Meaning of Shelle: from Rachel and Rochelle; a little rock; a place to rest.
August 17 is my sister Shelle’s birthday.
It’s easy to think about her on this celebratory day.
It’s far, far easier than thinking about the April morning two years ago when she took her own life.
I’ve talked about Shelle before in this blog (in the post “No Answers Here“). That first post, written about a month after her death, was my attempt to put it all into context, into a frame.
But survivors of a loved one’s suicide learn that little about the aftermath can be neatly sorted or summed up.
I read a great quote recently (and am sorry that I didn’t get the exact words, or author) that said something to the effect of: the narrative survivors try to piece together is really a myth for us, to explain what is ultimately unknowable.
It’s a myth we tell ourselves, because we’ll never know what transpired in the final moments of the lives of our loved one.
Western religion and culture has an emphasis on conclusions, on endings. We like our movies to have a clear narrative from beginning to end.
More often than not, life is more like a Terrence Malick film, with vivid images and experiences but no definitive start and end to the ways we experience it.
And that’s the thing that, no matter how good things are in the present moment, haunts me and all of us who tried to help her. There’s that nagging feeling of “could we have done anything to prevent this?”
I’m still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
As a journalist, I’m always digging for the whole story.
But I have no “whole” story of which I am certain of here, only a patchwork of images, an incomplete picture of what happened.
The narrative of Shelle’s last few years was the repeated drama of a lot of negative forces slamming together.
She was having health issues (identified shortly before her death as an auto-immune disease of the liver) and after a long and respected career as a nurse, those issues started having an impact on her job.
Shelle was the picture of dependability in all her jobs, but her illness – what she described as someone “tying a rope around my midesction and pulling hard” – was leading to frequent call-offs.
It led to a cycle of job loss and job instability.
My first clue to her desperation was on a stormy July afternoon in 2008, when she called to tell me she needed me to die.
No, not literally; she’d missed work and told her employer that her brother had died.
Couldn’t I help her by placing an obituary in the paper? She didn’t realize that only funeral directors can call in an obituary.
A few days later, she lost her job.
Her relationship with my brother-in-law – let’s call him “Bill” – had deteriorated.
And here’s where the narrative gets very cloudy.
We can only try to put together a narrative from the little glimpses we had into their lives: the brief phone calls, Shelle’s last visit home (at my mother’s funeral), a text message here and there.
All of us in Shelle’s immediate family initially had a solid relationship with Bill.
My mother was one of many by his bedside when a drunk driver slammed into his car a mile or so from our house, killing Bill’s brother and seriously injuring Bill (in ways that still affect him today).
But at some point, Bill started putting distance between Shelle and us.
They moved a considerable distance to a southern state – a place that made it nearly impossible for my parents to see their grandsons.
We were at such a distance that we could not bear witness to their relationship.
Based on my few interactions with him, and my conversations with my sister, I truly believe that Bill was deeply emotionally abusive to Shelle.
“Keeping you from family and friends” is in the top 10 of most domestic abuse checklists, and it was Bill’s modus operandi.
He became verbally abusive when her illness impacted her ability to work – because she was, in fact, the primary breadwinner.
Shelle was in so much pain physically that she often took pain killers. She’d often sleep for days on end, after working long stretches of time. Her sleep rhythms were destroyed by years of long hours as a nurse.
And that cycle of pain, escape and work just fed a vicious cycle for her, made worse by what appears to have been a complete lack of support from Bill.
It’s hard from a distance to see the effect of abuse on someone, but it clearly destroyed her self-esteem.
According to my sister, the friction and negativity would only stop when and if she was earning money. She had been reduced to a human ATM machine.
At some point, my sister was so diminished by his words that she thought the proceeds of her life insurance policy would be more valuable to her children than her presence.
That last, final step she took is the one that I keep trying to reevaluate in my head.
I was one of the last people to hear from her, in a text message that now seems like a goodbye of sorts.
Even though we all knew she had killed herself, it was a punch to the gut for me to read that not only was it a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but that she’d put the barrel of the gun in her mouth before pulling the trigger..
I’ve been thinking a great deal about Shelle this summer.
I’ve had a few minor health issues. They gave me a glimpse into the toll that living with that kind of pain 24/7/365 would take on me and on my family.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about forgiveness.
In trying to bring balance and positive energy to my own life, I want to embrace forgiveness.
Though we tried to help Shelle for years in every way we knew possible, she made the choice to end her life. I forgave her for that choice long ago.
I felt a great deal of guilt for not knowing, somehow, what was happening the night before she died. Could I have sent the police for a well-being check?
But it was a conversation we’d had literally hundreds of times before.
Her pain, the lack of support, her job woes had become like the movie Groundhog Day, playing over and over. I could not have known what was to come. And so, I have forgiven myself.
My roadblock to complete forgiveness is finding room in my heart to forgive Bill, or to let go of the mixture of anger and frustration I still feel when his name is mentioned.
As I said earlier, I believe Shelle’s claims of emotional abuse were true. In one of the few conversations that my family had with him after Shelle’s death, he said she’d been very sick and blamed it on the painkillers.
But if Shelle was as sick as he claims – a woman he pledged to take care of in sickness and health until death do you part – wouldn’t he have let us know?
If he wasn’t feeling the love in a way necessary to support her, why didn’t he let US take care of her?
We’ve all but lost contact with Bill and Shelle’s two sons. Bill will not allow us to speak to them unless he can listen in on the call. He’s still keeping Shelle (or in this case, their kids) from us.
I regret to say that I’m not at 100% forgiveness yet.
What I am doing, slowly, with as much peace and light as I can muster, is to try to remember the circumstances of Bill’s life.
Bill’s father was a physically abusive and violent man, one that he cast out of his life years ago. His mother is a deeply negative and manipulative person. (The things she said to us the day Shelle died – and the way she delivered the news of Shelle’s death to my family – is the work of a truly damaged, toxic person.)
There’s a saying that “monsters are made, not born.” I know that Bill is no monster – just as my sister was no perfect saint – but that saying reminds me that behavior like Bill’s is learned.
I try to remember the places he came from, and the experiences that shaped him.
I wish I could still call him “family,” but Bill made the decision to sever that tie long ago. Severing ties is one of the ways his family handled conflict.
Controlling someone – as Bill did when he sought to separate Shelle from her family, as he is doing now with their children – is clearly another tool he learned.
That’s the best I can do right now, and it may be all I can give him.
I miss Shelle, and more than two years after her death, my memories are filled with mostly positive memories. Thousands of car rides together, summer days in our swimming pool, the happiness she felt when she moved into her first apartment.
My sister’s death was devastating.
But when I remember the crescendo of pain and agony that filled the last decade of her life, I am thankful that her pain is no more.
There’s a concept in Eastern religions called samsara. Buddhism and Hinduism both talk about this cycle.
We are born, we live and love and we experience suffering, and then we die.
And so in my prayers, I express gratitude for my sister’s life, and I pray that her pain has been released, and that her spirit and her essence is at rest – or even that, at last, she has reached nirvana.