Suicide. It’s a hard word to see in print and a hard word to say out loud. Some people would rather say “took their life” others opt for the more graphic “killed themself.” Any way you say it, it changes the lives of those left behind. I know, because I lost my sister to suicide—in fact I was the one who found her body. I have rarely spoken about it except to those I am most close to. This is not something I want to be known for or receive sympathy for, but in an effort to help someone who has gone through or is going through the aftermath of a family member’s suicide I decided to tell my story and offer some help.
I absolutely can’t speak to how to prevent suicide– that is for another article– or perhaps a conversation with God when I get to those pearly gates. My sister had bi-polar disease and I am convinced it was going to happen that day no matter what, but still it was a terrible shock and continues to be something I must recon with every day of my life.
For forty-five years she lived her life to the fullest– she loved to travel, hike, and was a business owner—but very few people, including her family and most of her friends, knew she was fighting a demon, which eventually led to suicide. When I say we didn’t know, I mean we knew she had bipolar disease and she was on medicine, but I thought that part of her life was under control.
When my sister Nancy was in college she had “an episode” and my parents were called to travel out of state to her college where she was hospitalized, diagnosed with bi-polar disease and put on anti-depressants.
That explained why she had used alcohol early on, to cover the pain she was experiencing but could not verbalize. She realized that was a mask and went to AA and lived most of her life as a recovering alcoholic.
She was a very fun sister with no hint of “Depression” growing up. Nancy was always the athletic one, best smile, great laugh, gifted artist. We have many paintings she did hanging on our walls. On the outside she looked like an exceptionally successful person.
There’s no need to go into the whys and what ifs but on a morning that she was scheduled to undergo a special procedure that was to help her overcome bi-polar, I got to her house to pick her up. Looking forward to our morning together I never expected I would find her body. She had actually checked herself into the psych ward at a hospital the week before because she heard voices telling her to kill herself and somehow part of her knew it was wrong. She said she did not want to die.
But then when I saw her at the mental ward, she was in a completely different countenance. She seemed very depressed and expressed feelings that she did indeed want to die. They kept her for a few days and then the doctors had this idea of a group of three treatments that were going to help her. When we picked her up at the hospital she was in great spirits and wanted to stop for a bagel on the way home.
Five days later she was gone. The reason I am writing this article is I hope I can help someone who finds themself in the situation I was in: I found her after she committed suicide.
So this is what happened that day, the years after and ways I have learned to cope.
She didn’t answer the door so I called her friends and finally someone came over and unlocked the door. When I came back the door was unlocked and I went in by myself. As I got to the top of the steps I started to realized it was not going to end well, but I really thought I’d find her sitting on the ground, alive but possibly bleeding. I looked all over and my heart was pounding. I began running through the house calling her name repeatedly, leaving no time for silence in between because I did not want to her any sounds. I was very scared at this point.
All at once I had the most amazing peaceful feeling come over me and I felt drawn to look in a certain area and there she was. Suddenly I was not afraid. I felt God’s loving arms around me and I did not panic or scream like you would imagine you would do. I looked at her and saw a completely peaceful look on her face and quietly said, “darn it.” I know that sounds dumb but that’s how it happened.
I touched her arm and I told her I loved her, then turned around and called 911 and told them what I had found. I went out to my car as I really didn’t know what to do and I suddenly got very cold. When they came, there was a female police officer who came directly to me and was very kind and comforting.
Then another police officer came up to the car and began asking me questions about her neighbors, her friends, who she had last been with, and I said, “there’s no need to investigate this, we know what it was. I was here to take her to a medical treatment for bipolar.”
