A Reflection: Five Years Since My Brother’s Death
It’s five years today since my brother Peter died.
Five years of life he never got to live. Five years of milestones and experiencing the many things that make life worth living.
And for those of us he left behind, five years of sitting with our sadness and coming to terms with the illness that made Pete’s life so hard to live.
I’ve written about Peter’s death several times, including a chapter in my new book Brave about having the courage to sit with our sadness.
While I will always be sad for the life Peter never lived, I also feel gratitude that he no longer spends his days scared, struggling, ashamed and despairing for what lay ahead. He knew his life was a far cry from the one he’d imagined for himself. I can only imagine how the size of that gap must have cut through his heart and wounded his pride. Though as years passed and those demons grew louder, there was little of it left.
Mental illness can be a horrendous thing. While Peter suffered a particularly severe case of paranoid schizophrenia, millions suffer from some form of mental ill health every single day (1 in 5 people will experience mental illness of some sort during their lives). But mental illness doesn’t just cause suffering for those experiencing it, it creates untold suffering for those who love them and who so often feel incredibly helpless to ease their pain and make things better.
I remember sleepless nights, filled with anguish as Peter battled the demons in his head and my parents worried themselves sick about how to help him. I remember a deep sense of grief for the life I knew he’d never live and dreams he’d never fulfil. I remember a darkening despair as hope waned and faith was tested again and again. I’ve always liked to see the positive in situations – but as his illness took hold it was hard to see any light.
Mental illness touches all our lives in some way. Those who suffer from it need our compassion, not judgement.
My family and I felt that way many times. Willing to do whatever we could to help make Peter better and get his life back on track and yet, time and time again, so incredibly, frustratingly, maddeningly, inadequate.
I rang Peter for his 31st birthday on March 1st 2010, a month before he died. He was in a psychiatric ward. Again. As the words “Happy Birthday Pete” left my mouth they sounded so trite. As if. “Thanks Margie,” he said. “I know I f…d my life up” he added, as though apologising for letting me down; for letting his whole family down; for letting himself down. Then he promptly changed the subject to ask about my kids. He loved my kids – his first nieces and nephews. He enjoyed teaching them card games and ball tricks – particularly Lachlan, who shared his uncle’s passion for basketball.
I never spoke to Pete again after that call. A month later, on Easter Good Friday, he decided to end his torment and find the peace he could not find in living.
Some people have to suffer the agony of not knowing why someone they love chose to take their life. That was one agony we were spared. Still, life is life, and death is death, and whatever the circumstances in which you lose someone you love, it is never ever easy.
So on this day, the anniversary of Peter leaving this world, I encourage you who still live in it, to reflect on the gifts in your own life and the impact you have on the lives of those around you – particularly those who are struggling under the cloud of mental illness. Theirs is not an easy road to travel.
Reflect on the gifts in your own life
and the impact you have on the lives of those around you.
I also encourage you to sit with whatever losses you’ve experienced in your own life. Perhaps even feeling right now. As I wrote in Brave, sadness can be one of the hardest emotions to feel but it is also one of the most valuable as it points us to what matters most. When we shut ourselves off from feeling our sadness fully, we also cut ourselves off from feeling joy too.
So whatever may be sitting on your heart right now, this Easter weekend give yourself the gift of sitting with your sadness. Doing so will also help you to live more joyfully, more wholeheartedly, and more bravely.
As Kahil Gibran wrote, “Sadness is but a wall between two gardens.”
I’m going to spend a few quiet moments on that wall today.