did anymore.
A family member set up a meeting so we could talk about the whole thing, but texted me at the last minute to say he thought maybe it was not a good idea just yet.
The last time I saw my brother, I and my boyfriend were stopping by my dad’s house to drop something off. I don’t remember what it was.
I was surprised to see my brother there. They had been having dinner and he looked up, surprised to see me too. I knew he knew that I knew about the money so I was relieved when I saw him smile. I went over to him and hugged him, pressing his fuzzy little head to my shoulder, mussing his hair. He hugged me back.
He got up and shook my boyfriends’ hand in a kind purposeful way. When we left I said he had looked ill, but that he had looked better to me. My boyfriend remarked that he had looked very young, like a little boy having dinner with his parents.
Everyone was worried about him so he was staying with a family member while he tried to get better. One day he told that family member that he was going to take a little vacation time and just go somewhere, and that he would be back Friday.
He told one person he was going to Austin. He told another person he was going to Houston. Then he disappeared. We weren’t all that worried because he had been doing that from time to time, a few days here, a few days there. I reassured my family member. “He’s been doing this for a while. He’ll be back.”
I had said that I hoped he didn’t lose his job. The family member said, “I just hope he’s still alive.” I thought that was crazy. Why wouldn’t he be alive?
I was well trained not to question his actions anymore, not to express alarm, and to think everything might be a little crazy, but that it wasn’t THAT crazy.
But things were seriously wrong, and they had been getting more and more and more wrong.
The worried family member talked to my brother who said he was fine and would be home late Friday.
My thoughts were that he was at his bottom and would come up from here. When I got a message from somebody at his work asking if he was safe, if he was with me, I had replied that he had been OK the day before and we expected him home Friday. Then I got another message like that from another of his colleagues.
Then I got a message from a family member who was on a trip to Florida that Mark had sounded really weird the night before, sending texts that sounded like goodbye. Time to worry.
He wouldn’t answer his phone, would not answer texts. I called another family member. We decided to call the police.
I texted and called over and over, even sending the number of a suicide hotline in case he would rather not talk to us. I hoped it was all overkill that he would gripe at us about later. It did not seem real.
Later I got a text from a family member: “Just received Mark’s suicide e-mail.”
I rushed to be with family. When I got there I started to read the suicide e-mail. It was addressed to two other family members and said they were the only people in the world who loved him. I remarked, “There must be another one for me,” and asked if I could check my own e-mail. There was nothing. So I scanned the only letter, which began, “By the time you read this I will be dead.”
I was in shock, as you can imagine. We all were. He only mentioned me twice in the letter, and my children not at all. What he did say about me was that he didn’t know what to say about me and that I would “make up [my] own s*** anyway.” And he said I would be “OK… in every way.”
Then he gushed about the two family members to whom his letter was addressed, asked that they one of them take care of the other one, asked that they be kind to his girl friend, and gave unrealistic financial advice about selling his house and car in order to take care of the one of them who was financially challenged.
He said he knew people who were suicidal always say this but he didn’t see any other way out.
He said he couldn’t believe he was doing this but he was doing it.
As the police were doing whatever they were doing, we were desperately texting him. I begged him not to do this. I reminded him the kids had already lost two fathers. I said I didn’t care about the money and that we always had each other no matter what, that it may seem hopeless but there was a way through.
The others were doing the same. One of us said, “it says the message was delivered. Maybe he’s still alive!” We didn’t know where he was. I had no idea I had been in the building next door to where he was when I got the text about the suicide letter.
At some point I felt unwanted for some reason. One family member did tell me this was not my fault, and that the letter had been cruel. I will always be grateful for her kind words and her hug.
I went to my friends’ house where I had been staying. My other friends began to show up to wait with me.
I sent one of my daughter’s friends to pick her up from her boyfriends’ house but to my surprise she refused to get in the car. She seemed to think I was going to give her a talk or something and she wouldn’t come home. I had to let her be.
