I can count the number of times I’ve been angry on one hand. Since I’m almost 51 years old and I have raised five children, most would see that as an accomplishment or evidence of extraordinary self-control. However, I know the truth. And the truth is that I am afraid of anger. I am afraid of losing control.
A little over a year ago, I awoke to the news that my “baby sister” and “best friend” had shot herself the night before. She had not survived. I live over 800miles away from my family of origin; my pastor and my best friend arrived at my house within the hour. The first day’s emotions were intense sadness, shock, confusion, pain, and denial. I attended to the mechanics of finding each of my children and telling them in person. I made arrangements to travel for her funeral. I cried. A lot.
The following days, weeks and months, I was in survival mode. Not just for myself, but for my children, my parents, my sister’s child and my extended family. I couldn’t manage this and my demanding job so I resigned. I experienced a myriad of emotions that summer, fall and winter: abandonment, pain from missing her, intense sadness for what she went through, guilt for missing the signs, responsibility for keeping my family afloat, heartbreak for my parents, fear of losing another family member, shame as I discovered the double life my sister had been living, despair and wondering if I even wanted to go on, and finally, determination to do so. I cried every day, at least once and usually more, for months.
While all of this was normal, I never experienced any anger. Part of me wondered why I didn’t, as it seemed to be at least a portion of what “everyone else” was going through. And it was widely reported in suicide survivor literature. It was around ten months after her death that something shifted.
One day, I was at the post office and saw a woman from my suicide support group. I hadn’t been there for several months and I didn’t think she’d recognize me, so I just observed her. I came to the realization that, even if I didn’t know her story, I would have known just by looking at her that she carried a huge burden. It was almost visible like Santa’s bag, but not stuffed with goodies. As I descended the stairs to my car, I suddenly knew that I, too, was carrying this burden. I loved my sister more than my own life, but the memory of how she left this world had become a huge weight on my shoulders that I carried everywhere. I said to myself, “my sister has become a bag of bricks.” And for the first time, I felt angry.
I went to my therapist a few days later and announced it because it was a new feeling and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. It felt wrong to be mad at a deceased person, especially one who had experienced so much pain and despair that they took their own life. My therapist sagely asked, “How does your anger hurt your sister?” And I realized it did not. It did not hurt anyone. Handled properly, it was probably necessary.
I gave myself permission to be angry at her. I made a long list of the “bricks” I was carrying. Anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide knows the reality that comes with not only the emotional issues but the logistical issues that remain after saying goodbye. A good example is that I had left a lucrative job in the weeks of pain that followed. I turned this over in my head and pondered all of it. Finally I gave myself permission to express it out loud. First, to my mom when she was expressing her anger to me. “I feel like I was climbing the same mountain of life with Amanda, and then she suddenly gave me a kick which sent me reeling down the mountain, before she herself jumped off a cliff.” That summed it up. We had both been battling depression, recovering from ugly divorces, struggling with money, re-entering the workforce. Together. And then she left, in a way that set me back years. That sucked!!
As the calendar turned and a full 365 days had passed, I was able to know that I was not “stuck” in my grief. That slowly, I was making progress. And, awash in tears, I realized that, for me, letting myself experience anger was part of that.
In memory of my amazing sister Amanda,