Do You Have Any Siblings?
A Question A Suicide Survivor Never Wants To Answer.
by Synergy eTherapy Guest Writer, Andrew Sullivan
“Do you have any siblings?”
It’s one of the most common questions, and for good reason: it’s an easy way into exploring more conversation topics, while it also achieves the goal of getting to know the person with whom you’re speaking.
Partly because it is so common, it is also a question that neither party thinks about much at all. “I have two older brothers,” or, “I’m an only child” become automatic responses due to how often the phrase leaves someone’s mouth.
For 20 years, it was like that for me: “I have a brother who’s three years older.” And then, suddenly, one of the simplest and most perfunctory questions became unanswerable.
It was the day I drove home for Spring Break 2019, from New Orleans to South Carolina.
I loved that drive. It’s only eight hours taking the interstate, but 13 if you take the backroads, the way I liked to do it. I’d listen to music for about two or three hours before getting sick of the same 25 songs I didn’t skip, but the beauty of the landscape and tranquility of the drive itself were all I needed.
Sprawling farms, winding roads, and an occasional boiled peanut stand ushered me home. I would have done that same drive if it had been 30 hours. That changed after March of 2019. The gloomy, sorrowful weather that accompanied me that time should have been a warning.
Usually when I arrive home, my Mom comes outside to hug me, even if it’s two in the morning. My Dad is right inside waiting for me, and they help me bring all of my things in, no matter how much I insist that I can do it myself.
This time, there was no greeting.
I walked in to my Mom sitting on the couch, and my Dad pacing around the living room. The only aspect that hadn’t changed was the relentless barking of my dog. Something was very wrong.
I brought my clothes to my bedroom. When I turned around, both of my parents were standing in the hallway, facing me.
“We have some bad news.”
The only thing more apparent in my Dad’s voice than the trembling was his attempt to hide it. “Brendan….passed away.”
The best horror movies are not those which depict ghost stories and supernatural occurrences, but those which capture the darkest aspects of reality. And even then, they do not hold a light to the terror of that reality itself.
I was paralyzed.
My mind left my body, hovering above like it was already trying to distance itself from the trauma. It lasted no longer than two or three seconds, but it felt like years – all the years my brother and I grew up together and shared countless experiences.
Then I sobbed.
I sobbed and I shook
and I grew nauseous.
We took a walk around the neighborhood
– at one in the morning –
I cried myself into a half-sleep.
And then I shut my emotions off.
For the next five days, families came and brought us food and gifts and sat and talked with us. I would sometimes be obliged to join my parents, depending on the company, but whenever I could I retreated into my room.
I read ravenously, more quickly and intense than I had ever read before; I listened to music like I had never experienced sound before; I did everything I could to distract myself from thinking about the intense trauma and overwhelming feelings of grief, sadness, and despair. I read on the way to the funeral home.
I missed only one day of classes, because my parents and I agreed that “It was best for me to get back quickly” in order to take my mind off of it. I waited until my next scheduled therapy session – nine days after coming back to school – to tell my therapist about it, and although my close friends knew what had happened, I avoided the topic with them like it was cursed.
And the more I did these things, the more I suppressed my feelings within myself and avoided talking about it with others – which included my therapist (I distinctly remember trying to center our second session after my return around a book I had to read for class) – the more it was cursed.
By failing to confront how my brother’s suicide affected me, I allowed these feelings to sink deep into my psyche. The rest of the semester involved a lot of heavy drinking and habitually avoiding people. The only thing I did feel was numb, and I relied on this numbness to cast a gray sky over the burning intensity of my true pain.
No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t outrun those demons.
While the days and months continued, so did my lingering trauma, unconfronted and granted full reign over the back of my mind. I thought I was getting better, and maybe time did heal some wounds, but in this case it certainly could not heal all of them.
In the Fall of 2019 I was still not sleeping well, still denying any opportunity to process my emotions, still being haunted by that night. Looking back now, I should have realized that running from my feelings was never going to work; I had to turn around and face them.
I finally did realize it when I met the woman who would become my girlfriend.
We had been talking for a little over a month – everything was amazing, the sparks were flying, and we were in the exciting stage of exploring each other’s selves, discovering how much we had in common.
I had made one promise to myself: in order to date someone, I had to feel comfortable telling that person about my brother.
Otherwise, I would be lying to her about my history, and to myself about our compatibility.
And so I told her. In that moment, the healing process truly began: by finally pouring out my pain and my feelings, by actively thinking about that night for the first time since it happened, an enormous weight was lifted from me.
I let go of trying to let go so rigidly, and allowed what had been anchored so deeply within to rise and to breathe. Since then, I have truly started to heal.
I can now talk about Brendan with my friends, with my family, and, as evidenced by this blog, with the world.
Those emotions I allowed to rise are still present in me. They have not gone away, and I know they will not ever go away.
But by acknowledging them, by putting a name to them and allowing them to exist within me, my relationship with these feelings and this trauma is much more peaceful, much less tumultuous. It is a part of me that I continually hope to learn from, instead of one I continually decide to fight.
Thanks to this switch in my approach – thanks to my girlfriend for being the catalyst of this switch – I am in a very happy place in my life, all things considered. I have an amazing relationship, I have become closer to my parents and the rest of my family through my becoming more open with them regarding my brother and in general, and I have come to better understand myself and more maturely process my emotions.
I do not like to imagine where I would be now if I had continued to suppress it all, but there certainly would have been an ugly eruption.
That question, “Do you have any siblings?”, became unanswerable because I blocked out any attachment I had to my brother’s suicide.
It was as if, in my mind, I was truly unsure if I had a sibling or not. I hadn’t permitted myself to think about it at all. It’s no wonder I felt such a visceral shock when asked this question, because it forced me into going back to that day – the drive, the anxiety upon arriving home, the unfathomably traumatizing combination of feelings.
Once I finally was able to reflect and process and grow, that shock went away. Having confronted it, it no longer had such power over me. And while it is still a difficult question to answer outwardly – “Do I tell this person the truth, or do I lie to them to avoid awkward conversation?” – I know how I truly feel.
I no longer have my brother in this world, but I carry his legacy in everything I do.
For this, I am not an only child, either.
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