By Kimberly Lei Mistysyn
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.
The tattoo artist is finishing up, and I wish I could wallow in this pain a bit longer as I sort through my feelings. It doesn’t matter how many times I acknowledge to myself I have no reason to feel guilty, I still allow that feeling to seep in when I spend too much time thinking about it. My younger brother died by suicide several years ago, and I always re-hash that period during the birthdays he should have celebrated and the anniversary of his death.
Not long after his passing, my sister and I got matching tattoos. At the time, I chose to get mine placed in the middle of my upper back. A friend of mine was very concerned about my choice of location. She advised me that in her culture, putting a tattoo like that on your back becomes a burden I would forever have to carry. I remember telling her that it would be a burden no matter where I placed it.
What could I have done better? Differently? Why couldn’t I have been there for him? Why did things unfold as they did?
Despite the hard days when I am faced with these difficult questions, I have resolved not to be afraid to speak about mental health and suicide. It’s time to focus on understanding and prevention without judgement.
At this moment, on the anniversary of his death, I am getting another tattoo just for me. I recently heard about an organization that promotes the semicolon as a symbol for people who have been suicidal or who have experienced loss through death by suicide. It represents a moment in time when a writer can either finish a sentence or continue it. It is meant to remind us that our lives are not yet meant to be over.
The wrist placement is specifically to keep it in my sightline as a reminder that, on my very worst day, I need to tap into my inner strength and push through because tomorrow could be better. Even an hour later could be better. And this placement allows others to see it and know what it represents should they wish to talk about it.
When events unfolded, and I had news that my brother was in the hospital and unresponsive, I experienced the worst few days of my life — and I was fueled by anger. Looking at him lying in the ICU hospital bed, I desperately wanted to shake him and demand to know why he had done this and why I had to see him like this. Why did the universe allow such a brilliant and beautiful mind with so much to offer the world to have "chosen" to leave the way he had? Of course, I knew it was not truly a choice, because years ago, when I was coming out of the closet, I was in a similar dark place. But I had pushed myself through and lived. I was angry he could not have done the same.
When the anger dissipated, the feelings of hurt, confusion and guilt started to consume me. There is no doubt that the death of my brother was traumatizing for those of us whose lives were touched by him, and my previous anxiety has been heightened since his passing. Through the support of my friends, my main support network, I have had to accept that:
Immediately after my brother’s death, I suddenly found myself the member of a secret club where certain friends would take me out to lunch and then whisper to me that they had also had a loved one die by suicide. This was not a club I wanted to join — and a difficult one to be a member of. Many people hid their histories out of some sense of shame. People are reluctant to discuss a topic that is so heavily linked to feelings of shame for several reasons. Some ideas about suicide are shaped by religious theory that our loved one is beyond redemption for dying by suicide and the belief that his soul cannot be saved.
The stigma, ignorance and unsolicited commentary I have experienced include:
These judgments are a painful reminder that people don’t understand the depth of loneliness, hopelessness and burden that people with mental illness often feel. My brother felt he had to escape. It is no wonder that survivors of loss by suicide do not wish to openly discuss it; but this reluctance to discuss it makes finding support nearly impossible.
I have tried to make changes in my own life to address this; I have the insight to know when I need to lean on my friends, and I am deeply grateful that some of my closest friends know when I might need them. I am not, nor would I ever be, ashamed of my brother’s death or the way in which he died. He was a bright light for as long as we had him with us.
I have added a semi colon to my body art as a signal to others that I am strong and willing to talk or willing to listen. I catch myself looking at my wrist, and as I do it, a voice whispers in my head “your story is not over yet,” and I can imagine that even on my worst day, I will look down at it and that mantra will be in my head. My brother’s story is forever a part of my story, to be shared through me and the support of my peers, so he will not be forgotten and possibly help others in the sharing and the telling. In this way, his story will continue and may help someone else.
Kimberly Lei Mistysyn works in health administration in Canada Prior to that, she has been a writer, publisher and bookseller within the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Promoting resources for suicide prevention and advocating for mental health is now one of her main motivations.
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