March is always a hard month for me and my family because of the anniversary of my brother’s death. This year on March 16th, it is the 10th year since he took his life. He suffered from bipolar disorder and passed away when he was only 25 years old. He died within 3 months of being diagnosed and as with any suicide, the ones left behind try to piece together the whys and the what ifs.
Every year, when March rolls around, I feel a dip in my mood. The sadness and grief I feel year round when I think about my brother is amplified in March. Every 16thof March I feel like it’s impossible to even fake a smile. I never get through the day without many bouts of crying, so most years I take a vacation day from work so that I don’t have to put on the “everything is ok” face. This year, coming up to March I have already started to feel the grief intensify. I find myself thinking about the what ifs again, and fantasizing about what it would be like if he had lived. Would he look different 10 years later? Wouldn’t he have gotten well had he given the medication some time to stabilize his mood and could he be thriving now? Would he be in a relationship with someone special? Wouldn’t he love being alive today if he had the chance?
I also think about how my life would be different. I truly believe I always had bipolar disorder but mania didn’t kick in until the trauma of his death triggered it. Would I have had that first manic episode without his death? Chances are my illness would have intensified at some point in my life. I wonder how much easier it would have been to get through the first few excruciatingly hard years of getting the symptoms of bipolar under control if I had my big brother to lean on, to ask for advice. How much easier could it have been on both of us if we had gone through learning to cope with bipolar disorder together?
And I then have an angry phase. This phase doesn’t last long, sometimes a day, sometimes only an hour. I let it take its course. I think about how angry I am that I wasn’t able to prevent his death. I think about how angry I am that the doctors who cared for him when he was admitted to a psychiatric facility didn’t keep him long enough for him to get well. I am angry with my brother for not giving the medication more time to help him. He died within three months of starting medication that might have helped if he had given it more time and taken it consistently.
The angry phase passes when I remember that his suicide didn’t happen because anyone did or didn’t do something. It’s not my fault, it’s not the doctor’s fault, and it’s not my brother’s fault. The bipolar disorder is what killed my brother. No one blames the patient for dying from cancer just like no one should blame the patient who dies from mental illness. Remembering this seems to help.
I also know just how it feels to be suicidal. I had severe depression following my first and second manic episodes where I obsessed over death and constantly thought of suicide as my only option. Nothing anyone did or said changed how I felt. I believe that I survived because I told myself every day that my brother might have lived if he had let the medication take effect and that if I could just get through one more day I might feel better tomorrow. For me, having faith that the medication would work eventually seemed to prevent me from giving up on life. And it did.
So what have I learned from ten years of grieving for my brother? Don’t judge someone who attempts or dies by suicide. This person’s mental illness is the true cause of death. If someone you love dies from a mental illness, don’t judge yourself or your actions leading up to their death. It’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault.
What have I learned from surviving my own depression and suicidal thoughts and actions? If you are feeling suicidal – please get help, and when you do, please, give the treatment time to work. Sometimes it takes more than one medication, sometimes it takes more than a few months before you feel better but if you have faith in the treatment and don’t give up, you will get better one day. And you might look back on your life as I have and be so grateful that you waited that one more day. At the time all I wanted to do was to stop existing. Looking back at that person nine years ago, and thinking of all the joy in my life now, I am so glad I made it.
The month of March is a tough month for many people, especially after a long and cold winter. But when it’s done, winter ends. Spring comes. Don’t give up on the better life that could be just ahead. As much as it hurts now, wait just a bit longer, and then wait some more if you have to. Winter always turns to spring eventually. You will feel better one day. Have faith in that.