Six years ago tonight, I was euphoric from a date the night before and packing for my first trip with my first job out of college. I was hopeful, ecstatic that I had a potential new boyfriend who I just could not spend time with, and the dream job that I spent six months convincing the CEO of the company to give to a hungry recent college grad. After a day of bliss, planning for a future that was suddenly looking bright, I checked my phone. I had multiple missed calls from my mother, and one simple text message: Urgent call me. The moment I heard her voice, I knew. My sister was gone. Moments before my mom called me, my sister took her own life.
When I hung up the phone, I just started screaming. There was literally nothing else I could do. I tried calling my soon-to-be boyfriend, but he was already asleep for the night. My roommates were gone for the night. I was utterly alone in the busiest city on earth. I curled up in the fetal position, and cried and cried and cried.
My phone rang, I quickly answered it, hoping it was anyone who would tell me that this just was not real. “Marji? It’s Grant! We’re meeting at 10:30pm. Does that work for you?”
I had totally spaced a friend from my college days in Miami I was supposed to meet that night.
“No, um, I’m so sorry,” I said, holding back my tears. “I can’t.”
“Oh, is everything okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Well, let me know if you change your mind,” he said. “Sure would love to see you.”
“Yes, I will,” I said, hanging up my phone and continuing to cry. A few moments later, he called back.
“What’s wrong? You didn’t sound right on the phone.”
“My sister just died,” I said, for the first time. I could not believe I had to say it, that it was true. Grant was in shock, I was in shock, and we just sat silently on the other end of the phone, fusing a bond that we still have to this day-- because we both were put in such a solemn moment in time, together.
The next day, I got up for my work trip as though it were any other day. I went to the airport, wanting to scream to every taxi driver and TSA agent that my sister just died, and the world can’t possibly just be going on as usual. I got on my flight, landed in Michigan, went to our offices, and did not tell anyone my sister died until after lunch. That’s how much shock I was in.
A couple of weeks later, a newly formed friend captured a photo of me looking out at Lake Michigan. It captured a more serious, different version of me than I had seen in a photograph before. It captured a girl who was looking towards a future, because the past was too horrific to look back into. It captured the first glimpse of lost innocence, and the beginning of a life of loss, empathy and learning what to do with the giant holes people leave in our lives.
My sister’s suicide was a toxic poison that crept into absolutely every part of my life. It ate away at all hopes, dreams and plans. I could not even go on first dates for a year, because I hated when they would ask how many siblings I had. Lifelong friends looked at me with pity, and new friends wanted to know all of the gory details of her death.
There was something that happened to me, though, that night. I felt my sister’s arms around me a I lay alone in my NYC apartment, and I felt her tell me that this was what she wanted and to move forward because she was at peace. It sounds crazy, but I swear to God I felt her right there, saying those words.
So in the midst of the destruction that suicide brings to every single life it leaves behind, I made the decision that I was going to move forward and live ‘for’ my sister. I would do the things that she was no longer able to do. I would find the happiness that she never quite found. I would create beauty from ashes, because I refused to let someone else’s decision stop my life too.
A friend captured a photo of me on a lake this past weekend when I was visiting home, looking off into the distance almost in the exact way I was looking just a few weeks after my sister died. My hands started shaking as I looked at the photograph and immediately was remembered of the one taken years ago.
As much as my gaze has strengthened over the past six years, there is a part of it that is still oh-so-much the same. I find pride in that. While my sister’s death molded me into a completely different person, it did not destroy my soul and who I am at my core. I look at that woman in the photo from this past weekend, and am proud of the woman that has risen out of the ashes.
Tonight is the first time on the anniversary of my sister’s death that I have been alone, back n my NYC apartment. It has an eerie resemblance to when I found out she died, and I have spent part of the night wanting to rip my heart out and never feel anything ever again, but I also realize how far I have come over the past six years to sit in an NYC apartment, alone, on a somber night like this, and stare straight into my future with hope and a spirit that refuses to die.
