My 20-Year-Old Brother Died By Suicide. Here's Why I Almost Joined Him.

"A fellow survivor of suicide loss who’d attended Joe’s funeral said we had an increased risk of dying by suicide."
the author and her brother, Joe
the author and her brother, Joe
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Cooper Ellison

A few hours after my brother Joe’s funeral, I noticed my father had shrunk. We sat together on my grandparents’ couch — him in his special occasion suit and a rumpled tie, me in black pants and a white sweater. As a kid, I’d seen him as the giant who palmed basketballs and touched our ceiling with ease. Now, it was as if he’d lopped off a piece of himself and buried it with his son.

Later that day, my mother collapsed and cried, “My son, my son.” She clawed the air my brother had recently occupied, her fetal ball so tight she looked like a child.

My brother’s suicide was the lead headline in our hometown newspaper. He’d died at 20 in the middle of a mental health crisis. Over the past two days, we’d screamed, why? And, how could this happen? And, this can’t be real! Riddled with shock, we sat in the dark and declined food, as if missing meals and ignoring sunsets would bring Joe back to us.

Over the next two weeks, I searched my parents’ eyes for the spark of life they’d once emitted. But they’d permanently dimmed. Mom cried that losing anything else would kill her. Dad told me to remember Joe the way he was.

At 22, I nodded and looked away, not yet aware that an equally crushed part of me mourned not just for my brother, but for part of my parents I’d also lost. Even if I’d known, that grief would’ve felt unjustified.

I’d been told the death of a child was the worst possible loss. In the sport of grief, it was an automatic Olympic qualifier. My only biological sibling was Joe’s twin. Sharing a womb certainly trumped my pain. Then there was my father and stepfather, who’d identified my brother’s body, and my stepsister, who was too young to understand this heartbreak.

I wanted to end their pain, but mine felt so deserved. Sure, at 10 I’d looked after my brothers during my parents’ chaotic and bitter divorce — cooking dinners, rousing them for school, comforting their broken hearts with heavy metal tunes — but I was also the one who’d moved 600 miles away a few days after my high school graduation, vowing never to return.

Every cell in my body knew I should’ve been there.

I should’ve recognized the signs.

I should’ve stopped this from happening

But I didn’t.

And maybe my negligence had killed him.

I desperately wanted to fix this situation, which we’d been told could only get worse. A fellow survivor of suicide loss who’d attended Joe’s funeral said we had an increased risk of dying by suicide. She’d seen it on a pamphlet given out by a local grief support group. It was proof our family could produce more tragic headlines and statistics.

Three weeks after my brother’s death, Mom requested a family meeting.

“Promise me you won’t take any more risks,” she said, her eyes darting between me and my brother. Two years before Joe’s death, I’d started skydiving. At first, I’d hoped to prove I was as cool as my husband’s heavy metal bandmates. Soon the sky was my refuge. In the air, peace replaced my painful memories, leaving me feeling completely whole. Fearing I’d kill my mother, I begrudgingly agreed to quit skydiving.

At the time, my husband’s band was touring Europe. Fearing what might happen if I lost him too, I joined his tour. Every day, I tried to live, not because I wanted to, but because our family was gearing up for another loss.

Six months after my brother’s death, metastatic colon cancer claimed my grandfather. When I’d visited him during the Thanksgiving before Joe’s suicide, it seemed like he might rally. But seeing my brother’s casket had taken away his fight.

Half orphaned and more broken, my mother seemed smaller still.

What if she stopped fighting too?

The day we buried my grandfather, I decided I would live not just my life, but also Joe’s.

Maybe if I was good enough, hardworking enough, and smart enough, people would see us as more than headlines and statistics. Maybe they’d focus on our healing and not what had happened to my brother. Maybe this would resurrect my parents so they could care for me and not the other way around.

Three weeks before my grandfather’s death, I’d registered for 15 credit hours at the university I’d dropped out of after my freshman year. To fund my education, I maxed my student loans and worked 32 hours per week at a marketing firm during semesters and 50 during breaks. I spent the rest of my time studying. Now that I lived two lives, nothing but 4.0s would do.

My skin goose pimpled when hearing the lilt in my parents’ voices anytime I said things like I’m going back to college for Joe, or we made the dean’s list. In those moments, it was as if for a nanosecond, they believed my brother was still with us.

By my senior year, I’d been inducted in two honor societies, received two full scholarships, and qualified to graduate summa cum laude. While the school only allowed me to keep one, the scholarships felt like proof I really was living for both of us.

The additional funding meant I could take on an easier campus position. Not knowing what to do with my free time, I filled it on behalf of Joe. Full course load. Computer lab technician. Campus newspaper reporter. Suicide prevention hotline operator.

Life seemed so good.

Until it wasn’t.

Two weeks into my senior year, I started thinking about angles — specifically, the angles on the ramp I planned to build so I could drive my car off the university’s parking garage.

Over the past two years, overwork had successfully suppressed my grief. That day, I experienced an odd fatigue as I measured and considered speeds, but I wasn’t sad. I didn’t feel like a burden or trapped. I had no idea I was planning to die. Besides, why would I want to? My life was supposedly perfect — perfect school record, perfect number of jobs, a life that was perfectly numb.

The day I recognized what was happening, I stood on the top parking deck and thought about all my promises to live. I’d always believed these contracts contained an out clause I could easily invoke. But now I lived two lives. Ending mine would kill Joe a second time. What would that do to my parents?

Two days later, I made an appointment at the university’s counseling center. Before crossing the threshold, I said a quick prayer: Please give this person the tools to save me from myself. If she didn’t have them, I already knew the outcome.

After what felt like hours, a pert blond with a pixie cut and flower-print jumper called me to her office. She was just a few years older than me. Over the next 30 minutes, she asked a series of questions in her twangy southern drawl. When I told her about my brother and the parking garage, she swallowed hard.

“Do you have any experience dealing with suicide?” I asked. “Have you ever been in a place where you felt like you had nothing left to lose?” My throat clenched around the word lose.

She set her file aside, then sat next to me. We stayed like that until time was up. She was only supposed to see me for seven sessions but treated me for the next two years. In them, I unraveled the stories I’d been telling myself.

For years I’d believed there was a hierarchy of grief. As the daughter who’d left, the sister who’d missed the signs, and the child who couldn’t put her parents back together again, I believed my pain belonged on the bottom rung.

Eventually, I learned grief isn’t a competition. The only hurt we can really know is our own. It’s also the only one we can tend to. As much as I wanted to end my parents’ pain, I couldn’t.

A few weeks before what would’ve been Joe’s 45th birthday, I once again sat next to my father. It was the first time we’d seen each other since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Twenty-four years after Joe’s death, I could see how this loss continued to whittle him down. A small part of me still grieves the daddy I lost, yet as I held his hand, I reminded myself that I am enough. That we are enough. That our shared grief is what matters. And while we can’t walk each other’s journeys, we don’t have to grieve alone.

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If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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