Life After Losing My Father and Sister to Suicide | Opinion

It was the worst day of my life when it happened. Thirty years later it still is.

I was at a conference in Miami, trying to reach my sister in St. Paul by phone all day. I finally called security at her apartment building and asked them to check on her.

"Yes, we've found your sister. She's had an accident."

I asked, "What kind of accident?"

The reply: "I'd rather not say."

I collapsed on the floor of my hotel room, wailing in anguish. I knew she had killed herself.

Dinah was my only sibling at the time. (I've since discovered two more.) She was my best friend, confidante, second mother—and a grab bag of contradictions. She knew everything literary: ("Ah yes, I believe that line of poetry is Swinburne.") And nothing much practical: ("How do you start the washer?") She was an old soul infused with the wisdom of the ages but also very naïve about people and life. She had the most tender heart toward the less fortunate but didn't care for herself properly.

She told me that she once witnessed a car sideswipe a stray dog. She immediately flagged down the driver and demanded that she take Dinah and the dog to an emergency vet. Of course, the woman complied. Who could resist that kind of compassion?

Yet, Dinah would forget to shower and wash her hair for days at a time.

Suicide is a perplexing phenomenon. Most people will do anything to stay alive, but a few find life unbearable. As humans, we are designed to struggle for survival by means of food, water, shelter, and reproduction. Still, through circumstances and/or genetics some of us stop the struggle. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among U.S. teenagers and young adults, and the overall American suicide rate has been rising for the last 20 years.

Many experts have written about the causes and prevention of suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, many people who took their own life have been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder depression or bipolar disorder, along with reporting "problems related to relationships, substance use, physical health, and job, money, legal, or housing stress."

In terms of prevention, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center emphasizes a multi-faceted approach that includes identifying individuals at risk and increasing the access to mental health assistance.

I write as the survivor of a loved one's suicide, a status that I uncomfortably occupy. My father killed himself when I was 16, and my mother was in and out of "the sanitarium," receiving electroshock therapy for her depression as I was growing up. Then, of course, my sister—my startlingly beautiful, complex, and creative sister.

I have contemplated these questions over the years since my sister's suicide, and share them here:

What are the warning signs? The common wisdom used to be that if people talked about suicide, they would "get it out of their system" and not go through with the act. Suicides often do talk about ending their lives before they actually do. My sister called me one day and told me that she was "looking at a knife." Panicked, I said, "What do you mean?" She responded "nothing"—she was just looking at a knife. I immediately called her psychiatrist and arranged for an emergency appointment. She also kept a diary that she handed over to her psychiatrist. It was full of references to killing herself. Besides the suicide talk, she was deeply depressed, could barely eat and dress herself—all danger signs.

Could I have prevented it? It took me a long time to answer this question "no." My sister looked to me in her dark time to provide comfort, insight, hope; I did the best I could to encourage her and to get her the best possible medical care. One therapist I consulted urged me to hospitalize her; the others did not. A close friend hung himself in the psychiatric ward of a hospital years earlier, and my mother emerged from her stays in the sanitarium a paper-thin shell of herself. In the end, I was reluctant to hospitalize my sister. In her suicide note, Dinah said that there was nothing I could have done, that I was the best sister anyone ever had. It took me years to believe that, but I do believe it now.

Will it happen to me? A family history of suicide increases the risk that one will take one's own life. But it doesn't necessarily have to happen. Survivors of family suicide need to take extra precautions for their own mental health. I have spent a small fortune on psychotherapy and medication to keep depression at bay. I am lucky to have a fulfilling, secure job and a range of interests and activities to keep my mind occupied. Regular exercise is part of the equation. A friend of mine once told me, "You have a strong hold on life." What is the alternative, I wondered.

How do I move forward? As the saying goes, time is a great healer, and with the years has come some peace of mind. I loved my sister to the depth and breadth of my being. As Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It, "we can love completely without complete understanding." I gave everything I had to her during the last days of her life, but it wasn't enough. In the end, I'm not God nor do I presume to be. I honor my sister's memory by trying to have the best life I can. I know that's what she would want for me.

Margit (Maggie) Livingston is Vincent de Paul Professor of Law, DePaul University, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.