I had a dream recently about my cousin who committed suicide in 2008. We were sitting by her pool at her old house in Southern California, drinking iced tea on a beautiful, sunny day and talking about why she killed herself. It was an oddly calm conversation. No emotional charge at all, which, even in the dream, I noticed and thought was strange. She was telling me that she just couldn’t fight anymore. All her life had felt like a struggle to maintain control. She felt she was always on the edge of a cliff hanging on for dear life. Finally, she just had to let go. I laughed and told her there were other ways to let go without leaving such a mess behind. She laughed too and said she’d figured that out too late. I woke up feeling a profound peace. I had finally moved through the severe grief and was left only with the sadness of knowing we would never hang out like that again.
What happened prior to her suicide will haunt me the rest of my life. I knew she was unravelling. I could hear it in her voice. I knew she was lying to me about what was going on in her life. I never confronted her though. She would go on and on about all the crazy in her life and I never told her what I saw. And I saw it so clearly. She was breaking apart. What I couldn’t reconcile was the woman who was lying to me with the woman I had always known to be incredibly honest, sometimes brutally so. Why had I been so afraid to ask the important questions, instead of cowering behind flippant jokes and flimsy support? I remember so clearly our last conversation a few days before her death. I replay it over and over in my head, wondering if I should have told her that I knew the truth of what was really going on in her life. Maybe she would have chosen to open up to me about it. Would it have made a difference? Maybe…. Secrets are what killed her. I’m certain of it. Secrets, and the lies necessary to support them, are poison, especially for recovering alcoholics, which I am and she was.
I was one of the very few people who knew her well…. knew what was behind the mask. To the rest of the world, she was a fighter, brave, strong and confident. To me, she was all of those things, but I also knew her pain and where her scars were. She was also fiercely private and strong willed (read: STUBBORN). She stood up for injustice where ever she saw it. She was incredibly intuitive and would always tell you the truth, however painful that was, and you knew it came from a place of deep understanding and love. The more it hurt, the more you knew she’d hit the nail right on the head. Funny… I could be describing myself.
We weren’t really cousins though. Her mother and my mother were best friends since they were young girls and continue to be best friends to this day. We grew up together like sisters, and a sister is what I will always think of her as. Her father committed suicide when she was young and she never really got over it. I think it put the idea in her head that should life ever get too hard, this would be her way out. She never planned to stay on this Earth for very long anyway. Her time here was short and she knew it. That was another reason she chose not to have kids, I think. She always said she didn’t have the patience for kids, but to see her around them was to see a woman completely engaged and in love with them. It was like that with animals too. She was truly an animal whisperer and saviour. She was strict though. We used to call her “The Warden,” as she was quite rigid once she made a decision about how something was going to be. She knew that about herself and felt it would not be a great asset as a parent. But I often wondered if having kids would have softened her, released a vulnerability she never fully expressed.
But she did express it…..near the end. I think that’s why I froze up. Her vulnerability was coming through so loud and clear….and it scared me. She was my touchstone and I had come to depend on her strength. I didn’t want to see her frailty. But now it was my turn to be strong, to tell her the truth, however much it hurt, and deal with the fall-out. Instead, I minimised and joked and tried to make her laugh. I sent through the clear signal that I couldn’t handle her vulnerability. If I had let her completely fall apart, and shown her that I would still love her and always be there for her, without judgment, would she have come clean and told me the truth about what was going on? Would confessing her secrets to me help her to release the shame? Would that have saved her life? I honestly believe it might have. She was surrounded by dark energy and I could have shined some light on her. I knew, deep down, that was what she was asking of me. Why hadn’t I listened? Why had I let her down so completely?
Her funeral may have been a lovely testament to all the lives she touched in a profound way. I wouldn’t know. I was too consumed by rage to notice. The night before we had arranged to release her ashes to the sea, a place she loved best, I lay in bed wracked by grief. I cried uncontrollably for several hours asking her why she had done this. Why had she left me? I asked for some sign that she was with me. I begged for some indication from her that she was here and aware of my immense anger at her. The next morning, I went into the kitchen of my hotel room where I had placed a picture of her next to the ones I had brought of my husband and kids. I had leaned them all against the wall. My cousin’s picture was still lying perfectly against the wall, but it was turned around. Her face now facing the wall. In that moment, I knew she had been here and heard my cries. Later that day, at the beach, we all came together to say goodbye and release her ashes. Her husband took her on his surfboard and paddled out a distance. After he dropped the box and started to paddle back, a pod of dolphins swam right to the spot he had dropped her ashes and began to leap out of the water, playing and putting on a show for us that went on for quite a while. We all knew this was her doing and she was letting us know she was at peace. Our beautiful mermaid was at home and happy. We cried tears of sadness and joy, knowing only she could arrange such an amazing spectacle to communicate a clear message to us all. I will never forget that day and my only regret is that I was too angry to fully appreciate the moment.
Several years down the road I had my own break-down. I entered the early stages of menopause, which seemed determined to tear down the thick walls around my own vulnerability. I was a mess, unbalanced, closing in on myself while pushing everyone away. Luckily, I recognised the signs and reached out for support, otherwise, I may have gone down the same path as her. I had some very dark moments and I began to understand her anguish on a much deeper level. There were times when I perfectly understood her choice to check out. Had I shrouded myself in shame and embraced the dark, pushing away the people bearing the light and love, I’m sure I would’ve made the same choice she did.
The true empathy I finally shared with her allowed me to release the anger I felt towards her for leaving the way she did and the wreckage she left behind. I had been angry at her for so long and now I could finally understand. I knew I needed to let go of the shame and guilt and open my heart to the love around me. She taught me the importance of sharing my feelings, openly and honestly….that being tough and stoic serves no one. Expressing pain and asking for help is actually an act of courage, not a sign of weakness. They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. Today, I keep no secrets. I share it all. This enables me to be of much greater benefit to those who are suffering. If I boldly speak my truth, holding nothing back, and stand exposesd in front of the world, perhaps it will inspire courage in others to do the same.
Imagine a world where no one felt shame or hid their true beauty….if all our hearts were open and we only spoke the truth. Honestly, it sounds a bit scary, but I vow to honour my cousin by living in that world….always.
Rest in peace dear sister.