Two year anniversary

It’s been two years since my sister, Katherine, died. That first year was insane. It was a whirlwind of emotions. We were constantly watching out for ourselves and each other – or just trying to get through each day as we cycled through all stages of grief. It forced all of us to deal with emotions that most of us had never even considered. But we got through it, and we continue to heal and rebuild.

The second year has been more educational and reflective for me, and I’ve started to think more and more about my purpose in life. I still think about Katherine every single day, and you never know when grief will hit. The biggest mental turning point for me has been my understanding that mental illness, depression, anxiety, etc are no different from any other disease. We can watch for signs, we can take steps to reduce our risks, but in the end they are diseases that can’t be controlled. This means that people with these diseases don’t have a choice in the act of suicide. They died by suicide. They died as a result of depression. Just like you died by heart attack as a result of heart disease. They didn’t commit suicide. They didn’t choose to die. They didn’t choose to leave us. Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University has a great 24-lecture series on Stress and Your Body. He very clearly states that major depression is one of the worst illnesses out there. With other illnesses you get a wake-up call and find joy to keep on living but with depression, by definition, people have lost the ability to feel pleasure and find happiness. Anxiety may be even more prevalent than depression, and again, is also a real medical disorder.

I knew nothing about any of this two years ago. I had opinions that were wrong. I wanted to know why she chose to leave us. Why she didn’t ask us for help. Why she would want to leave so much behind. I used phrases that weren’t accurate and unknowingly perpetuated stereotypes. I come across the word “stigma” frequently and it always seems so blameful – such a negative word – I don’t like that one, which may be the point. Even in yesterday’s Facebook postings about Katherine it was very easy to find words that are wrong and mask the truth. And these are comments by loved ones who have been part of this experience. If it’s so easy for us to capture this inaccurately then of course it’s impossible for the general public to relate to and understand the complexities of mental illness and suicide.

Here’s a great short article (with audio if you prefer that) by Alan Lessik offering a great perspective from someone who lost a loved one to a fatal mental illness (and coincidentally has a connection to Pearson): Judge Not His Death

And isn’t it amazing now how many times we see awful news about suicide. It’s all around us and can impact anyone in all walks of life. It’s still hard not to judge or make generalized assumptions when you see that it is related to a celebrity, CEO, etc. But we shouldn’t judge. It’s no different than what we’ve been through. I just read Highest Duty: My Search For What Really Matters, by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. This is the pilot who landed a damaged US Airways flight onto the Hudson River in January 2009. It’s a good book and really shows how all of his life experiences and training put him in the perfect spot that day to save so many lives. One impact on his life was that his dad died of suicide at the age of 78 when Sully was 43 years old. He says,

  • “Naturally, I was distraught, angry, and upset with myself. I thought that I should have been paying closer attention to him. Intellectually, my mom, my sister, and I knew better. As with so many suicides, I don’t think any of us who loved him could have prevented him from doing what he did…After Flight 1549, people wrote to tell me that they could sense how much I valued life. Quite frankly, one of the reasons I think I’ve placed such a high value on life is that my father took his…his death did have an effect on how I’ve lived, and on how I view the world. It made me more committed to preserving life. I exercise more care in my professional responsibilities. I am willing to work very hard to protect people’s lives, to be a good Samaritan, and to not be a bystander, in part because I couldn’t save my father.”

It’s up to all of us to help raise awareness. Take care of yourself first. But if you’re ok then keep reading. We should share our experiences. We should proactively ask others how they are doing, especially if they have given us any depression/anxiety/suicide comments or hints about themselves or others in their lives. And then listen to them and be there for them. We should be conscious about our choice of words. I meet with anyone that wants to talk to me about related topics…once I’m aware (and that is the hard part). I have met with co-workers and friends, people concerned about their kids, and people concerned about their parents. I have a Pinterest board. I have offered to help anyone at church who needs to talk on topics I can relate to. These are just some of the ways I try to spread these positive values and help others. We’ve been through it, and we are better equipped to help others.

Professor Robert Sapolsky (who I mentioned above) acknowledges that he has 22 lectures of bad news before he gets to some positive messages in his last two lectures in that series. His focus is on stress and how bad that is for us. But my particular interest was the connection to depression and anxiety. So what can we do?

  • Take care of ourselves. Do the obvious things like eat well and don’t smoke. Duh – you’ve heard it before.
  • And you need to exercise. You’ve heard this how many times before? Yes, exercise. 30+ minutes every day. It needs to be something that you enjoy doing. Make the time for this. I have made this change in my life and can stick to it most weeks. But I have to be intentional about it because it is important to me. I don’t know if depression sneaks up on you or if wham! one day I get hit by it, but if finding 30 minutes a day will help me (and provides so many other benefits) then sign me up.
  • He also recommends transcendental meditation and having a strong support network. I’ve been very blessed to have a small group of people who watch out for me and that I feel comfortable talking to. I don’t shy away from any conversations about what I’m thinking about and how I’m feeling. It’s good for me and good for others too. Hearing about vulnerability in others makes it ok for more people to share.
  • He also mentions having a religious belief but it is harder to show correlation since people with these beliefs are typically doing other things right and their church provides them a support network that is crucial.
  • The last thing he mentions is essentially your coping strategy. Knowing what you can change or control and what you can’t – when to accept and when to move on. Knowing when to change your strategy. Keeping the right things in perspective. I have learned how to be open and share what is on my mind. I absolutely try to continually educate myself so I am best equipped to make the right decisions. Sharing this information with each other is essential to this and part of my process.