According to the American Society of Suicide Prevention (AFSP.org), “Because suicide is considered an unnatural death, the authorities are required to investigate. Suicide is not against the law, but given that there are cases where a homicide has been made to look like a suicide, the authorities will want to make certain that the suicide has not been staged to cover up foul play.” There is more on that on their website. https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/
I sent my husband over to my parents’ house to tell them, but before he had the nerve to tell them my dad called me on my cell phone. I had to tell him and he jumped in the car and drove up to meet me. We sat in the car together and watched them carry her sheet-covered body out on a stretcher. He did not go up to her and there was no reason to. It was enough just to know what happened and see your daughter being carried out of her house on a stretcher covered by a white sheet.
So we went home and I toyed with the idea of what should I tell everyone. Should I try to hide it or soften it? Should I get graphic and tell them exactly how she did it? You are sitting there wondering that yourself, it’s just human nature, but there are some things that are private and it is up to you whether you want to disclose that information and to whom. But it is important you don’t hide it from yourself. Don’t try to hide anything because you will regret it later, you have to talk about it.
I did tell my family. I had two other sisters in town and one came over and when she heard the news her legs gave out and she fell to the floor. Later in the day, my other sister and I jumped in the family swimming pool with our clothes on. We slapped the water and yelled and screamed and cried—then we found ourselves laughing. We got our emotions out. That sounds strange but it was strangely perfect.
Some family members left for the funeral home to talk about getting the body from the hospital to the funeral home. These are things we never think about but it’s good to know what funeral home you would use as that is one less problem you will have on a day like that.
Our minister stopped by and while it was obvious he didn’t know what to say I appreciated it and when he asked if he could pray for us I gladly took his prayers. Suddenly people started showing up with food—because that’s what people do; they bring food. Bringing food is wonderful because it gives an excuse to stop by– “I just wanted to drop this by.” That’s a lot better than “heard your sister killed herself and wanted to come over and support you.” That’s what the food means, they love you, they care for you and they are supporting you—so always appreciate anyone who comes to your house and brings food– they went out of their way and maybe they were nervous doing it.
People don’t know what to do, but my advice to you if you know someone in that situation is go to their house. Offer to do things. A week later offer to bring a meal over. A week after that call with something interesting to say. Say “how are you doing?” but then also have something upbeat to say, we’ve had so many sad faces saying “how are you doing?” we just want to have normal conversations.
Because I found her, I had special experiences that others might not have had. For example, I kept replaying the event over and over. I would say to my husband, “now what time did I go over there?” “and then what happened after we got to mom and dad’s house?” For some reason I just kept thinking of it and my husband was the most patient and kind person who just let me keep asking and he just kept answering as if it was the first time I brought it up. If he had said “stop thinking about it! Stop dwelling on it!” like he probably wanted to say, I think I would not have felt as comfortable to talk to him about it—and I really needed to talk about it.
Another thing: flashbacks. This is where I think it is my blessing to be able to help others because I figured out how to stop them so I can tell others in that situation. I would see a picture of her in my mind and it was not the peaceful picture, it was a distorted picture. I called that “the bad picture.” I knew I would have to get that out of my mind so I found a pretty photo of her, smiling and happy and I made that the “good picture.” So every time the bad picture came I would replace it with the good picture in my mind. I would NEVER allow the bad picture any time before I thought of the good one.
This part is really personal, but if it can help someone it’s worth it. Right or wrong I wanted to verbalize it, so I would go to my husband and say “I just saw the bad picture” and he would say “think of the good picture.” If you don’t have someone to help you, then you have got to help yourself. Just keep thinking of the good picture of your loved one. The bad picture came several times a day for a while but I worked very hard to make it go away and immediately think of that pretty picture and one day it all went away. I stopped having flashbacks and now I only see the great pictures in my mind. No matter what, you can’t let yourself wallow in that bad picture, you must save yourself and keep trying to replace it with the good one.
Another thing that happened as the result of me being the person who found her– I found her near a stairwell, so for some reason I became afraid of stairs. I could not go down to our basement to do the laundry without getting really anxious and literally scared. My husband said, “I will do the laundry” and he did it for a while. This really helped me and after a while I was able to go downstairs and now it is not a problem at all.
As the days, weeks, and months went on, I became less and less afraid and I stopped associating stairs with that awful day. You can do this. If there is something you are afraid of as the result of a traumatic experience, just find a way to not have to do that for a while. Keep believing in yourself that you will be able to get past it some day because you will, but you have to take time.
Another thing that can happen is the association of the time of year your loved one died. My sister died in the fall and when the Halloween decorations came out I was really spooked. I would see people who put fake gravestones in their year and it would scare me and I’d think “why would they do that?” Halloween was a difficult time for several years but one year I decided to conquer my fears and I went into a Halloween Store (Johnny Brock’s Dungeon) and though I was totally scared, I forced myself to walk all through it and it really helped me in the longrun. I saw that they were just decorations and I began seeing Halloween as the fun children’s holiday it used to be.
You have to be your own advocate to help yourself. Even though you are devastated you have to realize you must save yourself. I would take hot showers and bend my head down towards my chest with the hot water running down my neck and back to relieve stress pressure on my neck and help me relax. I also took warm bubble baths with tension relieving bath salts. Whether they work or just make you feel like you are relieving tension, it helped me. I would light a candle and that would symbolize the light of my spirit that was still burning but hard to find. I listened to Christian music and found helpful Bible Verses. Though I was afraid I reminded myself that I had read somewhere that the words “Don’t be afraid” were in the Bible 365 times– one time for every day of the year. Whether or not that’s true, I always imagined God saying “Don’t be afraid.” That song “Be Not Afraid” is a comforting song and you can find it on You Tube.
Your friends will ask if there is anything they can do and tell you if you need some help to ask them. They want to help because they feel so bad for you they will do anything for you; they just don’t know what to do. And try not to hold it against those who don’t. They may feel bad but just don’t know how to help.
I never sought counseling (right or wrong) during this time. I relied on my inner strength and my faith in God (my sister Judy would say “We have to braver than we ever thought we could be” and that was true.) You may need counselling so please don’t take this as I am against it, I just did not do it.
But I did go to a support group for a time. That was extremely difficult for me as it was out of my comfort zone. Judy wanted me to go with her so I did. It was a typical support group, “Hi I’m Sally and my sister committed suicide by…”. It was very shocking to hear all the stories, I felt so sorry for these people with all their sad stories—but I was one of them.
I went about five times and that was enough for me although there were some people who went every week for years, including her. Some were experienced in comforting people due to their past and that’s why they went and some genuinely needed the help themselves.
One thing I found out was you have got to talk about it. If you keep it bottled in you literally can go crazy. There was one young man who said he is going through serious problems years later because he never dealt with his mother’s suicide when he was a child it strongly affected him later in life.
I didn’t want that to happen to me or to my sons. My sons were in junior high and high school. I did not know what to tell them, but I know for one thing secrets are not good. But then again if you have a son in high school you become afraid if you tell them about it, then if something goes wrong with them they might try it.
So I made the decision to tell them to a point. I said, “you understand what happened with your aunt, right? You know what suicide is, right? Do you have any questions? Do you want to talk about it.” They never really wanted to talk about it but I always had the door open and let them know it was not something that was a secret or something to be ashamed or afraid of. It was what happened. It happened to us and we need to be able to talk about it.
That’s another thing. It didn’t just happen to me. It’s so easy to hide away with grief feeling so sorry for yourself—but this was my children’s aunt. It was my husband’s sister-in-law, my parents’ child and my sisters’ sister. We even found that a former family member not with us due to divorce was affected by it and came to the funeral. We were all grieving and we needed to support each other rather than retreat to ourselves.
“If you are the parent or guardian of minor children, it is up to you to determine whether to tell your children the truth about what happened. Please do bear in mind that people talk, and while you may not (yet) wish to share the nature of your loved one’s death with your children, it’s very possible that they will overhear adults discussing or speculating about the nature of the death.
