"Your brother tried to hang himself this morning. I don't know why, but he's being rushed to the hospital. I think he's going to die," my mother said. I pulled the phone closer to my ear to avoid anyone hearing at work. "Wait, what are you talking about?" I said, "I'm sure he'll be okay. Do you know his condition?" "He wasn't breathing when the paramedics arrived and they're trying to resuscitate him," she anxiously replied. "It's not looking good."
I didn't know anything about suicide before I received this call on June 3, 2015, or even think about the topic. Sure, I could name celebrities who had taken their own lives and heard that cyberbullying was a factor from the occasional news report, but it wasn't a big part of my life. In fact, it wasn't a part of my life at all.
Given that I'm new to the topic, I want to note that I'm still learning about suicide's impact on the world. I don't know how to solve this epidemic, explain why people take their own lives, or convince you to care. Right now, all I can do is share my experience in hopes that the lessons I've learned will aid in your own journey of life and loss, and perhaps increase your awareness of suicide to some degree.
In addition, I'd like to share a few facts about suicide from reputable sources in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day, which is recognized today and every year on September 10. These are facts I just learned recently, and included at the end of this story.
"Okay, breathe. Just breathe." That's all I could tell myself after I hung up the phone and proceeded to leave work in a daze on that day in June. I had so many thoughts racing through my head -- "It's probably not that bad. It's going to be okay. That is so unlike my brother," and finally, "What's the last thing I said to him?"
My brother Justin and I grew up in a suburb north of Boston, MA, and are separated by two years (I'm 30 and he was 28). At an early age, we were inseparable and did almost everything together. We fought as teenagers, but we had since laughed about that many times later in life.
He moved to Texas in 2009 (my parents had moved there several years prior), and truly embraced the Southwestern lifestyle. He owned a Chevy truck, cherished his ostrich cowboy boots, wore overalls and was into guns. He married a Texas woman, and was teaching Sunday School at his local church. He was a New Englander turned Texan through-and-through (but forever a Boston sports fan!).
As I boarded a plane for Texas, more thoughts raced through my head. I wondered why he would do something like this, and what the outcome might be. This was just so unlike him. In fact, he had just visited me in Boston a couple months before and talked about how excited he was about the possibility of having a baby, and his increased involvement with the church.
During his visit, our aunt passed away unexpectedly from a drug overdose and I remember saying to him: "This is so sad. You just can't rewind or go back in life, no matter what," to which he wholeheartedly agreed. I kept thinking to myself, "Justin, didn't you remember that we just talked about not being able to rewind? What gives man?"
I spent the next several days in the hospital, as my little brother lay unresponsive and on life support in the ICU.
His brain had been deprived of oxygen for at least 20 minutes, and doctors told us the situation was grave. He still looked the same on the outside -- it was as if he could get up and walk away -- but his brain just wasn't functioning properly.
As a final attempt to save him, they cooled down his body temperature over a 24-hour period, hoping to slow the brain damage. But ultimately, neurologists told us there was no hope and we would have to let him go.
He was an organ donor, so they allowed a small group of us to be in the operating room. We held his hands while they removed his life support, said our final goodbyes, and were quickly ushered out of the room.
It has been a very painful and traumatic experience (and believe it or not, that was the abridged version). I'm still making sense of it today. It's something that I hope you, or someone you love, will never, ever have to go through.
I don't know much about the circumstances that led him to do this, other than the fact that he and his wife had been arguing a lot in the days leading up to the incident. There were honestly no prior warning signs, and he seemed generally happy. Based on what I know today, I'm 99.9 percent positive that it was just a very bad, heated, spur-of-the-moment decision.
Now that you do know my story, there are a few important lessons I've learned in the last few months related to suicide, and the loss of a loved one, that I'd like to share with you:
- Suicide Is Not The Answer. Let's get this one out right off the bat -- if you're thinking about it, please don't go through with it. Whether you find yourself overwhelmed in the moment, or have been thinking about it for a while, I beg you to think twice and seek help. Life is so precious, and your life is worth saving. And remember, the pain you would leave behind for others is unbearable. That much I can tell you based on what I still feel and what I witnessed among all of the friends and family members who loved Justin.
- Be Cautious Of Stress And Anger. We live in very stressful times, and it's easy for problems to pile up and bring us down. I don't define my brother by this incident, because he didn't spend his life sad or angry all the time. In fact, he was quite the opposite. I believe he just let stress get to him, and reached his limit in that moment. Try to recognize when you're having an elevated 'moment' (whatever emotion that may be) and have a backup plan to calm yourself down. De-stressing is so important.
- Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. This has been said many times before, but losing my brother has put everything else into perspective. Sometimes, we can get so wrapped up in the small things -- my coffee is wrong, my Internet is slow, my package is late, etc. -- that we forget we're not going to be here in 100 years and never know what a day will truly bring.
- Many People Experience Tragedy. After my brother passed away, I had countless people tell me about their own experiences with loss and tragedy. It was as if everyone had a unique story and their own lessons to share. Now I think to myself: if so many people walking around me on the streets have experienced tragedy, shouldn't I be just a little bit nicer to others?
- There's No 'Right' Emotion for Tragedy. There is no right or wrong way to feel if you've been through something as terrible as the suicide of a loved one. There are good days and bad days; good weeks and bad weeks. Accepting that you cannot operate at 100 percent all of the time and managing emotions are the first steps in the healing process.
- Build a Strong Personal Network. Throughout my life, I've been busy building a network of family, friends and colleagues that I can trust and who care about me. I never stopped to think about it -- but it's the network you build up that can keep you afloat in times of tragedy. You never know when you'll need to tap into your network for help.
- Consider Becoming An Organ Donor. My brother used to talk about being proud that he was an organ donor, and many people benefited and were saved by his passing. I never realized how many people one person could help, and the full impact that organ donation can have on the people who need the donated organs to live, and their families and friends. If you're not an organ donor already, please consider becoming one.
- Tell Your Siblings You Love Them. I wish that I could have more time with my brother, but I'm so glad we were on good terms before his passing. If you have siblings, talk to them and remember to tell them that you love them. Even if you just send them a quick text. There are only so many people in this world that love us unconditionally, and we should cherish those relationships.
Finally, I'd like to share some facts and statistics about suicide that I've learned in the last several months:
Globally, over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year and there are many more who attempt suicide.
Hence, many millions of people are affected or experience suicide bereavement every year.
Suicide accounted for 1.4 percent of all deaths worldwide, making it the 15th leading cause of death in 2012.
In the U.S., there is one death by suicide every 13 minutes.
In the U.S., suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24. years, the second among persons aged 25-34 years, the fourth among person aged 35-54 years, and the eighth among person 55-64 years.
Suicide among males is four times higher than among females and represents 79 percent of all U.S. suicides.
The term "suicide survivor," or "survivor of suicide" is reserved for those left behind.
It is my hope that by sharing this experience I will raise awareness about suicide, and help others. My brother Justin was a great man, and he will be sorely missed.