Loss, Reprise
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On Going to a Better Place: What I’ve Learned from My Brother’s Death

tuenight peace whitney johnson brother suicide

Originally published in the Loss Issue, 2016

I have a picture of my younger brother when he was four days old. I’m sitting on my parents’ black and white geometric-patterned bedspread, cradling him. It’s one of my favorite photographs.

I’m the oldest, followed by my sister, 13 months later. Almost a decade passed before my parents had another baby. Bryce’s birth was momentous. He was charming from the first day, with a wide, impish grin. As time went by, my mother would say, Bryce is going to do great things: He has the brains, the work ethic, the brawn.

When Bryce was thirteen, he started drinking. In our family, drinking wasn’t just about experimentation. No one in my family drank. At fourteen, when the cops called to say he had broken into our neighbor’s house on the hunt for cash to buy booze and drugs, my mother called me at college, desperate and knowing there was a real problem. What had begun as acting out for Bryce had become a salve for anxiety and depression.

When my mother got the courage to intervene, Bryce sobered up. He graduated from college, earned an MBA, worked hard; he fell in love. He was engaged to be married. Up and up. But then his heart was broken. The demons he’d kept at bay for more than ten years began to slither back. Three years ago, at 40 years old, my baby brother ended his own life.

[pullquote]I realized that I believe – truly believe – that my brother still exists.[/pullquote]

At first I was angry: How could he give up? Then I was scared. We have a similar genetic code, a similar upbringing. We share “nature and nurture” both, whichever supposedly matters more. But anger and fear are often masks for sorrow. Eventually, I understood that I was mostly sad. Sad that he hadn’t lived the life of promise we thought he would. Sad that his life was riddled with pain. Sad that he and I, and my sister and parents for that matter, hadn’t had better relationships.

Perhaps because I’m the oldest, I had become the emotional parent at an early age. By adulthood, I was often providing financial aid to family members. On and off for over a decade, one of my able-bodied parents and/or siblings lived with me. Needless to say, this is not how a functional family operates. Depleted and disheartened, I had disengaged. I worried that I was robbing my husband and young children of attention that was rightfully theirs; moreover, it was just too painful. For the last decade of his life, contact with Bryce was minimal. When he was desperate enough (e.g. going through a child custody battle), I would hear from him. Always wary that if I reached out, I would be asked for something, and thus feel used, I remained quiet.

The death of a loved one is one of life’s most trying experiences; a death by suicide is exponentially more complicated. Haunting. Humbling. And, fair or not, shaming. But as our family memorialized Bryce’s life, each of us grappling with our own grief and guilt and heartbreak, for me there was an unexpected surprise. Like a surgeon’s scalpel, Bryce’s death carved a deep and painful wound, but it also cleaned a pathway to healing truth. I realized that I believe – truly believe – that my brother still exists. A glove may slip off a hand, but even when the gloves are off, the hands are still there. I found myself sharing this idea again and again: Consistent with my Christian beliefs, I will see Bryce again. These hopeful feelings were accompanied by a newfound certainty that God is a tender parent who loves us.

With the comfort of this certainty came an obligation to forgive my parents for their inability to be what I wanted them to be, what I felt they should be but weren’t. There was also an opportunity to make peace with the life I have. In what I think of as the soundtrack of my adolescence, there’s a lyric from “As” by Stevie Wonder (from “Songs in the Key Of Life”) that says: You can bet your life, and that, and twice its double/That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed. My siblings and I didn’t get the perfect parents. Neither did my parents get the perfect parents. No child ever gets the parent they deserve. But, if Stevie Wonder can be believed, we get the parents we need; The right parents, who sometimes do wrong. And who am I to say that Bryce didn’t live his intended life?

Originally published December 2015

3 Comments

  1. Whitney, I am almost speechless (wordless) reading this. Thank you for sharing it, and for your candor. We, too, have had the suicide of a family member and were forever changed. MUCH of what you said resonated with our experience.

  2. Elizabeth Keeler says

    This was beautiful and touching to read. With all the dark things going on in the world, it is a relief to read something that sees hope in the darkness.

  3. Whitney, thank you for your vulnerability and courage in sharing this tender story and your heartfelt insights, truths that resonate with me.

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