July 10th marked the ten-year anniversary since my eldest brother committed suicide. In some ways it seems so fresh, yet in others it feels like a lifetime ago.
My family marked the anniversary as we usually do, by getting out of town and gathering at the beach, where many of us feel at peace, and I suppose closer to him. Really, in many ways, it is just a day.
My parents’ grief is obviously not confined to just one day, as it has now become just a part of their life, of them as a whole. To me, it is particularly important to honour him on this day, to take time out of my too busy life to think about him and what he means to me. I suppose that is why I am writing this blog.
When I tell people I lost a brother, I don’t always tell them it was to suicide. This is in part because it elicits a certain response. I think it might be pity with a hint of judgment overruled by a curiousity they are struggling to contain, but I can’t be certain. Mostly I don’t tell people because it makes them feel uncomfortable and I end up feeling like I need to console them, to show them I am okay, that it’s okay and my life has gone on.
It is this need that kept me from ever properly grieving his death. Often when I tell people, it requires a back story, because no one just dies from suicide like they do from say a heart attack. It is generally a long, painful death leading up to their actual physical death, and no one really wants to talk about that.
"no one wants to talk about HIV/AIDS. And so those who love them are similarly silenced."
And that is precisely the problem. No one really wants to talk about mental health, so people suffer in silence. Alone. Just like no one wants to talk about HIV/AIDS. And so those who love them are similarly silenced. They are robbed of their grief when they lose them, because that loss is somehow tainted by shame, even if they don’t believe it, don’t subscribe to the school of thought themselves, it is still there.
I never felt like I could talk about my brother’s illness with people when he was alive because of stigma. I never felt like I could call in sick to work because he had attempted suicide the night before or because I was too exhausted from staying up all night talking to him, hearing his fears, crying with him, trying to calm his anger, even when he had every right to be angry. I couldn’t properly explain to friends his sadness that weighed heavy on me, even at times when I should be happy.
I often wondered if I could talk openly about his suffering if he was suffering from something like cancer. It’s sad that it was not until he died that I could really begin having conversations about mental health. Though even those are too few.
Now that I work in an ASO, the similarities between HIV/AIDS and mental health sometimes seem uncanny, though certainly not coincidental. Besides the fact that they are often closely tied together, the way we experience them both individually and societally are so similar; the shame, the stigma, the silence. I don’t care what anyone says, there is a hierarchy to illness when it comes to sympathy and those illnesses which we cannot understand, which we cannot see, which we believe to be the fault of the people living with them, fall very low on that scale. And sympathy, or rather empathy, translates into priority in our healthcare system.
Of course we have a somewhat extensive mental health care system in place, but it is seriously, seriously flawed. Trying to navigate that system when you are battling mental illness is next to impossible. Truthfully it is next to impossible even when you aren’t battling it; the hoops, the waitlists, the lack of resources, the burnout and lack of empathy among many of the people who work it in (there are many amazing people in it as well).
I watched my incredibly intelligent and well-spoken mother try to navigate that system with such urgency and desperation, you would have thought surely it could have saved my brother. Clearly it did not. I have watched others try on their own or on someone else’s behalf. I too have tried on behalf of other loved ones; there is rarely a success story.
But I am not writing this to trash the mental health care system, as there are many parts of it and many in it who helped keep my brother and other loved ones here just a bit longer, so we could make a few more good memories to help offset the difficult ones. I am writing this to pay tribute to my brother.
"In some ways, I think Morgan is the reason I ended up in this kind of work."
There is not enough time or blank paper to adequately describe him; to do justice to the man that he was and the man he wanted to be. This is something I often struggle with when trying to describe him to new and important people who enter my life. I simply can’t. This is something the people lined up at his funeral, who loved him, who came to his memorials years after his death, who continue to visit my parents, who created a group in his memory, have struggled with too. Despite the risk of sounding cliché and cheesy, it is hard to describe greatness. His incredible intelligence, passion, intensity, appreciation, and kindness are really too great to describe. As is his pain, his darkness, his anger and desperation. So I won’t try.
In some ways, I think Morgan is the reason I ended up in this kind of work. Though my parents laid the foundation, he really taught me the true meaning of empathy, which I suppose is pretty ironic considering the lack of it in this world lead to his demise. Despite his battle with depression, he was always able to see the good in people and in many ways helped them to see the good in themselves. He hung around with all kinds of different people: rich, poor, old, young. Whether they were struggling with addictions or had found God, Morgan had time for them - real time, for real conversations, to learn from and to teach. I think this is what struck me most about the many letters we received about Morgan after his death - everyone who had shared a moment with him had felt listened to, inspired, and special.
I’m not saying he was perfect, far from it, but he was really able to understand without judgment the humanity behind our actions. Everyone had a story to tell and everyone deserved to tell it and be heard. Through this he taught me that we are all just products of our environment, that we are all inherently good and deserve the same rights, and to really listen and understand where someone is coming from before you judge them.
Though I knew I could never go into mental health care directly, as it was too close to home, it seemed appropriate that I get into a field that acknowledges the social determinants of health, and work with people who experience stigma in a similar way, for an organization that works to reduce harm because we believe people who use drugs are people who deserve the same rights as everyone else. This is where my heart is.
Though I cannot change the past, I hope I can take what Morgan has taught me and contribute to changing the future to a world where we are all just a little more empathetic, a world which Morgan would have wanted to live in.