It’s been over ten years since my brother took his own life. I was 24 at the time. Fresh out of a graduate program in literature, I believed words were the answer to everything. I would write about my brother eventually, I knew. What I didn’t know was when I would do it or what I would say. The first year without him the grief was too hot and too sharp to touch. I worked a series of low-paying jobs and zombie-walked my way through the days, waiting for the pain to ease enough for me to approach it.
Of course, that didn’t happen.
Here’s the thing about avoidance: it doesn’t work. The more I tried to ignore my grief the larger it swelled. By the second year after his death it had grown so big it eclipsed everything else. I quit all my jobs. I isolated myself from friends. There were some days I couldn’t even leave the house. I knew then that I didn’t have a choice—I was going to have to write my way through. And it was going to hurt like hell.
I developed a routine. In the morning: breakfast. A run. A couple hours of mind-numbing TV. Lunch. A little more TV. And then the long walk down the hallway to my office, where my brother’s journals waited on my desk.
If it was a good day, I’d spend a few hours reading his words, combing my memory, taking notes, recording observations, and trying to jam together a few more puzzle pieces. If it wasn’t a good day I’d write about how hard it was, how angry I was, how tired I was, how little made sense. I’d wonder what the heck I was doing, why I was wasting my time, why I couldn’t just move on with my life. If it was a bad day I would cry. And if it was a really bad day I would stay on the couch after lunch and watch reruns of Law & Order until the sun set and my husband’s key scraped in the lock. Those days came far more often than I wanted them to, and I made them far worse than I needed to. I berated myself for being a failure. I let my husband do the dinner dishes, popped tranquilizers, and went to bed feeling hollow, weak, and ashamed.
That’s what my life looked like, every day, for about four years.
Here’s the good news: it got easier. All those thoughts and feelings started turning into a narrative, and as the story began to emerge my grief began to soften. The more I made sense of my and my brother’s pasts, the longer I was able to sit with my brother’s death, the more space there was for me to breathe again. To laugh. To dance.
Another five years have passed since then, during which I’ve survived a life-threatening illness, infertility treatment, and a major injury that resulted in two years of chronic pain (second memoir, anyone?). Yet somehow, it wasn’t until I started working on this post that I realized that writing this memoir is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It forced me to face the darkest, most frightening parts of my grief and myself.
And then, it brought me back to life.
This post first appeared on the author’s blog and is reprinted here with her permission. Kelley Clink’s brother died by suicide in 2004. She is a suicide prevention and mental health advocate. You can learn more at her website.