Grief doesn't end. It evolves

Publish Date: September 2, 2011

Thirty-one years ago, my brother Clive, age 19, killed himself. He reached onto the shelf in my parents' closet, uncovered the handgun Dad kept for protection, and shot himself through the temple. The bullet shredded his brain then shattered the window; glass rained over the carpet and on his fallen body. I was 16, home at the time.

So much about that night I cannot trust to memory. I know these things: My friend, Sara, was spending the night; we were babysitting my youngest brother, Robert. Perhaps 10 p.m., and Robert slept soundly in his crib. Sara and I lay on my bed, talking in our uncomplicated way.

The last time I saw Clive alive, he was on the phone downstairs. Then, a crash, glass breaking. Sara and I rushed across the hall to check on Robert. Had that huge peacock tapestry fallen off the wall? He stood in his crib, wide-awake and smiling, so we took him into my room, let him snuggle between us. Our job was to watch Robert, and we did that part well. The tapestry on the wall? The crash? We didn't explore further. Why didn't I peer into my parents' room? Clive died on my watch.

I dumped Sara after that night. I don't think I even spoke to her at Clive's funeral, where the minister spoke of turning tragedy into triumph. My family turned tragedy into silence.

This week, Sara called. She'd be in Chicago to settle her daughter into college at Northwestern. Could she visit me? For days before Sara's arrival, I felt something stirring. I needed to say something, but what? On Sunday, as she pulled up to my house, I felt inarticulate and vulnerable — 16 and shell-shocked all over again.

Sara, of course, is not the girl I remember. At 47, she is an attractive, well-spoken woman, still kind to her core. We sit on my porch, drink tea and catch up. She meets my partner, my kids. Finally, I find the courage to say something.

"You were there that night."


"I pushed you away."

"Oh, Julie, it was obvious. I reminded you of it all. You had to lose me, too."

Until today, I didn't know that; I didn't know how far my 16-year-old self would go to protect me against memories of that night, that chaos, the gaping hole the bullet tore through our family. I am so sorry, Sara.

Recently, a 19-year-old girl in Oak Park killed herself. She has a brother who is in high school. Parents who loved her fiercely, tried to help her through her depression. I pray for the family, for their healing. I admire their courage in talking about her death to our community.

My own family rarely talked about Clive's suicide; silence seemed easier than grieving. I believe that healing requires me to speak of my grief, to let the wound re-open and bleed again, even years later. Someone once told me that grief has a beginning, a middle and an end. Now I believe that while grief evolves, it never ends.

It still surprises me, sometimes, like this week: An old friend, a mutual risk, and, for both of us, a new layer of healing.

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