EDITOR’S NOTE: Heather Atkinson shares this Facebook post from her daughter Rebecca, about the death of Rebecca’s brother Sam by suicide. Heather says:
My younger daughter, Bec, turns 34 in a few weeks. Every year around this time she struggles acutely with memories of her beloved “baby” brother. Sam was one month shy of his 19th birthday when he took his life back in the summer of 2010.
Each passing year reminds Bec that Sam can never get older. He is captured forever in our hearts and memories as a handsome, intelligent and kind 18-year-old man. His death changed all of us beyond words.
Bec recently made the heartrending decision to tell Norah Rose, her six-year-old daughter, how “Uncle Sam” died.
Bec shared the following essay about this experience on Facebook. I thought her words deserved a wider audience.
by Rebecca Schwartz
Earlier this week was Bell’s “Let’s Talk” Day campaign.
I like the idea behind it, but admit I hate that it’s a concept sponsored through a phone company. Bell began the campaign in 2010, the same year my brother Sam took his own life. I’ve seen the day come and go over the years, sometimes sharing the idea, sometimes not. I think what prevents me from fully jumping in is knowing the eye-roll I would get from Sam.
I can’t even say I fully believe he was mentally ill—an impulsive teenager who had a few too many bad days in a row could be capable of making a reckless and irreversible decision that he will never get to take back. Some teenagers might choose to drink and drive or get high or have unprotected sex or countless other reckless behaviours to help them forget whatever is bothering them. Some of them live to tell about it, and some of them don’t. They aren’t necessarily labeled as mentally ill, just disgruntled teenagers.
We never got our answers with Sam. We never got to the “Let’s Talk” part.
In May 2010, at the age of 18, he flew to Australia with excited plans to travel and backpack and explore and experience something different. He went alone with money he had saved up delivering pizza. In less than 48 hours after arriving at his destination (and after literally days of travel), he made a sudden decision to return, without any real explanation, except simple excuses that sounded like, well…excuses. He came home and spent a month and a half pretending to embrace life in Almonte as a mechanic. And then, a month before his 19th birthday, he was gone.
Was he mentally ill, as you have to assume any human who would purposefully sit in a sealed car slowing filling with toxic fumes would be? Or did something break his faith in humanity so badly he just did not want to be a part of this world anymore? Is it mental illness to see too much, feel too much, know too much? Perhaps it is. Perhaps that’s exactly what it is. Or perhaps this world, this often terrible world, is just not the place for everyone.
To this day, we don’t know why his brain told him to do what he did, or why he couldn’t fight it. He had a lot to live for, and a lot of people he could talk to. He died with whatever that secret was.
I now have to take this experience that has shaped who I am and figure out how to incorporate Sam into my life so that he did not die in vain. When Norah Rose was a year old I wrote her a book that explained the story of Sam, with a basic premise of him leading a nice life, deciding he’d done everything he wanted to do, and then deciding to leave, and his family being sad.
This explained why people were sad to talk about him, why there were photos of him around, and how he was related to each member of her family. It also introduced the idea that what he did was a choice, not an accident.
She accepted this for years, and really loves the book, which features photos of Sam and all of us. The book helped her understand he was part of her family since she recognizes the people in the photos alongside her Uncle Sam. She used to ask for it to be read all the time and still often does every few months when she sees it in her bookshelf. Over the years she has figured out he didn’t just leave: he died.
Last week this finally led her to ask the question I dreaded: “HOW”. She asked at a time I couldn’t possibly answer her adequately so I promised I would explain soon. I spent one night thinking about it. I brought it up with her the next day.
How do you explain suicide to a 6-year-old? Maybe in decades past, maybe even back in 2010, you’d never even consider discussing such a thing with a 6-year-old.
I had to debate it with myself, but I think the fact that my daughter’s question coincided with the Bell Let’s Talk week made me consider that making something up was exactly the problem. What is the magic age to discuss such a thing?
Norah Rose already knew Uncle Sam was dead. She already knew he had decided to be dead. So her question was “How do you make yourself dead?”.
Part of my brain panicked knowing that I couldn’t tell her “how” because, well, what if she tries it one day?
But that thought process reminds me of ignorant parents afraid to “turn their child gay” by giving boys dolls or girls trucks or whatever. Ludicrous. You don’t turn someone gay. Just like knowing how someone killed themself won’t lead others to kill themselves.
So I told her he got sad and didn’t want to talk about it.
I told her that instead of talking about it he sat in a car with the engine turned on, and that eventually the bad smoke that comes out made him fall asleep and stopped his body from working.
I assured her this does not happen by accident, and will never happen to us in a car. It happened because he did not know how to fix what was wrong inside himself. He was ready to leave, so he did. I told her how hard this was and is for his family and friends that he left behind, and that this is why it’s a hard thing to bring up with Grammy and Grampy, and why sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about Sam because of the sadness of missing him and of not being able to save him.
The discussion continued from there. We simply talked about talking about feelings and knowing there are people in your life who will always always listen, no matter how hard it is to talk about some things.
So, back to Bell’s Let’s Talk: I guess it made me stop and think. It made me tell the truth to my 6-year-old daughter. Some might disagree with my decision. And maybe I was wrong. Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to know exactly how your words and actions can affect other people’s mental health for many years to come.
All we can do is pause, consider our words, consider our intentions and consider other people.
If you are the last person someone ever talks to, were you kind?
The last time I ever saw and spoke to Sam in person was when I dropped him off at the airport on May 2, 2010. The universe let me hug him and say I love you, even though I didn’t know how important those words were at the time.
Your words are always important.