By: Emily Miller
July 18, 2017 is the day my life changed forever.
I came home and instantly realized something was wrong. Mom and Dad were up waiting for me and mom had been clearly crying.
Mom said, “Something horrible has happened.”
I immediately started thinking of every possible outcome to prepare myself for whatever was about to come next. None of those outcomes were what I was about to hear.
My sweet beautiful funny intelligent caring Karen.
She was my mom’s best friend and my aunt. There was never a time she wasn’t in my life. I grew up with the privilege of living 5 minutes from her. She was simply put, my person. She was there to hold me when I got into a fight with my best friend. She was there to rescue me when I got locked out of my house. She was there for my graduations, my plays, my birthday parties, my proms. She took my first acting headshot. She took me to endless pizza, ice cream, movie, water parks and zoo trips. She could make me laugh so hard we would cry, and we were there for each other when we actually needed to cry.
I stood there in shock, unable to react because it seemed so impossible.
I remember stuttering, what, how? Again I stood there thinking of all the possible scenarios that could have happened, thinking of every possible accident. It turns out, it was the exact opposite of that. It was death with a purpose.
“She killed herself.”
Those are the three little words that changed my life forever.
I was about 10 years old when I was shopping at Kohls with my mom and Karen. We were aimlessly walking around when someone on the loudspeaker said “RAINBOW” and quickly hung up the phone. The three of us looked at each other and all started laughing, wondering why anyone would do that. (We later found out it was code for a customer opening a rewards card, but at the time were absolutely mystified.)
We continued wandering the store when about a half hour later we again heard, “RAINBOW. RAINBOW” followed by a quick click. Karen, without missing a beat and screaming as loud as she could, goes:
We three were in hysterics. And for the rest of the time we were in the store that day, whenever Karen heard ‘Rainbow’ she came up with another weather scenario.
We were laughing so hard we were crying. And soon people around us started laughing at us. We eventually broke down in the shoe section unable to contain ourselves. People walking by would just stop and stare at us, but we didn’t care, we were too busy laughing.
I have come to terms with her death. It was something that came almost instantaneous. I knew she was sick. I knew she had bouts of depression that would cause her infinite amounts of pain. I know she was suffering in some way almost every day she was here. I’m happy that she no longer has to fight. I am happy that she has found peace.
I will never be able to accept the fact that she thought this world would be better off without her. It’s not. It will never be. And that’s what I struggle with every single day.
I was 17 years old when I watched my dad get taken away in an ambulance. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last, but this one was particularly hard. It was midnight and this sickness came on quite suddenly. Within a half hour he had taken a turn for the worse and mom quickly called the ambulance. Only able to take one person in the back, my mom hopped in. I was unable to drive at the time, and being an only child I was stuck home by myself. There was something about this time, that was different than the others and I just broke down crying.
I instantly thought of Karen. I, without thinking of the time, called her with the intent to leave a voicemail and have her call me in the morning.
She picked up on the third ring.
“What’s wrong honey?”
“We just had to have the ambulance come for dad.”
“And your mom went with him?”
“So you’re home by yourself?”
“I’ll be over in five.”
I didn’t even have to ask.
She showed up within five minutes, walked into the house and found me on the couch crying. She hugged me, held me, and after a few minutes got me to calm down. She said are you hungry, because I am, and went straight for the kitchen.
The running joke is that my mom can’t cook and our kitchen is always barren. Karen opened the fridge and cabinets and started laughing. She came back a minute later with potato chips, french onion dip and chocolates and we had ourselves a feast. She stayed with me for two hours until my mom came back home and said my dad was stable. Then she opened up some wine and stayed with the two of us for another hour. Just cheering us up by being there and being herself.
One year later, I’m still dealing with the fact that most people don’t know how to communicate with me about suicide. We as a society still don’t openly talk about mental health issues. We need to fix that.
When I first posted on social media that Karen had died by suicide, the response was overwhelmingly kind. But the thing that I still remember the most was how many people posted how brave I was to share how she died. How brave I was to openly talk about it.
To this day I don’t understand why I was brave. Her death is now forever linked with her life. I know she would want to make a difference and help others. I know she would want to open a dialogue about mental illness. I remember her being upset and frustrated that people didn’t understand how badly she was suffering. How she had to join facebook groups with strangers to talk about her illness.
She would have wanted people to know and understand what she did. She would want it to be out in the open because she wouldn’t want anyone to have to hide or justify their illness anymore.
I am not brave, I just want to start a conversation. Depression is an illness, it cannot be helped, and it’s okay to be depressed. And it’s okay to talk about it.
I knew when Patrick Swayze was battling cancer. I know Olivia Newton John and Shannon Doherty are currently fighting for their lives against their respective cancers. I read in multiple magazines how Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy as a preventative treatment for breast cancer, and how Selena Gomez continues to fight her Lupus.
Yet I didn’t know Robin Williams was sick. I didn’t know Kate Spade was hurting. I didn’t know that Anthony Bourdain was struggling.
There is still a stigma around mental health and it’s about time we break the silence.
Let’s educate ourselves on the topic, and let’s learn how to talk to people who have lost a loved one to it. Because this past year has been incredibly isolating and sometimes horrifyingly painful when it didn’t have to be.
I didn’t need to be told that I should be over it by now, because normal grief is a whole different ball game than losing a loved to suicide.
I can be triggered by the word suicide, and especially hearing the violent ways someone left this world. News articles should not post that information, and if they do, there should be a trigger warning. I burst into tears listening to David Muir casually drop into conversation how Bourdain did it while announcing NBC Nightly News. I quietly sobbed on multiple occasions as people discussed Judas’ suicide on Jesus Christ Superstar live as they lamented how it wasn’t violent enough for them.
I don’t need people to assume I didn’t know she was depressed. This didn’t come out of the blue. I knew she was sick and that’s really okay.
Please never ask me how she did it.
There’s one story that I cling to above all others whenever it gets too hard. And it perfectly sums up mental illness and Karen’s struggles. Its’s the one I wanted to share as the end note.
When I was about 14, Karen seriously thought about committing suicide. She had a bad moment, caught herself, and then checked herself into a mental health facility. She stayed there for the next few weeks.
I saw her for the first time the day after she was released. My mom drove us down to the lake to meet Karen who was waiting for us on the dock. My mom had warned me about Karen’s experiences and where she had been and what had happened, and told me to prepare myself. I remember bracing myself getting out of the car unsure of what to expect.
But I looked up and it was just Karen tanning like she always was. When she saw me she got up and we met halfway on the dock where we just bear hugged each other. We stayed that way for about thirty seconds, and as she held me she said:
I’m so sorry sweetie. I am so sorry I was so stupid. I will never leave you. I’m so sorry.
Thank you for reminding us to break the silence and above all to listen.
Having lost someone who was like a brother to me to suicide and then recently losing a family member to suicide, this post really hit home for me. Thank you for sharing your memories about your Aunt Karen. She sounds like she was an awesome and very loving lady. I’m sorry for your loss. I believe she’s still with you though, watching over you and proud of you for the person you’re becoming.