It was my mom’s birthday. We hadn’t heard from Meg that day, so my brother Ben headed over to check on her. What he found changed our family forever. After a lifetime battle with depression and anxiety, Meg had grown tired. And like too many others in the world, she died by suicide.
After making sure the house was cleaned up, Meg placed her driver’s license, keys and a final goodbye note on the kitchen table. In the days following that horrific night, and in the seven years since, massive grief flooded my heart and life.
I am the oldest in the family and Meg’s big sister, so right away I started working on and planning the funeral. I wrote Meg’s obituary and help close up forty years of her life. I am certain I didn’t sleep during those first two weeks after losing Meg. As soon as her memorial was done, and the long to-do list completed, the reality of mourning her death crashed over me like a massive unwelcome tidal wave.
I grew up in a family where mental health and therapy was a way of life. It was not taboo or brushed under any kind of family culture rug. Before Meg’s passing, I had been in and out of therapy. But Meg dying was a wake-up call. Suicide grief is a crazy kind of “what if” grief. I knew I needed to take a fresh look at my own mental health. Grief had become a colossal spotlight into the dark corners and crevices of my mind, childhood and soul.
Over the past seven years, I have learned so much about mental health, what support looks like and the complexities of suicide. My life will never be better without Meg, but her death has taught me some valuable lessons that I hope may help others.
Mental health is health
After giving over 3,000 keynotes worldwide and connecting with thousands of people on social media, I have discovered one huge truth: Everyone on the planet either struggles with mental health or loves someone who does. That means that mental health is about and for everyone on the planet. Everyone. We talk about the score of last night’s game, the latest show we are binging and our favorite new exercise program. I wish for a world in which we talk about mental health as commonly and normally as we talk about sports, food and TV shows.
After Meg died, I began to intentionally start each day by checking in with my own mental health, and then making space for those I love to have that conversation as well. Doing a quick self scan, I ask myself, “How are things are feeling?” followed by, “What does support look and feel like today?”
Therapy is education
I often hear people say, “I tried therapy and it didn’t work for me.” If you have tried a practitioner or modality and it didn’t work, find something that works for you. For me, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) has been helpful in healing some of my trauma, but there is not one magic tool or therapy for everyone.
Therapy should be celebrated like education. When you hear someone is pursuing more education, people are proud, not embarrassed. It’s time to eliminate the social shame still too often associated with therapy. High-five people who say they’re in therapy, because it really is education for our hearts, minds and relationships.
Progression is better than perfection
My biggest fear growing up was that if I wasn’t perfect, I would lose someone I love. Losing Meg was my worst nightmare coming true. It didn’t matter how much we had tried to love and support Meg — suicide took her. One of the first steps I took in addressing my own mental health needs was learning to focus on progression instead of perfectionism. Perfectionism is problematic. Going back into therapy, and talking with trusted friends, I started addressing the false belief that had I just been perfect, I could have saved my sister.
I was haunted by questions: What more could I have done? What did I do wrong?
After Meg, I was haunted by questions: What more could I have done? What did I do wrong? The truth is that I couldn’t have saved her. Those struggling with depression, anxiety or addiction ultimately have to make the choice to get help. I am not perfect. No one is.
I have worked full time on suicide prevention since Meg’s passing and met many people who want to understand and advocate for change in the space of mental health. The first thing I suggest is to not assume you know who is struggling. Think of the happiest guy at work, the most helpful friend at school, the kindest neighbor at church — they may be the one struggling the most with their mental health. It is OK to ask. It is wonderful to ask. No one will be offended if you sincerely and genuinely check in. It is as simple as asking, “How is your mental health?” or “What’s your top worry?”
Meg’s headstone was placed the day Robin Williams was found dead. For that moment, it felt like the entire world understood the unique grief of suicide. The world is not better without the brilliance and creativity of Robin Williams. My world is not better without Meg. We continue to lose too many people to suicide. The mental health conversation needs to change, and it starts with every person. I have learned so much since losing my sister. The biggest gift of my grief is understanding that it is OK to ask for help, and that everyone needs help sometimes, even the helpers.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.