we need to talk

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Siblings 1985

This is not going to be one of my funny, light-hearted posts. It’s been five months since my brother Norman died, and I’m still heartbroken. Writing is cathartic for me, so I’m going to get very real with you.

If you didn’t read my last post about Norman, you should. He was a loving, kind, generous, devout man who should be excited about hunting season, spending the holidays with his kids and playing with his beloved grandsons right now. But, on the morning of June 1, he took his own life. My life will never be the same, and I want to do anything I can to prevent others from choosing his path.

I learned so much about him at his visitation. I’m glad I know these things, but incredibly sad I didn’t know more of them while he was still alive. For five hours, friends, family and complete strangers (to me) filed through the line up of his immediate family to pay their condolences. Their stories had so much in common.

He was a helper. “Your brother helped me get into dental school. He helped my son get into scouting. He helped me achieve Eagle Scout. He was the best scout leader for our boys. He helped me get my dental practice set up. He helped my daughter get into Westminster College. He helped us so much through the Brothers in Christ Men’s Ministry that he set up. He helped get me through some of the hardest times of my life.”

He loved people. “I had lunch with your brother every Tuesday. We met for breakfast with our men’s group every week. We had dinner every other Thursday. I saw him several times a week at the salad bar at HyVee, and he always stopped to talk with me. We saw each other every…” You can fill in just about any time of day, week or month, his dance card was full of meaningful interaction with others. And not just small talk. He connected with others like no one else I’ve ever known. As an example, his bank teller recognized me by sight and asked if I still liked living in Colorado. How many of your bank tellers know what your siblings who live in different states look like?

Sibs in Chicago
In Chicago, 1982.

He filled his time helping, loving and praising God with others. As an endodontist, he saw thousands of patients over the years. A typical day for Norman may have started with a breakfast prayer group, seeing a couple of patients in the morning, meeting someone or running into someone for lunch, more patients in the afternoon and a ministry meeting in the evening.

Now, imagine his life when COVID-19 hit. He turned 65 in February, had extremely high blood pressure and asthma, so he was in the high-risk category. He closed down his practice and quarantined himself at home with his wife Anita. For weeks, then months. No more breakfast or lunch meetings, no joking with and talking with patients or his assistants, no going to church. Instead, he stayed home and worried. Worried about getting the loan papers completed so that he could continue to pay his employees. Worried about his health. Worried about his own finances.

This sounds terrible, right? Now consider that he suffered from depression, as has every member of my immediate family. This wonderful man, who thrived on connecting with others, was isolated. I believe with all of my heart that this isolation killed him.

Will I ever forgive myself for not getting in my car and driving to Kansas City to be with him, even when he told me not to? I don’t know. I do know that he took a piece of me with him. I also know that he left a piece of himself in me and in everyone who knew him. And for that, I am forever grateful. I hope I can continue his dedication to helping others. I pray for that every day.  

Siblings at Anna's Wedding
At my daughter’s rehearsal dinner in 2018

Back to that depression I mentioned before. It runs in our family, and this was not our first suicide. My paternal grandfather killed himself in 1940 after losing the family grocery store following the depression. My dad, who was nine at the time, found him. I learned this from a cousin when I was in college. Dad never spoke of it to any of us. There have been other attempts in our extended family as well.

We’ve got to stop hiding these stories away, being embarrassed or afraid of the stigma. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was young. I take medication that helps me deal with the symptoms for both. I still get down sometimes, but I’ve learned coping mechanisms and am blessed with a husband who knows my moods and helps me through them.

Grieving, and giving myself permission to grieve, is a long process. Our family has suffered so many losses over the past few years that it sometimes seems like I’ve been grieving non-stop. My brother-in-law Kevin died from a heart attack five years ago at the age of 57, then my mom passed away in February 2018…on my brother’s birthday. Dad’s been gone for more than 20 years. Norman’s death has brought back so many memories that I find myself grieving for them all.

These days, my sister Julie and I talk at least once a week for an hour or more. It’s such a strange feeling to be the only two left of our family of five. We have vowed to take better care of ourselves so that we can be here for each other and our families for many, many years to come.

We are honest with other about our feelings, and I am opening myself up to others as well. This vulnerability of sharing is hard, but it’s important. It’s a matter of life or death. So many of the people you see and talk to every day are suffering or struggling in some way. Take the time to really connect with your friends and acquaintances. If you sense something is off, ask them. Offer to meet for socially distant coffee or to take a walk. Send hand-written notes. (Check out my friend Elyse’s hand-painted cards here.) Be kind, to strangers and yourselves.

I know more people who have been affected by suicide in the past six months than in the rest of my life. It’s time to talk openly about mental health. Do it for Norman. If you need help, ask for it. I’ve done it and I’ll gladly help you find the help you need as well. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you need to, call or text 800-273-8255, or reach out to me or someone you love.

You’re on this planet for a reason; the world needs you.

To end on a lighter note, I learned something really funny about my brother from a sorority sister at his visitation. She found him in the middle of the country road near their house with a can of spray paint. He was painting targets around potholes so that they could be seen from the air. Thank you, Kim. I don’t know if it helped get those potholes fixed, but it sure makes me smile. I miss you, Bubby.