When explaining the suicide to a child or adolescent, provide truthful information, encourage questions, and offer loving reassurance.
• Reassure children that they are not responsible, and that nothing they said or did caused anyone else to take their life.
• Be prepared to talk about the suicide multiple times during the first days and weeks, and later throughout the child’s life.
• Consider a children’s bereavement support group for your child if they are having difficulty adjusting.
In St. Louis there is a great organization called Annie’s Hope that helps bereaved children. They don’t work with just suicide, it is any death but they have counseling, activities and a camp to help children going through a tough time after the death of a relative. http://www.AnniesHope.org
You have to figure out how to help yourself and your family and there are resources out there to help. Along with the AFSP another website is SurvivorsOfSuicide.com http://www.survivorsofsuicide.com.
The site says: “The Survivors of Suicide website is an independently owned and operated website and is in no way associated with any specific group, organization or religious affiliation. The purpose of the site is to help those who have lost a loved one to suicide resolve their grief and pain in their own personal way. The grief that survivors of suicide experience is unique. The questions often left behind are at times unbearable.”
That’s a good point to bring up now. A couple of weeks before my sister died she called me up and asked me to go on a trip with her. “I just need to get away, I am going up to the cabin for a few days and would love to have you come.” Well the cabin, also known as our cousin’s “fish camp” was in the gorgeous Rocky Mountains, up in the hills with no electricity. You have to park the car and then hike up there.
That is just not the vacation for me. There are bears up in those mountains, and other scary things including snakes. No thanks, not where there is no phone or electric. But she assured me she would keep me safe, “I’ll bring a gun,” she said assuring me I would not get attacked by a bear.
I said, “How about we go to Florida and stay in a condo, I’ll pay for it, we can fly down and go to the beach and then be in the air-conditioned condo at night.”
Needless to say she decided to take the trip to the mountains. She went by herself, and later I though, “wow, here she was with a gun. How lucky are we that she did not use it on herself up there because we may never have found her.”
And she had such wonderful stories to tell of her trip. This was the best. “I was hiking in the mountains when I heard this loud ‘shhhhhh” and I turned around and there was a huge field of purple flowers just covered with butterflies. That shushing noise was the butterfly wings.”
After she died there were a million butterfly stories and to this day when I see a monarch I say “Hi Nancy.”
It’s a beautiful story but to the person who found their sister dead ,the thought pops in that “What if I would have gone with her?” Would she have gotten happy and not killed herself?” I did not know she was having serious problems at this time, I thought it was just stress like everyone has.
And to the person who found a loved one, you may be thinking “What did I do wrong? Why did they do this on my watch? Was there something I missed that could have saved her?”
It is really only when we realize there is no answer to that nagging question of “WHY?” that we will ever be able to live our life and seek the peace in our hearts that we desire– and deserve.
There is no answer to “Why” and it was a big help for me when someone told me this. No matter how hard I try I will never know why it happened and guess what—it doesn’t matter. It happened and now it is up to us to live our lives.
There are a few things that will probably come up. People will say the strangest things and you have to give them a pass. They don’t know what to say. Just be glad they are trying to support you. A friend of mine lost her husband to suicide and people would ask about their marriage. It had nothing to do with their marriage– he was mentally ill.
And there are some who have the old-school thought that suicide is a sin. I’m pretty sure that at least in the past the Catholics believed it was a sin and would not even let a person be buried in their cemeteries if they had committed suicide. That may be a thing of the past but some people still feel that way and will let you know in “gentle” ways that even though…they understand. (No they don’t if they are even going there) Whether they are “comforting” you about that or just out and out saying it, you have to just say “ok” and stop the conversation. They might even think they are helping but it’s not.
I will never think my sister did something wrong. It was her disease, bipolar and she could not help it. Of course there are many reasons why a person would commit suicide and sometimes it seems that the person could have avoided it. Some people get angry with the person for leaving them.
