**Warning: This post could be triggering as it mentions suicide often. Please do not read if you are sensitive to mental health issues and suicide.**
July 10. My entire universe exploded. Most people cannot say the date that they became a different person, but I know mine.
It was a Sunday night; I spent Saturday on a date with my favorite crush, who was on his way to becoming my first NY boyfriend. Two weeks into my first job, I left at 6 AM on Monday to go to training in Michigan.
I received news early in the day that my stepdad had fallen into a coma during his cancer treatment, and it was not looking good. Mom told me to pray and try to enjoy the day regardless.
So, I turned off my phone for the day, did yoga, meditated, and finally uploaded a batch of NYC photos to Facebook. I consistently named my albums after new songs, so I called this particular Facebook album “Who’s going to save the world tonight? Who’s going to bring you back to life?” off of the famous Swedish House Mafia song that had just been released.
Seconds after uploading my album, I checked my phone to see a text message from Mom that said, “Urgent, call me.”
I assumed my stepdad had passed away and took a deep breath to prep myself for the news. But when I called, my mom said, “She’s gone.”
And I knew. My sister, Erin, took her own life– on suicide watch in a hospital in Boston.
My life transformed. After hearing those words, I felt a physical and emotional jolt into another world. I curled up in the fetal position on my bed, all alone in the city, and hysterically sobbed. It was late, so my soon-to-be boyfriend was already asleep and unreachable.
A friend from Miami was visiting, and I was supposed to meet his friends late. He called right after Mom, and all I could say was that it wasn’t a good time, and I couldn’t go. I then texted him about what had happened because I could not find my voice.
My sister’s suicide rocked not only that moment in my life but also my life. I continue to learn lessons around her death and her decision to leave this world.
And I was lucky because the first thought that came into my mind was that I could either crumble and die with her, or I could use all of the energy of my pain and focus it on something positive. I still had lots of life left to live and was unwilling to let someone else’s tragic decision deter me from living up to my ability.
I knew this, even through the fog, grief, and the most horrible moments. I knew I had to get the f*ck up off the floor and put my pieces back together, even though they would not create the same life I fell in love with moments before she died.
I am still putting pieces back together.
My other sister could not put her pieces back together, and after years of torment and torture, she also took her life by jumping off the Royal Gorge Bridge on December 30, 2020. Yea, try dealing with both sisters committing suicide– while the national news covers one of their very public deaths. No joke, we got phone alerts for breaking news, and it was my sister’s Royal Gorge suicide.
My surviving sister and I chose very different paths of processing our grief, and I have no comment about her decision in this particular blog post, but you can read about that experience here.
This post is about E, my first sister to commit suicide while I was two weeks into my new job in NYC because I have learned so much from her death. Eleven years, and I still am learning.
Here are some of them:
Small Things DON’T MATTER
It was incredibly hard for me to date after my sister’s suicide because the person I was dating would think something so trivial to me was a huge problem. When a tragedy occurs, it truly changes your perspective of what’s essential and what’s not.
While I used to be in the weeds on everything, never letting anything go, I suddenly could see the bigger picture and let the small stuff go. I was not on the same level as the guys I was dating until I finally met my husband, who doesn’t sweat a thing.
Values and Priorities Are Crucial
My values and priorities dramatically shifted after my sister passed away. I realized my mortality, lack of time, and distance from what I thought I believed and what I truly believed. God went right to the top, followed by family and my job.
Without faith as a top value, I would not be where I am today. I would be curled up somewhere, unable to move from unsurmountable grief. I needed that rearrangement to live the life I wanted. You realize what matters when you lose something that was everything to you.
Suicide prevention is now vital to me. I speak at events on mental illness and how to use writing to reduce suicidal behavior.
There is a suicidal crisis in our country, with rates of suicide skyrocketing during COVID-19. I do not want one more person to die by suicide on this planet. There are too many already.
Every new Center for Disease Control announcement offers an opportunity to save lives. Public health cannot get its arms around the suicide crisis.
The news is depressing, but that does not mean life is over. Suicide is something I would NEVER have spoken about, let alone publicly spoken about before my sister died. Now it is one of my goals to keep others from attempting suicide and committing suicide.
No Job Is Worth Your Mental Health
My sister was struggling with her job, which was a high-security job with the government. She could not even discuss her career with her husband. She could never tell us where she was, but we knew it was somewhere in the Middle East.
She knew the stress was too intense, even for a Harvard and MIT grad. But, she was the breadwinner, and her husband pressured her to keep her exact position.
Being Type A, this is a challenging but essential lesson for me that I continue to learn. I want to feel good about my work, not wholly knocked around, affecting my mental and physical health. Some mental health tips I’ve learned are to put calendar breaks in my schedule, block off lunches, and make sure our team is not working weekends to put some distance between job stress and my life.
Have A Child
E was trying to have a child when she began to spiral down towards suicide. She waited a while and wasn’t sure if she would have a child. This is perhaps the saddest part I discovered around my sister’s suicide. Then L, my other sister, also took her life.
