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I Had a Brother

23 Oct 2018 — 5 min read

By Tom Ragas

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Awards $5.3M for 26 Suicide Prevention Research Grants

Oct. 23, 2018 - “Do you have any siblings?”

Nowadays when people ask me this question, I pause.

In the five years since my older brother died by suicide, it’s a question I’ve always felt a little uncertain in answering. I’ve given different answers to different people, often withholding pieces of the story with a lingering feeling that being fully honest would make others uncomfortable. To some, I’m a person with two older siblings, and to others I’m a person with one.

But why is it such a difficult question for me to answer?

One of the mental roadblocks I always seem to face is that both responses feel like a lie, or perhaps a half-truth. If I say that I have one sibling, it feels disloyal to the memory of my brother. If I say I have two, it feels dishonest to the reality I’ve existed in for the past five years.

Growing up, I was the youngest sibling. Jason was seven years older than me, and my sister, Brandi, three years older. Jay was my idol in a more real and tangible way than say, the green Power Ranger was. The three of us could spend all day running around outside, and even after mornings and afternoons spent entirely by his side, we’d still spend the rest of the day together, watching TV, playing video games or just hanging out in each other’s company.

We fought, as siblings are wont to do, over mundane things that felt more important than anything in the universe during those moments: what games to play, or who would get the bottom bunk, who’d get the top bunk, and whose turn it was to get their own bedroom. (Spoiler alert: as the youngest, it never quite did end up being my turn.)

I’ve put forth conscious effort in the days, weeks, months and years since Jay’s death to be open and honest about all aspects of both his struggle and of my own. I never tried to hide the details of his death from friends and family in the weeks after he died, informing them that he took his life after a long struggle with his mental well-being. In a sense, I almost quite literally wear my heart on my sleeve: my sister and I both had song lyrics tattooed in his memory a few months after his death, with mine residing on my forearm. I’ve been asked about my tattoo often. I’m open about who it’s for, and why I decided to have it permanently inked onto my body. My point being, my brother’s suicide is not a piece of my life I’m normally shy to discuss openly.

And yet, I still find myself pausing, or being unsure about this one very specific question. “Do you have any siblings?” Why do I still struggle with answering it?

Perhaps I subconsciously feel that fully embracing my answer to this question will propel me into a new level of acceptance: as if my occasional verbal sidestepping allows a final thread of possibility to exist, keeping him connected to me as a part of my life. Having to answer the question of how many siblings I have, in some ways forces me to continually confront the reality of the situation. Maybe five years on, there is still part of me that isn’t ready to fully embrace that reality.

Jay had begun to drift apart from me and my sister as we grew older, around the time I was 13 or 14. When he moved out, and eventually relocated from New Jersey to Ontario, we’d still occasionally spend time together or speak to each other on the phone, but the space in between these contacts grew further and further apart as time went on. I found myself actively avoiding speaking with him at times, because the conversations we did have offered more exasperation than joy, and left me feeling guilty.

A few years before his death, I realized my brother used to be my idol, but no longer was. It felt as if I no longer recognized the person I had grown up with: the guy who was funny, compassionate and caring, and more than anything, motivated and continuously aspiring for more. The newfound distance between us allowed me to see him less as a hero and more as an actual person: one with hopes, dreams and flaws, like myself.

Jay had a tendency to be infuriatingly stubborn, which could be both his best quality and his most frustrating, depending on the target of his stubbornness. As I grew older, around 17 or 18 at this point, I found myself arguing with him a lot, either about his financial issues, or his increasingly frequent struggles to stay at one job for more than a few months. In the heat of an argument, he sometimes said cruel, hurtful things about me, our sister or parents. I knew he didn’t truly mean these things, but his words cut deeply and scarred us nonetheless.

As I moved on to college, it felt as though Jay and I had become mere acquaintances in each other’s lives. Looking back, I realize the question of how many siblings I had, had begun to feel difficult even before his suicide. Part of me had already begun mourning the loss of the person I had idolized years before. I still think often about what I could have done to change that feeling.

Coming to terms with my brother’s death has been an ongoing process, and will continue to be one. Our relationship was complicated. Despite everything, there was always genuine love.

I had a brother. I try my best to avoid shying away from the complicated reality of who he was, and the reality of what life is like without him. Jay was funny and compassionate, and he was also stubborn and frustrating. He struggled, and he also fought to overcome those struggles. He was never perfect, and neither was our relationship. This reality doesn’t lessen the person he was. It informs the enormous impact he had on the person I’ve become, as well as the person I am still aspiring to be.

I miss him, and I wouldn’t be who I am today if he hadn’t been who he was.

I had a brother.

For my part, that’s an answer I’m finally comfortable with.

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