Photo courtesy of Aris Sherwood Castleton sophmore Aris Sherwood poses with brother Sebastian.
Editor’s note: This column includes sensitive information regarding suicide. As part of Suicide Prevention month, if you or someone you know is struggling, text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
I was only 14 years old when the worst day of my life happened. The funny thing is, though, it didn’t last only 24 hours.
It was the first day of a long, everlasting period of grief.
I was only 14 years old when my older brother took his own life.
His name was – is – Sebastian. He was 21 when he died. He was tall, lanky, had dark brown hair and blue eyes.
He was sensitive, and so sweet. He became a second father figure to me. With a seven-year age difference between us, he did his best to take care of me and wanted me to be a good person and have a good life.
And I didn’t know he was struggling.
I didn’t know he was struggling until the night the gunshot went off. It was a snowy February night, a regular night.
Until it wasn’t.
Being so young, I didn’t understand what was going on, and to be honest, I still don’t. There isn’t a guidebook to help you through when a sibling takes their own life, and everything after.
I’m just moving along, and trying to figure out every obstacle that has come along the best I can. And I’ve learned things along the way – his character, his childhood, the things he did and said before he died, and reasons why he did what he did.
I’ve also learned a lot about feelings. I’ve never felt feelings more than I have in the past five years. There’s a lot of sadness, a lot of denial, a lot of anger, maybe some acceptance. I’ve learned that it’s completely up to you to decide how you’re feeling.
So I decided to feel angry.
One thing I will never be able to learn is what life would be like if he hadn’t taken his own life.
Because right now, it sucks.
When everything in my life seems to go wrong – when my sister moved away to start her own family, when my parents almost divorced because they were just so broken, and when I myself wanted to take my own life, it all came back to “none of this would have happened if Seb hadn’t killed himself.”
So I was always angry. Subconsciously, or consciously, I walked around with this weight on my shoulders, and it became hard to carry.
I developed horrible anxiety as well as depression, along with post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was 17, I went on medication, but it still wasn’t enough. My doctor recommended me to see a counselor, and so I did.
At first it was fine, until it wasn’t again.
I was officially broken.
I didn’t know that in counseling, when you allow yourself to open up and talk and explore your mind, you essentially unlock Pandora’s box. All these things that I was feeling or didn’t even know I was feeling came out into the world.
And it was hard.
I hadn’t felt that horrible since the week my brother died. But I learned that the only way left to go is up.
One of my assignments from counselling was to find my old letters I wrote to Sebastian after he died, and read them again. An old family friend, recommended this at his funeral, and I did. So I went back to read them.
One of the things I wrote was “sometimes I wonder what life would be like if you were still here … then I get really angry, and then I get sad, and then I get angry cause I’m angry. So many things inside. But in the end I just wind up missing you.”
And then it hit me. I miss my brother. So much. And yeah, what he did sucks. And I’m gonna have to go the rest of my life without him. But I knew, from that moment on, that I didn’t want to be angry anymore. I learned that the most important thing I can feel is missing him, because at least he was here, and he lived a beautiful life.
It is best to remember him for what he does, not what he did. And I want to live my life the way he wants me to – good.
So I got better. Some days are harder than others, but I don’t feel this ever-present resentment toward my brother. I miss him, and always will.
The stigma that surrounds suicide and mental illness is scary, and dangerous. But suicide is a real thing, and needs to be talked about. Which is why, being suicide awareness month, I wanted to share my story. Although my story is like the thousands out there, it is my own. If I couldn’t save my brother’s life, maybe I could save someone else’s. Which is why, I leave you with one final message: I wish more than anything I can go back in time and stop him that night. To talk to him, to calm him down. I just wish I had known.
But I didn’t, and that’s okay.
But it is so important to talk about how you are feeling. It may be difficult to believe that things will get better, but it does.
Trust me, it does.
My brother had a future waiting for him, but now he’ll never be able to get the job he wanted, to be a dad, to see me at my wedding. If only he had held on for just a little longer, and talked to someone, maybe things would have been different.
Suicide and other mental illnesses don’t look like one thing. It comes in different colors, shapes, sizes. It looks like Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams.
It looks like my brother.
But it is so important to know that you are not alone. Whatever you’re going through, you are not going through it alone. And, talk to other people, be kind to one another, because you never know what is going on in someone’s mind.
And, most importantly, your mental illness does not define you. What my brother did does not define him. You are a human being, you are loved, and you are so much more. There will always be light after all that darkness.