Losing a sibling to suicide
My little brother, Chris, was always a complicated person. Seven years younger than me, he wasn’t the easiest to grow up with - could be a wind-up merchant and a sarcastic so-and-so, frankly. But, underneath, he always had a big heart and a wicked sense of humour.
Chris had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (these days it falls under an umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD) at an early age.
School was daily purgatory for him, and social interactions were a constant challenge. People who didn’t understand bullied him for it - and I admit that his siblings were not always the most patient.
Teenage Chris was in and out of mental health facilities in early 2017. He was hell-bent on escaping most of the time and never truly bought into the treatment.
Sometimes, he openly expressed feelings of suicide. On one occasion, I can vividly remember sitting with him outside a pub as he described how he wanted to end his life. He was matter-of-fact, almost aloof, about it and I am sure he was convinced that he was not right for this world.
My parents fought so hard to keep him going but, sadly, as a family we struggled to keep Chris here.
On the morning of 1st December 2017, I called my dad whilst sitting at my desk. He seemed tense. Text messages from Chris in the early hours of the morning had aroused concern and nobody had been able to reach him.
Not even an hour later my dad called back, and I think I knew the outcome before he said the words: Chris had taken his own life. He was just 18 years old.
"I threw myself into work instead of allowing myself to mourn properly"
At the time, I’d been at my new surveying job for about three months. It was my first role at a large corporate company, and I had no idea how I had got there. In classic imposter syndrome style, I was waiting for them to figure out that they had made a mistake in hiring me.
That meant I let those fears get in the way of properly mourning my brother and the awful way we’d lost him.
I went back to work just a week after it happened, and even made my profuse apologies for asking for the day off after my brother’s funeral (I should stress, nobody at work asked me to do this).
I threw myself back into work. It wasn’t about it being a distraction, it was always to save face, maintain professionality and appear strong, unemotional… dedicated.
During the first week back, I remember a tenant outright ignoring me as I arrived at her home. For budget reasons I hadn’t approved all the desired works to her property and it seemed she wanted to let me know she was livid about it.
I didn’t know this person well, but I felt distraught by her behaviour towards me. If you ever need an example of “be kind, you never know what someone is going through” - that is one of them.
It should not be a surprise that this approach to work did not end well.
Even the smallest inconveniences or problems made me feel like my world was imploding. By March 2018 I finally cracked and broke down to my doctor, who advised me to speak to a counsellor and my boss - really lay things out on the table.
It proved to be really cathartic. My boss and I developed a plan to steady my workload and I poured my feelings out to a bereavement counsellor.
Family milestones are bittersweet
About a month later I saw a National Three Peaks challenge advertised on my company’s intranet, run by graduates, and raising money for Young Minds. I carefully crafted my online fundraising pitch, set a suitably low bar for the very few donations I was expecting, and pinged off an office wide email in an out-of-character moment of pluckiness.
Just three days later, my running total was at almost £3,000 - my heart was bursting. Colleagues and friends seemed to resonate with the cause, and I was spurred on by stories of their own mental health struggles. (The Three Peaks challenge was, by the way, bloody hard work!)
It has now been almost six years since we lost Chris. Milestones in our family are bittersweet and every year I’ve wondered what he would be like, doing, thinking, aged 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24.
Sometimes, I feel guilty for not remembering exactly how he looks or what he sounds like, or for not immortalising him on social media on every anniversary.
We’d become close in the last couple years of his life, and I mourn that potential of what could have been a great brother-sister friendship as he grew into adulthood.
My point is, grief might look different as the years go on, but it may always be there in some form, intense on some days and maybe even non-existent on others - there is no shame in that.
The importance of talking about loss
I put so much pressure on myself to be stoic when really, I should have listened to myself, embraced the full spectrum of emotions, and sought help earlier. There is no timeline or ‘rules’ on grieving, and it is not the same for everyone.
Suicide is a huge thing to talk about and a subject that makes a lot of people simply feel uncomfortable. But I think it’s important to talk about it because it’s one of the leading causes of death in men under 50.
Early on I avoided talking about it because I did not want to ruin the ‘atmosphere’, and if I ever did bring it up I felt (although probably in my imagination) that people were irritated that I’d changed the mood.
Once, I mentioned it when someone asked if I had any siblings and their response was, ‘that’s so depressing’. It should not be this big taboo.
To anyone experiencing a similar heartbreak, I would say never suppress how you are feeling.
It will take time but it does get better. You also do not need to look or act sad all the time to somehow ‘prove’ your grief. I felt selfish for enjoying a Christmas party less than two weeks after Chris’s death, but I am so glad I went.
You can love and miss someone and still try to be happy.
Rebecca Graham MRICS (left, and pictured above with baby Chris) is an ambassador for LionHeart. She is currently taking a two-year sabbatical from building surveying as a contracted full-time RAF reservist, after being a part-time reservist for several years. In future she hopes to combine this experience with a surveying role in defence infrastructure.
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