Fingerprint Etched Pendent Resting on Storm Watch on Pashmina Shawl
A Nebulous Number of Days of Atomity and Memory
I often do a guided meditation called Allowing Grief by Betty Gauthier who in her tender and compassionate reflection reminds the listener that when we grieve, we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain…The grief we carry is part of the grief of the world, but one’s journey is one’s own…and as we travel through it, we can grieve in tears, or in meditative silence, or in prayer…One may find that some of this grief will want to be written, to be cried out, to be sung, or even to be danced. At this particular moment in time, my grief is calling to be written. It’s taken some time to reach this juncture, but I feel it’s a vital undertaking in my healing journey.
I lost my elder brother Zenon more than two and half years ago to death by suicide. He had had mental health challenges for almost as long as I can remember and suffered with anxiety, depression, and OCD, all terms and conditions with which we were not familiar when I was growing up. My mother would often say to me that his temperament came from his father’s side of the family, that he was like my father’s cousin so-and-so. I, on the other hand, used to simply describe my fragile and gentle sibling as a genius constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
So, we just carried on living and every time he lapsed into a challenging episode, we sat back hoping something would reset him and that he’d return to a more ‘normal’ state, which in our family was still dysfunctional. But over the years, life’s harshness progressively broke him down more and more. His journey was an unforeseen one and included almost completing his PhD in political science (he never defended his thesis) and brilliantly teaching at the university level. But from there he went to working in the family video store, being a night accounting clerk in a small hotel in Western Canada, becoming a driver for a call-girl service, and eventually serving as my mother’s caregiver until his own health failed him.
It was during his stint as a chauffeur for sex workers that things came to a head in our family. He was back home living with my parents following another bad relationship breakup, and my parents didn’t know what to do to bring him to his ‘senses.’ Consequently, we organized an intervention of sorts to try to figure out how we could convince my brother to take a ‘real’ job. He broke down at this gathering and, for the first time ever, I saw him for the truly tormented and lost soul that he was. Compassion finally blossomed in my heart and I surrendered to accepting and loving him for who he was.
Unfortunately, after my father passed a few years later, Zenon’s health deteriorated to a degree that he could no longer adequately care for my elderly mother. He had developed emphysema and lung cancer, which only came to light when I went to a doctor’s appointment with him when he was given the news about the spot on his lung, but he had failed to mention the emphysema to us, even though he had known about it for some time.
The cancer was discovered early, however, and the unhealthy cells were removed surgically and without the necessity of any other aggressive intervention. But, emphysema is a horrid condition and he subsequently lost his life force and a lot of weight. He ate heartily, but he had the frame of someone suffering with anorexia. His body was not absorbing any nutrients and he became so thin I could almost put my hands around his waist. When I hugged him, he trembled like a fragile, wet puppy that had just been pulled from freezing water. And the condition aged him terribly and he rarely went out – he never said it, but I had the sense he was embarrassed about how he now looked.
More time passed and my mother reached a place where she required 24/7 care, so we moved her to a long-term care facility and Zenon was left in the family home on his own. Even his cat died, leaving him lonelier than ever. Not long afterwards, my younger brother (who was now the primary caregiver for both my mother and for Zenon) found him on the floor of the home and had him rushed to hospital with kidney failure. We almost lost him that day and it was nothing short of miraculous that he survived the organ failure considering how depleted his overall physical being was.
The family home was then sold and emptied and we moved Zenon to a charming and much more manageable space in a building just steps from where my younger brother was living. And we got him some additional care to help with his meals. But, for the most part, he was chronically depressed and lost his will to live in such a state of extreme fatigue, overall discomfort, and physical and emotional pain. Yet, he managed to read voraciously, had all his wits about him, and he loved movies (about which the two of us talked endlessly) and watching sports.
It was a fall, as is often the case, that signaled a worsening of my brother’s health. He hadn’t hurt himself seriously, but it was clear he now needed more assistance than my younger brother checking in on him a couple of times a day. He, like my mother, required full-time care. That was a difficult discussion, though he seemed to accept the idea. The three of us agreed he would move into the same home where my mother resided. I gave him one last tight squeeze of a hug, feeling his quivering body in my arms, and I told him I loved him. But two days later, in the early evening, I received a desperate call from my younger brother. The dear, sweet, kind, and very feeble Zenon had fallen to his death from his sixth-floor balcony.
The police had turned up at my younger brother’s door and told him they had been called to the scene. Zenon had had a small piece of paper with my younger brother’s phone number on it (and his name as well I think, though I can’t remember for sure) and they had tracked him down. My younger brother had seen him just a couple of hours before on one of his regular daily check-ins.
Zenon’s apartment looked like it did any other day, in no particular state of disarray or tidiness. It was if he was just carrying on as usual, and as if his decision to take his destiny into his own hands was made on the spur of the moment. There was no note, no messages on his computer. Perhaps he thought had he paused to bid adieu to us, he would have lost the courage he had mustered.
When I received the news from my younger brother by phone (I was living an hour away from the rest of the family), I fell into a state of gut-wrenching wailing. But the call was interrupted by the police who needed some more information from my younger brother, so I called a friend who lived just minutes away. But she didn’t take the call and did not call me back. I then rang a couple of my best friends who, unfortunately, live hours and hours away, and they moved heaven and earth to console me from their distant vantage points. I was in no condition to travel and my younger brother and I spent that night alone and apart from each other.
