This past Tuesday marked the 9th anniversary of my brother’s death from suicide. 9 years. Just seeing that number is strange. Has it really been that long? Was I really 24 years old, barely a college graduate, when John died? And am I really 10+ years post college, with a master’s degree and an upcoming wedding, and John is still gone? I say still gone because there is still an element of disbelief in John’s death.

Sure, I know that his physical body is gone. I know that I can’t pick up my cell phone and send him a text, asking if he’s tried the latest Skittles flavor or if he’s heard about the upcoming benefit for the Philadelphia Flyers. I know that he won’t join my fiancée and I for dinner at my parents for Thanksgiving, and that he won’t be able to try the sweet potatoes or the cranberry-apple pie. In fact, I know that he doesn’t even know who my fiancée is, because we met 6 years after John died.

John, who was a lacrosse player and a lifelong athlete who was fascinated by endurance sports, doesn’t know that I’m training for my 6th half marathon. I can’t tell him about the Clif Bloks that I eat during my long runs, and that I prefer citrus over fruit punch (he would’ve preferred fruit punch). I can’t tell him that I once rolled my ankle in the middle of a half marathon and finished the race with it black and blue and swollen (he would’ve loved that story).

Missed Milestones

Every September, as the anniversary of John’s death approaches, I think of these things in my life, from major milestones to everyday occurrences, that I wish I could share with John.

And it’s still tough to believe that I can’t.

Every year, more things get added to the list. Some, like meeting my fiancée and getting engaged, are connected to each other, and they become a long string of people, places, and events that John was never alive for.

The What If Wheel

As much as I wish I could, I can’t bring John back. I can’t change what happened on October 16, 2009, when he chose to end his life with suicide at the age of 19. I say chose because suicide is ultimately a personal choice. Though permanent, it is a means to find relief from physical, emotional, and/or psychological pain. For John, it was a means to stop the pain he felt from depression and anxiety.

It’s still difficult not to get lost in the question of “what if.” What if I had visited him at college that September? What if I had asked if he was really sick after hearing that he wasn’t showing up for lacrosse practice? What if I had called him when I was in Paris, just days before October 16? Would he have answered? I ask these questions and imagine myself being able to help John. Ultimately, I imagine one of my questions creating a turn of events that would prevent his suicide.

This may be wishful thinking for John and for my family, but it’s not for others who are at risk for suicide.

This is the power of advocacy.

Turning What If into How Can

Until recently, I only felt comfortable sharing John’s story with people who had become friends. Mainly, I shared his story with survivors of suicide loss: other individuals and families who had lost someone to suicide. I focused on grief and on sharing what had worked for me in navigating my own grief. I strived to become a real-life example that survivors of suicide loss can continue living life to the fullest while still remembering the individual they’ve lost.

But this is only half of the audience. In the years following John’s death, I had wanted to be able to share John’s story with those who are or who know someone who is at risk for suicide.

But it was tough. I wondered how I could help others without “what if” questions about John’s death coming to mind. I struggled with remaining hopeful for others and for the possibility of life and for survival when death from suicide felt so real.

Truthfully, I’m always going to have those questions and these feelings. But this is only a small part of my own story of suicide loss.

The Belief in Advocacy

This September, I held two suicide prevention events in my town. After connecting with a local county official, I worked with the county suicide prevention taskforce to create a panel event that featured a group of panelists and a moderator. Each individual had been personally affected by suicide or works in suicide prevention and advocacy. The group answered questions about suicide, with the idea that the discussion would increase awareness about a topic that has an overwhelming stigma in American culture.

A month later, a friend approached me and said, “I have a former roommate who is depressed. I had thought she was suicidal. After attending the panel event, I asked her if she was thinking about suicide.” My friend continued by sharing that the discussion at the panel event had given her the courage to ask. And she shared that her friend is currently receiving treatment as a result of her question.

There may still be an element of disbelief in John’s death for me and my family, but there is a stronger element of belief in the life of others.

If you or a loved one is struggling, please contact:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Call 1-855-634-HOPE (4673), Veterans Press (1)

Crisis Text Line, Text 741-741 (if in the United States)

The Trevor Project , Call 1-866-488-7386

Institute on Aging Friendship Line, Call 800-971-0016

American Association of Suicidology

If you’ve lost someone to suicide:

Survivors of Suicide

If you’re interested in helping others who are at risk for suicide:

QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer)