When I was asked to write some thoughts on my personal grief journey after losing my brother to mental illness, I was dreading it. I have avoided writing down my emotions for fear of making them more real or falling into a downward spiral of grief from which I couldn’t return. Even now, as I finally sit down to write, I feel sick to my stomach as I attempt to put down on paper the countless emotions I have experienced since Robert died. But part of the natural grief journey toward hope is courageously and honestly facing the fears that surface and the reality of what has happened, so here is my honest attempt. Maybe it will give insight into the mind and heart of someone who is grieving; maybe someone who is experiencing similar pain will be able to relate.
It’s hard to explain what losing a brother feels like; in fact, it’s inexplicable. I remember every detail — answering my mom’s phone call; leaving my apartment in Chapel Hill in a state of complete shock; driving to Winston-Salem while I screamed and prayed it was just a nightmare from which I’d wake. Losing a loved one is always traumatic and life-changing, no matter the situation, but losing a loved one to suicide carries an extra layer of grief that is difficult to quantify.
Suicide is an uncomfortable, messy word. It is a word that makes many people cringe or break eye contact; it is a word that makes even close friends distance themselves out of fear of mentioning the elephant in the room, as if you were not already aware of it every second of every day; it is a word that brings feelings of regret, shame, and grief like no other.
It is difficult to process through these complicated, messy emotions as well as navigate the uncomfortable social interactions that accompany suicide. I have had a hard time watching how friends and strangers have responded to news of my brother’s death. While we have many wonderful friends who have been faithfully supportive, I can’t help but feel that others are forming their own judgments about my brother and what happened, why, etc., perhaps with the belief that suicide is “the most selfish thing someone can do.”
I walk around with this longing to defend my brother’s life and the brave battle he silently fought. So many people battle silently with all types of mental illness, yet the stigma continues, because we as a society refuse to openly address the issue and make positive changes to support those who are suffering. How many individuals are misunderstood just as I often fear my brother’s death is?
Having grown up with a parent who suffered from bipolar disorder and, now, having lost a brother to it, I have learned that mental illness (or dying by suicide) is no more a person’s choice than having cancer. It’s a disease of the brain; and having studied the brain intensively for years in school, I understand now, more than ever, the effects an imbalance of brain chemicals or brain damage can have on one’s thoughts, actions, and perspective.
I would give anything to change the past so that my family and I would not have to experience the unfathomable pain we are experiencing; and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it’s a daily fight for strength and survival to make it to the next day.
Some days are worse than others, and I am still processing through some of my earlier pain. I remember the initial state of shock as I returned to classes and end-of-semester exams only a week after he died. I was in the middle of my second year of physical therapy school at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I knew I needed to return, but I kept thinking, “This is not real. It can’t be real.” And I remember when reality finally started to set in a few months later — the nightmares; the mental and physical fatigue that accompanies intense grief; the first time I said aloud to someone what had happened; the PTSD that occurred when I saw certain images; and the feeling that I was treading through quicksand, barely keeping my mouth above the sand to gasp for breath.
And I know the pain is even worse for my mom, who lost her son — the most unimaginable pain and loss that anyone could experience. But what could I do? Quit school? Stay in bed all day? That is precisely what I wanted to do, but I knew Robert would not have wanted me to do that.
Shortly after Robert’s death, I read something in Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt’s book, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, which I related to all too well. Cooper was discussing the way he felt after losing his dad to a massive heart attack, followed by his older brother to suicide years later: “I remember learning years ago that sharks have to keep moving forward to stay alive; it’s the only way they can force water through their gills and breathe. Ever since, that is how I’ve imagined myself: a shark gliding through dark, silent seas.”
My mom and I have talked about this very topic. We have felt as though, if we stopped moving, we could never start again. So I kept going. I stayed in full-time classes, worked part-time on top of that, tried to stay connected with friends, and continued to fight out of fear of what might happen if I stopped fighting. Actually, perhaps a better word than “fighting” is “surviving.” I was, and am, just barely surviving; each day, a surrender to the Lord, trusting Him to provide the strength to make it through the day.
It is interesting, though, to experience the passage of time after the loss of a loved one. Life moves on and people continue on their paths around you, but your life as you once knew it is done. It is as if I have two lives — one before Robert died, and the one since. And unless one has personally experienced the daily grief process and the constant reminders of “before” and “after,” I imagine it is difficult or impossible to fully understand or empathize. Again, it is as if Anderson Cooper articulated the thoughts right out of my head: “I’ve often thought of loss as a kind of language. Once learned, it’s never forgotten. I learned the language of loss when I was ten, and still know it to this day. There have been times when I wished I had a scar or mark, a visible sign of the pain I still feel over Daddy’s death and Carter’s. It would be easier, in a way, if people know without my having to say anything that I am not whole, that part of me died long ago.”
As my family approaches the two-year mark of Robert’s death, his absence stings more than ever.
It is a daily process of learning how to navigate this level of grief. It is messy and exhausting. But what I’ve learned is that the best and only way to face this loss is to honor Robert and constantly remember him and the life he lived.
I refuse to let him be defined by the way he died. Suicide was one moment of his life during his darkest, hardest battle, and no one person could imagine the things he was experiencing and the hardships he endured.
His thirty-three years of life were SO much more than that one day: an energetic, brilliant kid who studied his globe as much as he did ESPN stats — my mom told me that, at age 6, Robert could spout out countries and their capitals one second and list scores of sports games and team rosters the next; a teenager who excelled at all sports, school, finances, and socializing, yet continued to maintain the same humble attitude despite all of his accomplishments; a young man who got accepted to Princeton without any familial ties or connections, seemingly breezing through his four years there, landing his top job choice with Morgan Stanley in New York City, but then leaving the job to travel the world (turning down a promotion and an offer by his boss to pay for him to travel for a year if he would return to Morgan Stanley after).
But more than his accomplishments on paper, he cared deeply for his friends and family (and dog, Ewi), accepted all types of people and cultures, was passionate about music (and could sing just as many Ben Folds lyrics as he could lyrics from the Sound of Music soundtrack), loved and loyally cheered on his Liverpool Football Club and Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies, gave unparalleled advice (even when it was sometimes unwanted), and lived a life of adventure without caring about others’ opinions of him. He was the most naturally book-smart and street-smart person I ever knew, and I say that without any hesitation. He traveled to more than fifty-five countries during his lifetime and mastered other languages so well that he was even mistaken as a native Mandarin speaker in Taiwan. Anyone who knew him would testify to what an amazing person he was.
God has been faithful in sustaining my family and me to this point in our healing process, and my hope remains in He who is constantly renewing and restoring, turning broken shards into a beautiful mosaic. So as I continue to wrestle with the loss of Robert’s physical presence with us, and in my attempt to honor his adventurous spirit, I have planned a post-graduation, two-month trip to South America, during which I will explore places he once explored, interact with the locals as he once did, and experience new cities, mountains, waterfalls, and cultures, all in Robert’s memory. And in doing so, I am choosing to pursue healing and Hope.
This is Living Hope.
Elizabeth Huber graduated with her doctorate in physical therapy from UNC-Chapel Hill in August and is currently living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina while she studies for her board exam and prepares for her trip to South America. Upon return from her trip, Elizabeth plans to work in the hospital setting with patients who are rehabilitating from strokes, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and other neurological conditions. Whenever she gets the chance, Elizabeth loves visiting her nephew and niece, sister, and brother-in-law in Atlanta, spending time with friends, and taking care of friends’ dogs until she can adopt her own post-South American trip.