My brother died by suicide two years ago. I am not who I used to be. And that’s OK.
The pace of private messages is gaining speed as the second anniversary of my brother’s death approaches.
These notes are not from close friends and family. For the most part, they come from people I have never met, but we know one another well. They, too, have lost a loved one to suicide, and many of them have helped me understand that time will offer no resolution. Two years, seven years, 40 years later – it doesn’t matter. Those unanswered questions will remain.
I have learned so much from these survivors, who embody the courageous part of love. They share their stories, and I see glimpses of my own. We want to believe what others tell us, that there was nothing we could have done to prevent such a tragedy. But as most humans understand, no act of forgiveness is more difficult than the one we seek to bestow upon ourselves.
I am publicly acknowledging the anniversary of a loved one’s suicide for all those survivors who feel they cannot. There is no deadline for this grief, and yet it comes with a presumed obligation that we not make others uncomfortable.
We are not who we used to be
The people who love us most want us to act as if this is all behind us. The people who love us best understand the toll of that pretense.
We are not who we used to be, in ways that we sometimes cannot explain even to ourselves, but we can read the room: Enough of that sadness, please. And so, this grief too often becomes a survivor’s biggest secret. It’s as if mentioning it makes us contagious.
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I don’t say any of this to elicit another round of condolences. Sympathy is the language of loss. Remembrance is proof that they lived. I will never tire of hearing another story about my brother, Chuckie. In the retelling, he is alive. It brings me closer to the whisper I long to hear, the one that lets me know he no longer feels alone.
Chuckie Schultz, in 1987, with his siblings Toni, Leslie and Connie. (Photo: Schultz family)
I am lucky to love people who love me best, and their willingness to listen has helped me find the words. For more than a year, I wanted to believe my brother’s life was more than the circumstances of his death. Now, I know this to be true. I see his face in my mind’s eye, and often smile. At the mention of his name, happier memories bubble up first. I tell a story that begins with, “My brother Chuckie,” and it doesn’t end with an acknowledgement of how he died.
He is my little brother again, rescuer of dogs even as a child. He is the exuberant uncle who ignored my pleas not to spoil my children. He is the professional at the top of his game, before alcoholism and his constant companion of depression – “Blacky the Cloud,” he called it – robbed him of everything he held dear, including his best version of himself.
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Grief, one day at a time, with Snoopy
A few years ago, I bought a wall clock for my bathroom. It’s a silly thing, featuring a drawing of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, sitting side by side on a pier, looking out at the lake. My family has had a long affection for “Peanuts.” The name of its creator, Charles Schulz, was one letter off from my father’s, Charles Schultz. It is also my brother’s name.
Still, it was unusual for me to buy that clock and hang it where it would be one of the first things I see in the morning, and one of the last at day’s end. This morning, for the first time, I saw it as a reminder of my brother and his dog Sadie, on the shore of his beloved Lake Erie.
Connie Schultz: Read her columns
Chuckie Schultz would often send his sister, USA TODAY Columnist Connie Schultz, pictures of the sun setting over his back yard and Lake Erie. (Photo: Chuckie Schultz)
On my phone I have a small photo file labeled, “Chuckie.” It contains seven of my brother’s photos of sunsets over Lake Erie, which he texted to me from his backyard. An eighth photo stars his last dog, old Sadie, who knew him only as his hero.
For the longest time, I could not look at these photos. Now I open the file often. I take in the view through my brother’s eyes and remember that time when he was still very much alive.
Connie Schultz is a columnist for USA TODAY. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter: @connie.schultz
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis at 741741.
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