Don't Ask Me How My Sister Died

Ask me instead how I feel inside.
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When Summer died the first words people spoke were: “How did she die?” They wanted me, her sister, to tell them details of a death that wasn’t mine. Since she was dead I couldn’t ask her how she died. I didn’t and still don’t know how to answer this question. Why do the living ask how someone died?

Perhaps I should answer it with a question, “Why do you want to know how she died?” “Will something change for you if I tell you she was dismembered, a torso ripped off from an oncoming truck, a foot two feet away from her heart, or that she choked on a piece of popcorn, or she had a tumor the size of a grapefruit, or that she was shot in the mall, or that she took all her prescribed medication and died from a fatal overdose?”

“Which version of her death changes the fact that she's dead? Which version are you most comfortable with?”

Which version of her death changes the fact that she’s dead? Which version are you most comfortable Which version of her death changes the fact that she’s dead? Which version are you most comfortable with?ith? I’m not comfortable with any of them but I’m especially not comfortable with the one I inevitably say, “She died from suicide” as I back pedal away from the solemn granite face of the curious person who has no more questions, and no more words for me.

What is suicide? By definition it is the act or instance of taking one’s life voluntarily and intentionally. Can an overdose of prescribed medication by someone suffering from mental instability be truly considered intentional death, or could it be considered an accident, or malpractice, or a symptom of a deadly disease, or fate, or god’s grace?

If I had decided not to let my sister sleep in that morning and called earlier we would have had coffee and she wouldn’t be dead that day, am I an accessory to murder? If her boyfriend had not gone to work, if she felt she could have spoken freely with her doctor about how she was feeling, if she hadn’t been prescribed narcotics, if she hadn’t inherited bipolar disorder she wouldn’t have died that day. They say she committed suicide. I say she died from slow poisoning.

It doesn’t matter to her what we call it; it matters to us, to me, the living. It matters because suicide is treated as a sin and a shame. It’s spoken of as cowardly and as selfish by the righteous. No one is supposed to want to die, despite my friend saying “I’m so bored I want to slit my wrists” which is no longer ever funny sounding.

It’s amazing how slapstick suicide is. I hear 7-year-olds saying things like “He should just kill himself” when referring to a bad ball player, or when my son’s school musical performs and Fiona the princess in Shrek shrieks out in bad second grade soprano

“She wishes she were dead

Skip ahead skip ahead

But I know he’ll appear

Though I seem a bit bipolar”

Such a not so funny song. What’s funny about suicide is that it’s heroic for cancer patients or kamikazes but a sin for sufferers of mental affliction. What’s funny about suicide is the responsibility being handed to the survivors who were just going about their normal day brushing teeth and eating cereal. What’s funny about suicide is it doesn’t end up in obituaries. What’s funny about suicide is no one talks about it.

“What I want to prevent is the polarizing critical judgement directed towards suicide victims and survivors.”

I don’t believe in suicide as it’s defined. I believe it’s a prayer heard, a knock on heaven’s gate and a request to go home. I cannot walk in suicide prevention parades because that’s not what I want to prevent. What I want to prevent is the polarizing critical judgement directed towards suicide victims and survivors. I want to end what feels like ethical condemnation when instead there should be empathic compassion.

Don’t ask me how my sister died, ask me instead how I feel inside.

This essay was recently read live along with the stories of five female authors and suicide survivors at Instar Lodge, in Germantown, NY as part of the National Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. The event was recorded live and can be heard on the Instar Lodge website. The stories were written together in a writing workshop organized by Maureen Cummins and Denise Ranaghan and led be Beverly Donofrio. The workshop was specifically for suicide survivors and made possible with sponsorship by MHA’s Wellness Service Program in Ulster County, NY.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grievedifferently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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