Today is National Sibling Day. I am the youngest of four, and the only girl, which means that for most of my life, I have had three big brothers looking out for me. (And picking on me.) I thought that would always be the case. But that all changed on March 20, 2009. At 3:10am, the phone rang. It was my parents … both of whom were on the line … telling me that my brother, Jed, was dead. He had killed himself.
What?!?! How is it even possible that Jed, who was always going 100 MPH, the joker in the crowd, the “party guy” who instantly made friends with everyone, the world traveler, the chef, the “I can fix anything” guy, the light and energy of every room…was dead? How could one of my big brothers be gone?
And HOW could this be happening to us; to my family? This happens, I thought, to families who don’t talk and who aren’t close…not to my family. (Wrong.) Plus, I had just seen him two days before. There had to be a mistake. I couldn’t comprehend it.
Sometimes I still can’t.
I’m told that when we were very young, Jed and I were pals, and that I often followed him around and copied him. I’ve seen the photographic evidence of this, but what I remember most is fighting with him – constantly. Jed loved to torture me. And being the baby sister, I took great pleasure in getting him in trouble. It’s the same big-brother/little-sister dynamic as on every family sitcom.
As we got older, we became closer, but we were very different people — which kept us on different life-paths. Jed was the continual student (which led him to obtaining multiple degrees, including a minor in psychology); I didn’t ever complete my degree. Jed was the world traveler; I’ve been to very few places outside the US. Jed tried a variety of jobs/careers (I believe trying to find something that would keep him busy, engaged, and happy); I’ve only worked full-time for two companies in my life. We also have some striking similarities in our looks, and in that we make friends easily, are very compassionate people, and often care for others with little thought of ourselves. Jed is often remembered as “always making you feel like you were the most important person in the room, no matter who else was there with you.”
After Jed died, our family came to accept the reality that he most likely suffered from bipolar disorder. We also realized that due to his psychology degree, he likely knew it and kept it well hidden. Jed was the light and personality in every room. He brought energy and laughter to everyone he met and everything he did. But he hid the darkness and the lows from most of the other people in his world.
After the devastating loss of Jed, my family pulled together as we do. We got through the funeral services, survived the burial, and somehow managed to clean his house over the several months following. Much of that year is a fog to me, but the one thing I knew for sure was that my life was forever changed. Our family dynamic was changed. Though we’ve been through much as a family, this was something we would never have fathomed we would have to navigate. Grief is very complicated, and the grief following a suicide even more so. It was incredibly hard on us all.
Several months after Jed died, our family (minus my oldest brother Erik who lives in another state) went together to a grief group specific to suicide loss. I’ll admit I was terrified to go. But once we started talking with other survivors, we realized that we were not alone. Others had been where we were.
Five months after losing Jed, I stumbled upon a poster for a walk to prevent suicide. Five months (to the day) after he died, I learned about AFSP. There, I met people who “got it;” people who had stood where I stood, and knew the stigma, the grief, the pain of losing someone to suicide. They knew the path I was walking.
With the first hug I received there, I felt a piece of myself had begun to heal. I felt the first sliver of hope. From that day forward, I became heavily involved with AFSP, and I have never looked back. I dragged my mom into the world of AFSP, and my oldest brother Erik has also become very involved with AFSP. My dad and brother Mike grieve differently and, though they support us, they are not as involved with our suicide prevention mission.
Over the past seven years, my grief and loss have changed. It all feels less “in your face” and constant than it had originally. I still miss Jed every single day, with every fiber of my being…but now I can smile at the memories of his whole life, rather than focusing on just the weeks leading to his death. I understand that time may not heal, but my emotional perspective has changed.
Suicide is a hard word, and I used to hate it. But the truth is, the only reason why suicide is a hard word, is because we make it hard. We created the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues. We make it harder than necessary to be a survivor, and to honor those who left us too early. I know that I will never be ashamed of or embarrassed by Jed — not of how he lived his life to the fullest, nor of how he died. I will honor his life and continue to serve the world in his memory. My deepest hope is to save one other sibling from suffering the devastation I’ve felt.
Emily Hoerner is the Chair of AFSP Utah.
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