What My Sister’s Suicide Taught Me

Just because someone seems happy doesn’t mean she is.
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Just because someone seems happy doesn’t mean she is.
suicide mental illness depression suffering sisters siblings family losing a loved one

Photo Credit: Natalie Fong

Editors Note: September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, and we are grateful to this anonymous author for sharing her story with us. We hope it will encourage others to take action for suicide prevention and remind those of you whove experienced something similar that youre not alone. If you or someone you know is struggling or having suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is not to judge others. You never know what they are going through. I learned this the hard way when I lost my only sister to suicide.

I will always remember the day my family lost Lissa*. My life has forever been split into two segments: When I had an older sister, and when I became an only child.

When I say not to judge others, I also mean not to trust that things are always as they seem. To the outside observer, my sister Lissa was the perfect wife, mother, and community participant. She had two adoring sons and a husband she’d been married to for nine years. She worked with special-needs children and lived close to family. She always had on a smile and was friendly and helpful to everyone she met. No one would have guessed that Lissa was miserable and depressed.

In reality, Lissa was experiencing a years-long internal struggle. Before it was more commonly diagnosed, we believe that my sister suffered from bipolar disorder, and she was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. On the outside, though, she carried herself well, and we didn’t know that one extra stressor was building up in her life—one that might have been the last straw.

***

Around dinnertime on February 22, 2006, I received a phone call from my parents. Lissa’s husband had just called them to say she had been missing all day. I immediately had a sick feeling in my stomach. My sister’s house was only a fifteen-minute drive from my apartment. I hopped in my car and drove there.

I was shocked when I arrived to find her husband not alone but with his apparent girlfriend. In their pajamas. They seemed equally shocked to see me. I asked what the girlfriend was doing in my sister’s house. Her husband told me to leave, or he would call the police.

My mind was racing. My poor sister had been so deceived! Her husband had been cheating on her in plain sight. And with a woman from their church, no less—a woman who was homeschooling her children with my sister and nephews.

I drove to the police station and began filling out a missing persons report. As I was filling it out, the officer stopped me to say, “Your sister’s husband just called. He said he was speaking to your sister, so everything is fine. You can go on home.”

Just as I was getting back to my apartment, my parents called again. She was gone. They said that she was found dead in a hotel room. She had ended her own life.

***

My sister never once said she wanted to die. Even when it came to her last day on this earth, she told her best friend that she just wanted to get caught up on sleep. She hadn’t told anyone she was booking a hotel. None of us knew that her life was at risk.

Knowing now that my sister’s husband cheated on her and lied about finding her makes it especially hard to grieve her loss without being consumed by anger. I remember when my sister told me that she was going to marry this man; I felt very strongly that it would be the biggest mistake of her life and told her as much. Saying that, however, had driven a wedge in our friendship, and we didn’t talk much for months.

She didn’t tell me or my parents that her husband was verbally and mentally abusive. We found that out later from her trusted friend. I will never know if things would have turned out differently for my sister if she hadn’t married such a selfish person. He saw the signs that she wasn’t OK, but he didn’t care enough to tell the people who did care about her. And she didn’t feel like she could come to us. That still sits heavily on my heart.

In addition to her stress at home, we’re pretty sure that my sister was suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. We pieced this together after her death, given her symptoms and our family history—an aunt with bipolar disorder and an uncle with multiple personality disorder. Growing up with my sister was like riding a roller coaster. Her energy would be so high, and she’d be moving so fast, before—without warning of any kind—her energy would crash, and her mood would drastically shift. I now know this was the result of a chemical imbalance in her brain. And I now know how devastating the results can be when they aren’t treated sufficiently.

On top of these challenges, Lissa had experienced abuse as a child—and to add to that horrifying reality, it was at the hand of our own grandfather. She had blocked the memories for years; it can be tempting to think that ignorance is bliss because before she remembered being molested, we all had fond memories of Grandpa. But as the stories began to come out—we learned that he had molested many children, including his own, his grandchildren, and those in the neighborhood—we could no longer deny the stark truth. By the time we found out, he had Alzheimer’s, and no legal recourse was taken, but there is reason to believe that his actions hurt our family for generations. As for my sister, when those memories came flooding into her head, I wish that I had let her talk to me more. But this is lost in a million wishes.

***

When people ask what it’s like to have lost her and how it changed my life, all I can say is: It has changed everything. We humans are relational beings, and part of my identity was being her sister. The year that I became older than the age when my older sister died was surreal. My sister will forever be 33, yet my life continues.

Friends come and go, I’ve learned, but family is timeless. What used to keep me secure—knowing that I would always have a big sister to look out for me—is now a distant memory. I was a more trusting person before I lost my sister. I don’t want to say that I have become hardened, but after my sister’s death, I have developed very different views on what is important in life and what is trivial.

Lissa thought of everyone else before thinking of herself. I believe that is what made her such a wonderful person. My sister always lived to help others, to pay it forward.

At the same time, she forgot to take good care of herself. She let the words of a cruel husband intrude into her thoughts and beliefs. She was hurting so badly and just wanted the pain to end.

Now if anyone I know is depressed or dealing with intense struggles, I take it very seriously. More than anything, I’ve learned that the most important thing is not to judge others. I think only when you walk in another’s shoes can you understand their trials. My perspective has forever changed about what is important in life. And it’s one of those things that may never have happened, had I not experienced this devastating loss.

*Names have been changed.