My parents were left with no hope of grandchildren, which broke my heart, and also put my own life into perspective. Somehow L’s death encouraged me to have a child, to bring life into our family.
I am a writer, in large part due to E. She used to sneak into my room and read the novels I was writing in the fifth grade.
I would get so mad and finally put a password on my computer and even on my novel files! E gushed about my writing, which embarrassed me at the time. When in actuality, she was encouraging me to follow my true passion.
When she died, one of my first memories was how angry I would get when she snuck into my room to read my writing, and I felt so guilty for pushing her away. So, I started writing more and more and more until I finally started this blog.
Life is Mortal
I always went after what I wanted, but I started to REALLY go after what I wanted after E passed away. There is a feeling that time is leaving me, and I must take advantage of every moment. We all know this on some level, but we don’t KNOW this on the level we need to take all of the risks and opportunities that we can take.
Sometimes this feeling of life fleeting gets so intense that I have to calm myself down and remind myself that I probably will not get hit by a bus tomorrow, and I can relax for a few moments.
I got on that plane the following day and flew to Michigan. I did not tell anyone my sister had died the night before until lunch that day when I started crying because my boss brought up her weekend plans with her sister.
When my company found out, they immediately paired me with a local counselor– and paid for it. This was the best thing they could have done. I was able to share how I was honestly feeling and get help navigating intense grief.
You Have Different Friends At Different Life Stages
This is not to say that I don’t have friends that I’ve had my whole life. I am talking more about your circle post-college. Some people cannot deal with tragedy, especially one as messy as suicide, so you figure out who your true friends are when you are sobbing on the floor at 3 AM– and they aren’t who you think they’ll be.
I lost close friends after my sister died, but I also gained highly close relationships with friends that I thought were on the perimeter of my friend group.
You Can Still Achieve Your Dreams
Sure, a hint of sadness will show up in life, but that does not mean you can’t achieve what you dreamt of as a little child. My sister’s suicide was never a crutch. I was never the victim. What you think of yourself is the most crucial thing in the world– not what they think.
Believe you can turn pain into a positive impact. Believe that you can still live the life you dreamt of, with a tinge of sadness you didn’t expect. You are not a victim– I never wanted that and made sure that the people around me knew that I was scarred by my sister’s suicide but not destroyed. That’s who you are– you are not the poor girl people need to feel sorry for.
Grief Does Not Stop
This is a critical lesson. When my best friend committed suicide, I was 15 years old and told by a therapist that I should not still be grieving as much as I was (this was three weeks after his death!). I became anxious around the fact that I was grieving, which just made me feel worse.
My parents finally took me to see our pastor, and our pastor told me one of the most important things I’ve ever heard: Grief has no end date. You grieve as long as you grieve. All of my anxiety dissipated, and I suddenly felt better about life.
You don’t lose one (two) sister(s) to suicide and go on living like they never existed. They are in pretty much every photo with me as a child, so my child will ask about them one day, and I will have to tell them what happened.
I have to live with what happened, and that’s okay. I have sad moments and will always have low moments when I think back on my sisters, but that does not mean I can’t live a happy, successful life.
People Are Weird
We all have different personalities, beliefs, and ways of dealing with traumatic situations. And that’s okay! Not everyone understands what you are going through, so drop them.
Do not listen to those people once you’ve identified who they are. They are not you. Let their comments go in one ear and out the other.
No one but you is going through your experience. You decide how you feel, how you handle it, etc.
I had tons of judgy comments around me because I went to an event in my hometown a few weeks later, dressed up and had makeup on, and smiled at people at the event. Some of what used to be my close friends could not believe that I could smile and look like that when I had just lost my sister. They thought it was utterly inappropriate.
And, you know what?! I needed that event. I needed that music. I needed to see the people I grew up with and know that the world was not ending.
Going to that event and getting all gussied up was one of the best things I did for my grief. I proved to myself that I could still get out of bed and be a human being that lived life.
And perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that 11 years does not wipe away the grief. I am not back to the Marji before E died.
Time does not entirely heal all wounds. But 11 years brings understanding, empathy, and beautiful and well-lived life. Having my second sister commit suicide ten years later opened up old wounds, but I am still me.
I still have the opportunity to live life to its fullest, be kind, and positively influence lives in whatever way I can. My heart is beating happy beats, and I am now building the family I always dreamed of, bringing new life into a family that has seen many deaths.
I don’t know what you’re going through today, but I know that you meant to read this post. You will build the life of your dreams, no matter what tragedy is impacting you. You can either be a puddle on the floor or turn that pain into a positive impact on the world. It’s your choice.
I promise you; that you can get up off the floor and create an even better life than the pre-tragedy you with the pieces you’re in right now.
This post is dedicated to E. I miss you. I love you. I will write, always for you.
– Marji J. Sherman
**If you, a family member, or someone else you know is having thoughts of suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.**