NOTE: This subject matter may be disturbing for some readers, so please proceed carefully.
A few weeks ago, on a sunny, cold spring morning, I made a journey from my urban jungle here in Chicago to a rolling hillside in the Allegheny Mountains.
I followed my sister, niece and partner as we lay Easter flowers at the grave of my mother, who died in 2007. My mom’s name is there, etched on a metal marker. Several other relatives from both sides of my family tree, including my mom’s grandparents and an aunt, are buried nearby.
Also buried nearby, with a newer, smaller memorial marker, is my sister Shelle, who took her own life one year ago, on April 17, 2011.
I’ve been trying since then to process what happened and to make peace with it. And I’m fighting two different impulses.
The logical part of me knows that letting go is a healthy approach. I’ve mourned her loss and will always miss her, but it would undoubtedly be far healthier to accept the loss and move on.
But the journalist in me – the one who wants answers and wants to tell other people’s stories – can’t stop turning the diamond to the light and looking for explanations, facts and accountability.
When I wrote about her death last year, it was still fresh in all of our minds. I wanted to be sensitive and careful about what I wrote. With time and distance, more questions emerge.
And to be clear: Though I strongly believe that my sister was ultimately accountable for her choice, and I truly wish she had chosen other options, I have long since forgiven her for any anger I may have had over her death.
What our family has come to understand and believe – with the small slivers of information we’ve pieced together – is that my sister was in a marriage with a man who was, at best, unaware and unsupportive and, at his worst – and we believe he was consistently at his worst – was emotionally abusive and perhaps physically abusive as well.
I’ve looked at the checklists for emotionally abusive behavior, and it’s like a road map to their relationship. Isolation from family and friends? They moved 700 miles and a time zone away. Ridicule, name calling, claiming she was crazy or ill? Check, check and check.
Part of the challenge for us as her family was our distance – we simply weren’t there to see it, and we only heard what she shared when she dropped the mask.
To respect my sister’s privacy and honor her memory, I don’t want to delve into a laundry list of the conflicts she and her husband had, or some of the reasons we believe this occurred.
But at the time my sister died, she’d been suffering for several years with excruciating pain which had just been diagnosed as a liver disorder where the liver attacks itself.
Her inability to work while ill had an impact on their finances, and on the night before she died, my brother-in-law essentially told my sister that if she couldn’t work, she was out of all of their lives.
Hours after this declaration, Shelle found a gun belonging to her husband, kissed her sons goodbye, left as if to go to work, and walked to the side of their home, where she put the chamber in her mouth and pulled the trigger.
She loved her children and, I think, even still loved her husband, but after years of emotional abuse and fighting a chronic ailment that would never get better, I think she simply gave up. It haunts me that all of us who loved her couldn’t find a way to help her (believe me, we tried) or fix what was broken.
There were accusations that my sister had been “self-medicating” with pain pills, and I imagine this is possible; I can’t imagine any other way that a human being could bear that kind of physical pain and still get out of bed and work.
I find these statements deeply ironic, as my brother-in-law was seriously injured in a car crash shortly after they were married, and spent many years since ingesting so many painkillers that I’m surprised he didn’t rattle as he walked. It appears that pain was assigned a value, and hers simply wasn’t as meaningful as his.
Even if my sister was having those kinds of issues, we are at a complete loss as to why her husband would not have been compelled, at some point, to pick up the phone and call us, any of us, to say “She needs help.” That call never came.
Our interactions with her husband have only brought supported what my sister told us. He and his family made the process of saying goodbye excruciating – a battle about where she was to be laid to rest, and an unbelievable exchange where we were uninvited to her funeral.
He has all but blocked any contact between their sons and my family; when my father or sister attempt to call, they can only talk to “Pap” or their aunt if he listens on speakerphone.
And those facts, really, tell me all I need to know.
I’m trying, deeply, to understand and to let go. And to forgive him, or the mistakes he made, as I did my sister. He was the product of an abusive home, and abusers learn from the masters, right? It’s challenging to make that leap, though. The more I learn, the sadder and angrier it makes me.
I just had Easter dinner with my family. And I can’t make much out of this muddled mess, but what I can tell you is that Shelle should have been there – or had the option to be there.
Instead, we had to take flowers to a cemetery in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania, where a portion of Shelle’s cremated remains were interred beside my mother, and place our memorial next to our loved one, whose departure remains as much of a mystery to us today as it was a year ago.
EPILOGUE: Abuse from any partner or family member is incredibly harmful. Although people seem not to give emotional abuse the same weight as physical domestic violence, emotional abuse is still abuse. Fighting and conflict within a relationship is one thing; sustained emotional abuse is quite another. Please check out resources on emotional abuse and offer help or even an ear if you think someone is experiencing it.