Here a short related excerpt from an interview with Andrew Solomon who has suffered from depression and his advice on how best to support others (

  • “I often say to people who describe having a friend who’s depressed “You need to make sure that the person is never alone.” Sometimes that means talking to them, and sometimes when they are too miserable to talk, it means sitting quietly by their bed. And sometimes when even having another human being in the room feels overwhelming to them, it involves sitting right outside the bedroom door. It never involves going away and it never involves taking seriously their claims that they want to be alone. Depression is a disease of loneliness and the best way to address it is to mitigate that aloneness.”

I was in a discussion recently with someone in a book study at work about our purpose in life. I don’t know how I would have answered that two years ago. I don’t think you can just pick your purpose and expect to get it right and for it to be meaningful. Sometimes it finds you, like it or not. I’m not sure that we can help or save everyone. But what we can do is live for being happy today, be there for those around us, chase your dreams, and live life with no regrets. A huge focus in my life now is thinking about how I can make a positive difference in the lives of others. Concepts from The Dream Manager have absolutely changed what I focus on in my life in the past several years. I talk about these principles at work and with friends. I am working on doing the same at church this year. I am looking at more local groups on depression/grieving/suicide to see where I may fit in to help. I’m trying to build a larger presence on Pinterest. If you’re interested in talking more about any of the things I mentioned and seeing how we can make an ever bigger impact please let me know.

I also am thinking about changing some of my writing style to be more focused on an audience that doesn’t know me and my story. Largely when I write it is very beneficial for me – but I get great comments from some of you throughout the year too. But could I write on topics that I know about and help others on their journey? Other than these being way too long (I know, I know) I’d love feedback. Respond in comments or send me a separate email. What do you like about how I write? Where can I improve? What topics should I cover? What questions do you have? Misconceptions? Uncertainties? Things you’ve learned that I could elaborate on and share? How about this – would you like to hear more on happiness and pursuing dreams?

Take care of yourself. Dream big. Be there and even just listen to those in need. Educate others. Think about your purpose in life and what more you can do.

One last comment. Jeff Olson in The Slight Edge referenced an article saying that only 10 people on average will cry at your funeral and that

  • “the number one factor that would determine how many people would go on from the funeral to attend the actual burial would be…the weather.” “If it happened to be raining, said the article’s author, 50 percent of the people who attended my funeral would decide maybe they wouldn’t go on to attend my burial after all, and just head home.”

Just think of how many people cried at Katherine’s funeral. Think of how many lives she touched. Think of how long that line was. And think of how many people did go on to the actual burial and stood in the rain on a cold New England day for Katherine. She was a special person and is still loved and missed so much.

One Response to “Two year anniversary”

  1. Dad & Grandpa T says:

    If Katherine is somehow looking down on us, there’s no doubt she is smiling and giving you her utmost approval of your blog in general and especially your recent blog entries about her. Although we will always grieve our loss of her, it is comforting and encouraging to me personally to see how her death has inspired you to not only strive to improve yourself, but to earnestly seek ways to help and serve others in their struggles of daily life.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings in this entry and the one following. Although we all have tender moments as we remember Katherine and may relapse into negative thoughts at times, I am thankful you (and all of us) seem to be progressing so well in our journeys in living without her, trying to better understand her struggles, and somehow be of help to others who may have struggles similar to Katherine’s and ours.

    I think I saw a documentary last year on Netflix produced by Prof. Sapolsky. If it is the same person, I recall his studies of baboons in the wild as quite interesting and apropos to sources of stress in humans and how we deal with it. Capt. Sully’s and Alan Lessik’s excerpts were also interesting and helpful. In particular “it was a soul-destroying depression that eliminated the core of his being…..and appeared endless to him in it’s depth. That he could live with such an illness and still have bright, loving and tender moments until his last day is a testament to the human spirit.” This reinforces my belief now that Katherine was incredibly strong in dealing with her “demons” until she finally succumbed to them on March 26, 2012. I have to admit that my initial (and for some time afterward) thinking was that her death resulted from weakness. Not so ! – as Alan shared, it was a testament of her human spirit (and strength).

    We can also take comfort in Alan’s words that Rene did not die from lack of love or support. Katherine must have felt the same as Rene when he said, “I love you and I know you love me,…but that can’t fix me.” Clearly, if love could have saved Katherine, she would still be with us. We all must find comfort knowing how much she loved her family, friends and life. Yes, I often think about the line of so many people who came to share their grief with us and the long funeral procession. So many lives were touched and enriched by her and she loved so many people. Knowing there was so much love is a source of great solace and our continuing love is a way we can continue to remember and honor her throughout our lives.

    Regarding suggestions for your blog, I would like to see it not change at all. I love it just the way it is. Although distance doesn’t allow us to see in person your family grow up and all the activities you enjoy, your blog has allowed us over the years to enjoy your family’s life in spite of the distance that separates us. I sometimes go back and enjoy some of our blog entries of the past and I know your children will be thankful that you have documented their lives and your thoughts when they are older. It doesn’t sound like you are looking for “leave it alone” comments, so I’ll include a couple. Could you do two blogs or a link to a separate, i.e., one for family and friends and another for those seeking help in areas you feel you would like to offer? As for subjects, have you done any reading on emetophobia? In addition to Crohn’s disease, Erik feels quite certain that Katherine was emetophobic. What I’ve read of it and watched interviews on YouTube, it is very common (but with little public awareness), can be debilitating and is something that one who suffers from can never truly escape.

    I’ve rambled enough. I’m glad you shared your thoughts and feelings so well in these latest two blog entries. Whichever way you decide to go with your blog, I know it will continue to be a source of enjoyment and help to all who read it. Keep up the great work !

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