The hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life was walk through my parents' front door after my sister Denise's suicide. I was 21, a junior at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, majoring in journalism when Denise died. She was 17, two weeks from turning 18 and two months from graduating from high school. After bouts with depression, bulimia, and rape, Denise decided she could not bear any more life and walked in front of a train on March 18, 1993.
I was almost five hours from my parents' suburban home when they found out about Denise's death. They arranged for the pastor of my church to tell me. However, what no one anticipated was that I would have to be pulled out of my Western Civilization class to be told. I knew when I saw Fr. John standing at the door though. Something inside of me screamed out.
As we walked back to the church with my bicycle and Sr. Rita then drove me home on that dreary day, all I could think about was how my life would never be the same again. But in the back of my mind, I felt that as long as I wasn't there, it wasn't true. I wouldn't have to really confront it until I walked through the doors of the only house Denise ever lived in.
That moment confirmed that Denise was gone. The sister I shared a room with for 10 years would no longer be a part of my life. We had grown up together, mostly because we were so close in age. We did everything together and what I mostly remember are all the made-up games we played with our Barbies and Raggedy Anns. Suddenly, half my childhood memories were gone. Denise took a chunk of my life when she died.
She also took with her all my hope that life holds unlimited promises. I had always thought my sister would be there for the rest of my life. She would be at my graduation from college, the day I got married, and the day I had children. Denise knew more about what I wanted from life than anyone else. She supported me, even when I wasn't the best sister to her.
At 21, I was faced with all these thoughts and emotions. I returned to school the afternoon after the funeral. I didn't want to stay home. What was I going to do there? I had taken home my textbooks (an obvious sign of shock that I thought I would have time to study) and was anxious to return to school. There, at least, was some normalcy I could hold on to. My mom later told me that she didn't want me to leave but knew she couldn't stop me.
I went back to my classes the next day. All my professors knew and I was offered time off from the midterms I had to take but I chose to take them immediately. I don't remember how I did on any of them but I realized I wasn't going to take the time to study in a few weeks when I only would be getting further behind. Also, I was the assistant sports editor of the Ball State Daily News and Mike, the editor, told me to go home and take some time off.
But what was I going to do there? I wanted everything to be okay. Everyone else's lives were the same but mine. And what I didn't know was that in three weeks, when the shock wore off, I would really need that time off. Then, however, I wouldn't be able to have it. Society was already telling me to go on.
No one around me had experienced a loss as I had. My friend Bob's father had just died from cancer so he was the only person who could empathize with me in any way. There was no suicide survivors group on campus or in Muncie at that time. My roommates did the best they could, listening. And my friends from high school called me and sent me letters. They were the best support I could have ever asked for. I just wish they had been closer in proximity to me so I could have spent more time with them.
I was running ragged and just trying to finish the semester. I was tired, probably eating a lot because my body needed the energy. I continued my daily runs, even though I felt sluggish. At least I was getting out. Many times, I would talk to Denise as I ran down the street. I needed to feel a connection to her. I struggled to get through my final exams so I could go home and be away from everything that reminded me of that day in March. Email had just really come into use at that time and I only emailed two people-my friend Dave and my older sister Karen. I relied on the telephone to talk to my family and friends. It would be at least two years before I would meet another bereaved sibling.
Just two weeks after Denise died, I went to a barbecue to watch the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament on television. We laughed and had a great time. But I felt guilty. Denise wasn't alive anymore. That summer after she died, I was at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, doing my internship with USA Boxing. I had put myself into a situation where no one knew anything about me. Probably not a good idea for someone just fresh onto a grief journey, but the OTC was a place Denise and I shared as we had traveled there before with our mom. I'd worked hard for my internship and wasn't about to give it up. Again, people did the best they could helping me to cope. Still, it was hard when someone told me I'd always be the same Michelle, I'd like the same things, do the same things. Well, nine years later, I still don't follow baseball like Denise and I did. Everything had changed and I wasn't given a choice.
I knew by the end of the summer that I wouldn't be pursuing a journalism career. Somehow, I graduated on time though. I had to get out of Ball State. And I did something I always said I wouldn't do-go to graduate school and become a teacher. Life had changed me in ways I couldn't imagine. I was becoming someone other than I planned. In the fall of 1994, I entered the University of New Mexico, again living in a place where no one knew anything about me or the event in my life that transformed everything. At times, I wanted to blurt out about Denise. I wanted everyone to know. They had to know. It had made me someone else.
Because of my life at Ball State (working for the newspaper) I really didn't have time to date anyone there. I was also so exhausted most of the time. And, in the fall of my senior year, just seven months after Denise's suicide, my grandmother died. The television show, "Murphy Brown" got me through that spring semester to graduation. I needed something to look forward to because at times I was afraid of what would come next.
But when I got to Albuquerque, I allowed myself time for dating. It was very hard because everything was fine until I started talking about Denise. It was just over a year after her death and I was beginning to realize that grief would be a lifelong journey, not just three days, three weeks, or exactly one year. Getting people around me to understand that was another story though. One guy I dated said that I liked "feeling guilty in a perverse way." I had lots of male friends but it was difficult for a man to want to invest the energy in my loss, probably because he didn't want to think about what it would be like if it happened to him. Time would lead me to my husband, Joe, who also lost a sibling. It wasn't what drew us together but I do believe it has made things easier.
While I was working on my graduate degree, I took a class called health issues on death and dying. I wrote a paper on suicide bereavement and it was there that I learned how little information was available for suicide survivors. And how much was missing for siblings. I knew then I wouldn't become a teacher and be the role model as I thought I needed to be. I was going to write a book for siblings instead. Since first grade, I'd wanted to be a writer and I had many people encouraging me to tackle this project. I'd kept a journal since eighth grade and always wrote long letters to my friends so I knew how the power of writing could help us cope with our losses
Five years and 30 publishers later, in 2001, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Sibling was published, the first comprehensive resource for sibling survivors of suicide. I didn't want anyone to experience what I had, wondering why I would sit in front of my computer screen and see visions of the funeral and think I was crazy. I had no idea it was a part of grief but no one knew to tell me that. I dreamed about her many nights, both as 17 before she died and as children when we used to play. I feared telling people that though. I had no idea it was about wanting to reconnect with her.
I still carry Denise around in my heart. She's always with me. And because of her, I've been able to help so many other people. A life I never could have imagined. We never know where it's going to take us but I do know that we all can survive and be happy again. Even without the sibling we shared so much.