I first met Julie when we were in our early twenties while working over the summer at Yosemite National Park. Since then we have become best friends and have supported each other during our ups and downs. One day, Julie told me the story of her brother’s suicide and her road to healing. I am grateful that she has decided to share her journey so that others going through a similar loss may benefit from learning about her experience.
I lost my older brother to suicide when I was 19 and he was 22. He was funny, dynamic and talented at love. I know he always felt pressure to be an academic super star. He experimented with LSD, but he was the wrong person to take it. It blew his circuits and he got very depressed. I remember him saying, “I have coils of problems and inside each coil there are more coils of problems.“ He killed himself soon after he graduated from the Ivy League college he attended.
His suicide completely took me by surprise. He was my big brother whom I greatly admired. We felt we were soul-mates and he was always protective of me.
When my father called me at college to tell me the news, he didn’t tell me my brother had died. He just said something like, “Our little boy shot himself.” It wasn’t until I got home that my mother told me, “Earl is gone.” I was in shock, and actually stayed that way for the next several years.
I was overcome with grief, but being a teenager spared me from guilt. I knew I had given him all the love I had to give. I felt I didn’t have the power to do anything more.
I spent the summer with my parents, and it was painful to see them so hurt. I returned to college in the fall and as I walked through campus I kept searching for my brother. A few months later I met David, the love of my life. However, my system was still in shock from my brother’s death. I was numb and terribly anxious and depressed. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Back then no one knew about PTSD. I just knew I felt panicky and closed in when I couldn’t reciprocate to David emotionally. I was confused and thought if I could just be on my own I could figure out my problems. So I ended the relationship, and within a few years David got married.
After I found out about David’s marriage, I went into double grief about losing both my brother and the love of my life. I dropped out of graduate school for a year and went home to live with my parents because I’d become exhausted and crippled by severe chronic fatigue. I spent weeks just sitting on my parents couch. My father said I looked like a bird with a broken wing.
That year, however, I learned how to emotionally support myself. I studied yoga, meditation, Judaism, and how to be a better swimmer. I began the year as “the baby in the family” who had been abandoned by her big brother. By the end of the year I’d become a source of strength for myself. I remember sitting in meditation with my back straight thinking, “I am literally holding myself up.”
Though I still had chronic fatigue, I returned to school and trudged through my Ph.D. program in psychology. I always thought my brother was “the smart one,” but I discovered that I was talented in my work!
At the completion of my Ph.D. program I did twn days of silence and mediation. On the last day I experienced a miracle. As the sun set, I felt a piercing in my heart, like something deep inside had released. It was as if all these years my wounded heart had been covered in a shroud that was protective, yet deadening. It now felt like that shroud had been punctured.
I felt the sorrow I’d carried around for so long was intermingling with fresh life. I found I was able to laugh and cry again! Gradually, I became free of my chronic fatigue and my physical strength returned.
I made the decision to develop my closest friends as brothers and sisters. Sometimes I’d get terribly hurt by someone, but I kept at it.
I remember grocery shopping after one of my psychotherapy sessions. I looked at the clerk and, for no reason, felt love for him–not romantic love, but human to human love. I knew my ability to love had profoundly expanded.
I’m lucky that my work gives me the chance to strengthen my ability to love. In order to be the best psychotherapist that I can, I have let myself feel my heart when I’m with my clients, and make them my world for the hour we are together.
Though I was terrified to do so, I adopted two babies from Guatemala as a single parent. I’m not good at being a disciplinarian, but I’ve succeeded in making them feel loved and secure. They get along beautifully and bring each other to uproarious laughter like my brother and I used to.
I think one way of summarizing my journey is that I lost my big brother, but in order to survive and flourish I became my own “big brother.” It’s as if that abandoned teenage girl learned to grow an entire new self. I have a deep connection to the life force in my heart. I’ve learned to be loving to myself and take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve expanded my idea of family and as a result, my capacity to love. I think I can continue to heal and evolve. I have another era of my life to live and enjoy.