*this letter is part of a collection for Suicide Awareness Month. I am not a licensed psychiatrist and none of the advice, recommendations, or resources shared in my response should be considered as a substitute for therapeutic or medical treatment performed by a licensed practitioner.
My cousin died by suicide six years ago. I was 14 when she died and I didn’t really understand what suicide was. I was raised Catholic and taught that if you took your own life your soul was damned to Hell. My cousin was the kindest, most loving person that I knew and I just couldn’t understand why she would do something like that. Now that I’m older, I know it’s because she was in so much pain and felt that she had no other choice. I also have learned a bit more about the events that led up to her death, how her parents tried to hide her mental illness by hospitalizing her and shutting her away from the world. It makes me so angry that she was silenced in this way. It’s led me to cease communication with my aunt and uncle and other cousins, and I feel like they are responsible for her death.
I know that’s not what I should be focusing my energy toward, but I just can’t bring myself to forgive them for not paying attention and for treating her like a problem.
How do I move on with this new knowledge without disowning the people who were closest to her?
Dear Can’t Forgive,
I am so sorry for your loss. Coping with this kind of grief is by far one of the hardest things a person can experience. Often, it leaves so many unanswered questions, so much unresolved history. The only sure thing is that someone important left you forever.
Immediately following my brother’s suicide, members of my extended family started suggesting that his death was an accident. The day after I learned that my brother had hung himself in a hotel bathroom, a family member suggested to not mention suicide in any of the obituaries, and to also tell my sisters that my brother had not meant to kill himself, that he was just doing something risky for an adrenaline rush. I lost it.
Never have I been so angry in my life, and, right there in that moment, I spoke up and forbade this insane theory. I made sure that the truth was told, that none of it was covered up. Not only because it would have been an insult to my brother’s lifelong struggle with his mental health, but also because it gave other parents, families and friends permission to overlook serious signs in loved ones that lead to suicide. Signs that I had warned my mother about merely a week before my brother’s death. Signs that we all swept under the rug until they swept my brother away from us.
Part of me is still angry that that was even a conversation in the wake of my little brother’s death. But it taught me something very important: everyone was trying to make sense of a situation that did not make sense. Some of us accepted the truth of things, and some of us refused to embrace it.
The same goes for your family. They did not know how to treat the situation at hand, so they did the thing that made sense to them—they hospitalized your cousin and kept her condition quiet because they felt that it was the right thing to do at that moment in time.
I am sure that the aftermath of your sweet cousin’s death uncovered a lot of unrecognized issues within their family. The unraveling of one's own regretful actions are always the most glaring and obvious in the days, months, and years that follow tragic loss. Your cousin’s parents and siblings are probably grappling with guilt over this immense loss every. single. day. Your harboring of resentment toward your relatives will do absolutely nothing for you, or for them, in the grand scheme of things.
I know that you say you cannot forgive, but I think you forgot to add “yet,” to that sentence. You can’t forgive them, yet. And when you do forgive them some day in the future, that doesn’t mean things have to go back to the way they were before your collective loss. In fact, they can’t and they shouldn’t.
Honor your cousin’s entire story, and it will help you see the entire story of everyone else around you. The world needs more of that.
All my strength,