I went into survivor mode, contacted my boss and another co-worker to let them know I wouldn’t be coming into work for a while. But after that, the rest of the evening is a blur. I do recall that I managed to get some sleep. Again, memory is failing me, but I think I spent the next day at home as well, as our appointment with the funeral home was not until the subsequent day. Arrangements had mostly been made previously with Zenon’s input. Following the hospitalization with the kidney failure, we were prepared for the possibility that my brother’s heart might give out at any time or that some other crisis would befall him. But one moment stands out for me at the meeting with the funeral home’s staff – they asked us if we wanted to see my brother’s remains, and my younger brother and I, without even looking at each other, in unison said no. Neither of us could bear the thought of what the fall might have done to my brother’s already weathered body.
My brother was cremated without pomp or ceremony. And then we proceeded to create the biggest lie I’ve ever had the burden of carrying. My younger brother and I mutually decided to tell our ailing 90+ year-old mother that Zenon’s systems had just shut down. Telling her that he had died by suicide would have served no purpose other than to cause further duress and she would have obsessed about it.
In a week’s time, I returned to work, returned to teaching yoga, returned to dance classes, and workouts. At work, it was pretty much business as usual except that my first morning back, my boss came out of his office and scooped me up in a big bear hug and squeezed me like there was no tomorrow. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man and I was up on my tippy toes, but he refused to let me go. He waited until he was sure that I had received that he was there for me in whatever capacity I needed. He too had lost a sibling prematurely less than two years prior and he knew exactly what I was experiencing.
Almost no one else in the office said anything to me. Most people didn’t know what to say, so most said nothing. It was surreal and I transformed into one of the walking dead, going through the motions of life and being about as absent from my body as I have ever been. Less than six weeks later, after some discussions with my younger brother and mother, I attended a wedding in South Africa – something I had been planning for some months. But I didn’t tell anyone at the celebration, which was followed by some exploring of the country, what had transpired just over a month before. I was gifted with a space filled with love and joy and It was a deeply healing experience. It was no coincidence that I landed there by the grace of the universe.
Upon my return to Canada, my younger sibling and I were planning a celebration of life for Zenon, but then my mother’s health, not surprisingly, took a downturn. We were back in survivor mode and spent the next year trying to make my mother’s slow and painful transition as comfortable as possible. The tribute for my brother never transpired. My younger brother and I weren’t emotionally available to organize anything. Plus, as a result of autoimmune issues from which I had suffered for decades, I was feeling progressively more and more unwell as the stress and grief mounted.
When my mother did pass, we were in pandemic lockdown within two weeks and, in that state of isolation, I realized I had not had the space to adequately grieve my brother’s loss. So, I was being bashed not only by waves of a global viral infection, but of a double dose of grief as well.
I couldn’t carry on in that state. It simply wasn’t sustainable. Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to reach out for help. The name of a wise and compassionate Earthbound healing angel fell into my lap and I have been working with her ever since. She was one of the few people who ever asked about the specifics of Zenon’s death and she was the only one who ever asked the question as to whether a six-floor fall would have killed my brother immediately. She had intuited that I had asked that myself. In fact, I had Googled the question shortly after Zenon’s passing.
It wasn’t until many more months after my mother’s transition that I spoke more widely about the circumstances of Zenon’s death. My reluctance to do so earlier was not from any sense of shame or guilt about the suicide. I had simply become a vessel of the ‘family secret’ and I wasn’t sure how to break out of it. And I didn’t want to receive any more unbridled pity. I suppose I was doing my best to avoid playing the victim. It wasn’t something that happened to me. It was something that had simply happened. And that is why I have followed the lead of mental health advocates, by not using the term ‘committed suicide,’ which suggests a criminal intent. Instead, I use the term ‘death by suicide’ as it removes culpability from the person who has lost their life and allows a discussion about the disease or disorder from which they were suffering.
A close friend of mine recently attended a celebration of life for a young relative she lost to suicide during the pandemic and she reminded me that a person’s last action should not define their life. I am also consoled by the knowing that my brother ended his time on this planet to escape his unbearable physical suffering and mental anguish. I also understand his reasons for not leaving a note, why he exited the way he did, and that this was not his first attempt (his kidney failure was very likely the result of slow overdosing on his medications for anxiety and insomnia). I only wish I could have offered Zenon a gentler departure, but who is to say I would have supported him had he requested an assisted death – I wanted him with me on this plane as long as possible.
I have found much comfort of late by resurrecting my long-abandoned meditation practice and I have also entered into the realm of energy medicine, among other energetic practices to heal my body, mind, and spirit. It’s been a journey and a half, but I take solace in the notion that my soul chose these experiences in this life and that I have been able to extend a deeper compassion to others who have lost loved ones through suicide.
I am hoping that by expressing my grief in words, I will experience a deeper healing, feel the truth of my pain, and the full measure of this tragedy in my life. As Betty Gauthier says in her Allowing Grief meditation, it takes courage to grieve, to honour the pain we carry. And I accept that grief doesn’t just dissolve, but more space develops around it. Yet I will weep when I need to, because sometimes the best way to let go is to deeply grieve, and I will respect the tears each time they flow. And, when it cries out to me, I will run my fingers across Zenon’s fingerprint which is etched on the back of a pendant whose obverse depicts the Tree of Life.
Dear hearts, if any of you are grieving a loss, hold on. Breaks in the storm clouds will begin to appear. Sending immense love and healing peace.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566.