At about 9pm I got a call from a family member that said the police had just been there to notify them that they had found my brother. He had been at a hotel in town and he had shot himself. He was dead.
My friends drove me to go tell my daughter before she saw it on the news or something. She was sitting on the porch when we got there. Someone had already told her. She said, “Mom, it’s not your fault.”
When I called my eldest daughter she was hysterical at the news. Her husband cried too. She had just gotten home a day or so before from visiting us but she got in her car and headed back to Texas pretty much right away. She called several times along the way crying.
Not me. I didn’t cry. I don’t remember crying.
Everyone seemed relieved when my boyfriend got there from Austin. I remember putting my head on his chest in my friend’s kitchen.
Another friend had been cooking mushroom curry. I had love and support.
Friends continued to arrive. Some even came from far away to sit with me, old friends. People from work came by.
My closest friends and my youngest daughter came one night to pray the rosary for my brother. I remember my friends in a circle on the living room floor, candles burning, rosaries in hand. We prayed and cried and hugged each other sometimes. We talked. We remembered.
A dear friend who is a deacon came over too. He even talked to my other daughter over the phone. The girls wanted to know what happened to his soul. Our Deacon said that the Church commends such souls to God’s holy mercy.
One family member came over and cried in my arms asking how I could over forgive them. I didn’t know why. Why that question? Forgive what?
They said if that was them in that letter, if our places were reversed, “I would want to die.”
“Well I do,” I said. “But that’s not your fault.”
They said they would do whatever they had to to get my money back for me. Which seemed a strange far away concern to me.
People tell me I often acted like I was OK, that I laughed and joked around some. Other times I seemed so far away my friends thought, “Our friend is just gone.”
Time passed. I don’t remember much about those dark days that stretched into months and years.
I was like someone who had just come back from war. I was shell shocked a lot of the time. I had nightmares if I slept at all. I yelled at people over nothing. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Everything triggered me. I wondered if this was how my brother felt. People were there caring about me but I didn’t feel their love. I felt unwanted. In some cases this was true, to my dismay. But most of the time it wasn’t.
My friends had been through so much with me, other tragedies included.
This one, I reflected, was the one that broke me.
My boyfriend would drive me to Austin because he had to work and he was afraid for me to be alone. I used to sit in the lobby at his work staring at the covers of magazines.
He drove me back. I only remember that it was dark.
I got an apartment. I sat there alone with my books and my daughter’s little dog, Flower.
I didn’t understand anything.
I couldn’t get the information I thought would make this make sense. Nobody would talk to me about it who might know. I was scared anyway that I would find something out that would hurt me more.
I couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t stand any more pain.
People seemed so far away and the world didn’t seem real to me.
Maybe that’s how my brother felt.
Maybe that’s what he thought about on that hotel balcony.
A few years later I finally thought of talking to the hotel manager. He told me my brother had been there a week. He had seemed fine. He had spoken to him. He had sat by the pool with his coffee and cigarettes working on his lap top.
Then on the Friday, August 21st at about 3 O’clock or so he had parked his car beside an obscure emergency exit, taken a gun out of his trunk, climbed nine flights to a tiny balcony overlooking the pool and patio, sat on the rail, and publicly shot himself. Someone at the pool had called 911. The police had told the hotel manager that he had probably done it this way to ensure that if the gun shot didn’t kill him the fall would.
I never saw his body. The police report is sealed (I don’t know why.) The police said they would talk to me and then wouldn’t. I cannot see the autopsy report. I don’t know what kind of gun it was. I don’t know what was on his phone besides our desperate messages. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why he seemed to be angry with me when he died.
All of my reading of public documents and trying to talk to people helped me feel less helpless for a little while.
I went to the hotel. I walked the way he had taken. I went up the stairs. I sat on the balcony for an hour. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t know what I was feeling. I didn’t cry until I left.
What was I looking for? What was I doing?
Maybe I was trying to find my brother.
I never did.
Shawn will be OK… in every way.”
He was wrong. I’m not OK.