You might be mad at the person and that is a very understandable feeling. But remember it’s not about your feelings toward them, it’s how you can bring peace to your own life. You’ve got to figure out how to reconcile it somehow so you can move ahead with your life. Suicide has the potential to kill more than one person. It can kill your soul though you are still technically alive, so try not to let it. I’ll always remember John Travolta saying in “Saturday Night Fever” – “There are other ways of killin’ yourself than killin’ yourself.”
I realized I could not project her depression on to myself. You will hear “it runs in families.” No. It doesn’t have to. Just don’t do it and it won’t happen.
If you are feeling suicidal yourself please get help. A suicide affects so many more people than the person who dies. I realize many can not be avoided, but if by any chance someone is reading this who is considering it but has the power not to…PLEASE don’t do it. You might be thinking “just wait, they’ll see!” if you are mad at someone. Or maybe you think there’s no way out of a situation. There is always a way out and being upset with one person is no reason for you to end your life. There are people who care about you and you don’t even realize it. PLEASE don’t do it. We will never know how many people we save from suicide– because they did not do it. After reading this and realizing the pain it causes so many please get help if you need it.
Contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline. Call 1-800-273-8255
In St. Louis there’s an organization called Chad’s Coalition, named for a teen who committed suicide. http://www.chadscoalition.org/. Their mission is save young lives by advancing the awareness and prevention of depression and suicide. According to Chad’s mother, Marian McCord, he was an extraordinary athlete. He was very successful as a high school student and no one would guess by looking at him that he was fighting the demons of illness.
“If you, a friend or a family member are experiencing signs of self-injury, bullying, explosive anger, depression, anxiety, and/or signs of suicidal thoughts/actions, there is hope and help,” they say on their website.
Also in St. Louis there’s a group called Provident Counselling. Their website is: http://www.providentstlmo.com/ and their phone number is (314) 492-6931. Among the things they do is crisis intervention and suicide counseling.
I wrote a book called “Finding Peace In the Rain” about some of the things that helped me get through that tough time and I feel in my heart it is my blessing to share any wisdom or compassion I gained from this painful ordeal with others.
When I find out someone I know is going though the survival of suicide I contact them and offer my help. It’s a terrible thing for a person or family to go through but to know you can help others gives you a reason to press forward.
It took me a while to recover (if you can ever “fully” recover), but I feel so much stronger than I did in the days right after it happened. I was foggy, I could not finish a task. I literally could not get from point A to point B. But I never gave up on myself and I made sure to do positive things every day. I wanted to honor her and continue giving my family a great life.
Unless you have experienced it you can’t imagine what it is like to not be able to follow through on anything. I felt crippled to complete a task. I remember one day I wanted to update my date book with addresses and phone numbers in it. I literally could not cross people’s names off. I had to stop and come back to it months later. I’d be in the grocery store, “Now what did I come in for?” I missed a lunch with a friend because I did not look at my calendar. During this foggy time I also experience fears unrelated to the suicide. I became afraid to be in the middle of a crowd and a few other things.
I think this chapter of my life has made me stronger. One day I was getting a massage and for some reason the massage therapist started asking me questions and I told her about Nancy. She said, “ Our lives are like a beautiful mosaic vase, bright and beautiful. Due to your situation you may feel broken—that vase has fallen and broken into a million pieces. But soon the sun comes out and shines on each little piece and they become more beautiful in different ways than the vase ever was.”
I always like to quote coach Jim Valvano, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
Sally Tippett Rains
If there is any way I can help you, email me at: STLSportsPage@gmail.com
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide PreventionLifeline website:
The American Society of Suicide Prevention (AFSP.org)
Book: After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief (2nd Edition) by Jack Jordan, Ph.D., and Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
AnniesHope.org Annie’s Hope is a local organization in St. Louis, Mo. that helps families of grieving children.
If you have anything to add to this article please contact me at STLSportsPage@gmail.com