In honor of the time that has passed between two lake gazes, here are the six things I have learned over the past six years through my sister’s death:
God Picks Your Friends, More Than You Do
I had only met Grant once before I decided to meet up with his friends and him when he was visiting NYC. I knew he was a great person because of who I met him through, but I knew very little about him. In an instant, just because he was the first person to call me after my sister died, we became bonded for life. It is incredible how much circumstances and God’s timing depict who you are forged with for eternity. I also met an incredible girl who was interning for my company during that time, who’s own brother committed suicide just three weeks after my sister did. She also happens to be the one who took the photo of me on the lake. Little did she know when she took that photo, we would soon be bonded for life by the same tragedy.
At the same time, I was in absolute shock at my lifelong friends who disappeared when my sister died. Movies make it seem like you can just pick up the phone after a tragedy, and everyone will circle you and make sure you stay alive. The truth is, a lot of people have no idea how to deal with tragedy, especially something like suicide, and they don’t even return your pleading messages. That’s okay. Don’t hate them for it. Understand, that 99 percent of them wants to be there for you, but there is this other part of them that just honestly can’t deal with the extend of the tragedy themselves. The good news is, you don’t always lose these friends forever. Sometimes, even years later, they will show up and be there for you, and, maybe, just maybe, they will also explain to you why they could not deal with the tragedy in your life.
Pain Is Never An Excuse To Hurt Others
From my experience there are two ways to deal with pain >> you can lash out at everyone and make them feel the extend of the pain you are feeling OR you can take all of the energy from that pain and invest it into something positive. I witnessed people use my sister’s death as an excuse to only inflict more pain on others. I also witnessed people doing amazing things in my sister’s name after she passed away. I have to make a conscious effort, even six years later, to pour that energy into the positive. I think of ways I can help raise money for suicide prevention programs, and write about suicide prevention on my blog as often as I can.
Life Is Full Of Second Chances
Being alone in NYC and receiving the news of my sister eventually became too much for me. A little less than a year later, I moved out of the city that I always dreamed of calling home. I was devastated. NYC was my pipe dream, and the memories of my sister’s death killed it. However, that was not the end of my romance with the city. When the time was right, I was able to move back to the city ghost-free, and even spend tonight, alone in my apartment, with limited ghosts. God gives you second chances, you just have to have faith that he knows the timing of your life better than you do.
Love Your Work
A large part of my sister’s death was due to stress from a high-profile, top-secret job she had as a mechanical engineer. She hated it and was always in tears. I watched this influence everything from the way her relationships worked in her life, to how she perceived herself. After her death, my parents drilled it into me that absolutely no job, no fame, no ‘perceived’ success is worth your health. You have to love what you do, or what the hell are you doing?
Live With Open Eyes
My sister’s death opened my eyes-- wide. I suddenly grasped how short life is, how important certain decisions are, how many people around me actually need my help. It’s like I put glasses on and everything in the world became crystal clear. My perception sharpened and I started spending less time in dead-end relationships and friendships, and more time looking for opportunities to help others. I got into yoga and meditation and started writing more. Through the lessons learned through my sister’s death, I started living.
Learn About Yourself Through Others
My sister taught me this one, when she was alive. I caught her sneaking onto my computer when I was around ten years old and was furious with her. So furious, I password protected all of my files after that. Later on, she pulled me aside and said that what she read that night was astounding and I had to publish my writing. She called out my talent and encouraged me to share it with others. (You can read more about that here: One Life For Another).
Sometimes, other people know you better than you know yourself, and you should listen to them. She saw something in me way before I saw it, which is now something I get to keep me with me even when she is gone.
It has not been an easy six years, and I have written on numerous occasions about the idea that a person’s death never really leaves you >> you just learn how to live with it more each day. In fact, I’d say as I near the age my sister took her own life at, it becomes harder.
She has inspired so much in me to bloom, though, even after her death. She is with me, and my family, and we will always be a family of five.
I love you, E. Missing you always.