Losing a sibling to suicide

Wow, this blog is getting very serious… I agree. But I feel I have to do my bit to support International Suicide Survivors Day this year in the best way I know how.  I should almost add “regular programming will resume after the break” to some extent.

This is another friends story as a suicide survivor which follows on from my post Losing Your First Love.  A message of enablement came across quite strongly for me in that post. I’m glad that Carrina and her family have been able to move on in a positive and loving manner.

Nikki Twomey agreed to share her story with me too.  I’ve known Nikki for more than 10 years now since our first meeting in a company car park during a solar eclipse. It was the week after her youngest brother took his life.  Her career as Group Marketing Director for a leading international financial services corporation keeps her pretty busy from 7am to 7pm during the week. She enjoys socializing with her friends, photography, cooking, beading, reading, sailing, travel with and without her pets and writing – just about everything! Her surviving brother lives in Cape Town and runs his own successful quantity surveying business.

Surviving Suicide – by Nikki Twomey

Nikki as a young girl

I come from a regular middle class South African family. I was born in Cape Town and lived there for many years before settling in Johannesburg. I was brought up Catholic and attended all-girls Convent schools. I am happily married and we are childless by choice. My husband and I have two dogs and two cats and they are our children. I am the oldest of three children. Both my parents are alive and well and in their seventies. They are both retired, my mother, once a remedial teacher, now spends time fostering and rehabilitating feral cats and paints as a creative outlet. My father, an educational psychologist specialising in learning disabilities still works harder than ever training people and their dogs and has just recently published his first book.  We are all blessed to be well educated and my parents have gone out of their way to provide us with outstanding opportunities to improve our journeys in life.

One wintery night my younger brother, a recently qualified actuary,  gassed himself with an enormous canister of carbon monoxide inside his car. He left a note:  “Unfortunately, if you are reading this, I have killed myself…” A list of practicalities followed with absolutely no explanation of why he would do such a sudden, horrific and final thing. He was two months off his 30th birthday.

We were a family of five. We are still a family of five but one of my brothers is special. He is special because he is dead.

Death has made him stand apart from all of us. You can never move on completely from a tragedy  like this. “How many brothers do you have, Nikki?” What is the correct answer? If I say one, I am denying his existence, betraying our family of five. If I say two, I am being inaccurate and later may get “caught out” and explaining can cause even more pain.  I miss him often. Is it selfish to miss the value that he was going to add to my life in the future? I miss his unborn children and the fact that he has stopped growing older with us. He will forever be 29 and I, our family and his friends will forever grow further and further apart from him.

Life before suicide

Nikki in her Springbok blazer as a Rotary Exchange Student

What does a “normal family” ever mean? We saw each other as a family during the holidays and chatted on the phone at least fortnightly. We were/are all busy with our own lives and although I lived in a different town to the rest of my family, I thought we were close enough to know if one of us was having problems. The last time I saw my brother he was on business in Johannesburg and I took him to Chinese New Year in Commissioner Street. He killed himself 4 months later.

It never occurred to me that my brother would contemplate suicide. He was very different from me so I put all the “signs” of depression such as sleeping a lot, moodiness etc, down to personality differences. He was very introverted and I am the extreme opposite, so I guess a lot of things he did seemed strange anyway. Suicide didn’t seem to be something an intelligent person would do given that there are other options in life. How naive I was. I had no idea that depression is a dark and deep valley where the sufferer cannot see any light or any other way out of the fog.

I asked Nikki if suicide was ever an option for her personally?

Never. I always thought of it as one of the “darkest” things a person could do. Sounded like a dramatic thing to do to make an indelible point to someone who had perhaps hurt you badly and I knew I’d never be brave enough to do something like that. Shows how little I understood about suicide.

People who really want to kill themselves aren’t being brave or making a point to another person, they genuinely see no other option in their suffocating world.

Oddly enough suicide became more real for me after my brother died. For the very first time when I felt very depressed by the world around me, I would think about him and think yes, suicide, it could be a real option. When someone you respect and love and whose intellect you admire, selects this way out of the world, you think about it a lot harder. Maybe he was the smart one to just call it? Having said that I don’t think I could do it because I have such a strong sense of my relationships, the people around me, my husband, parents and friends whom I would hurt so badly. I have been troubled by uncovering some research that indicates that the genes for depression are hereditary and when some years ago a friend committed suicide and then his brother did the same thing a few years later I was mortified. Such a shocking thing for a family to go through twice!

Before my brothers death, suicide something other people did.

Crazy, creative, troubled, dramatic people. Not my brilliant, conservative, sensible brother. One or two people, in trying to make me feel better and deal with my initial anger would say, “it’s such a cowards way out”. Having read up a great deal about depression and suicide I don’t agree at with this view at all. It’s not bravery or cowardice, it’s hopelessness.

Making sense and moving on

The most important thing for me was ensuring that my parents would be alright. I pushed my own feelings aside and held a latent internal anger towards my brother at bay…”if you have destroyed my parents lives by doing this… I will never forgive you”, was my internal mantra for the first months. I was worried that my parents, who have always lived their lives around and for their children would be blindsided by this loss. I fully expected my father to withdraw completely and for my mother to take to her bed. I guess we are all stronger than we think.

I spoke to The Compassionate Friends, an organisation that aims to support bereaved families who have lost a child. They also have a siblings’ support group. What was important to me was their understanding of the challenges you face as a surviving child. The fact that the dead child gets placed on a pedestal and that it’s hard to know whether to bring up the subject and talk about him with your parents or whether this will cause more pain. My parents joined a local support group which I was so happy about and I do think it helped them a lot to talk to people who have been through similar and worse experiences, if that’s possible.

Because at the time I was suffering from my own reserves of serotonin being depleted I went to a doctor who prescribed anti-depressants and some sessions with a psychologist. Ironically the thing that really helped me was something that I never thought I would do. I visited a medium recommended by a friend. She sat with me for over 3 hours, her spirit guide talking to my spirit guide talking to what could only have been my brother. She told me things that she could not have known about my family and my brother. When she explained that he was sorry for what he had done, how he had always felt that he was on the ‘outside of the circle looking in’, that he had never expected that his death would make such an impact on his family and friends and that he understood it would take time but that he knew he had a difficult journey ahead but was feeling better, I finally felt at peace. It was the most cathartic thing I have ever done and would highly recommend the experience to anyone. You really get the opportunity to answer the question “why?!”

I did a suicide likelihood test on behalf of my brother to distinguish between “cries for help” and genuine suicidal-ness. He scored almost 100% in that he was determined to do it. We would not have been able to stop him. He made it clear that he was not interested in getting help and knowing how stubborn and private he was, I doubt he would have been prepared to try medication or seek psychiatric help. We can’t beat ourselves up about it. He did what he needed to do and it was his decision. The loss is unbearable and will always be that way, every birthday, every Christmas, every anniversary of death. The things that happen in the world that I know he would’ve been fascinated by, will forever pass him by.

Nikki today

I have a new understanding of what severe depression must be like. It’s ridiculous that there is still an archaic stigma to mental illness in this day and age. I think that depression is like a physical pain. It paralyses your thinking and overwhelms you with numbness, despair and dread. There is no ability to consider a future. The present is suffocating and unbearable. Any logical approach coming from someone who is not suffering from this mental illness would completely fall on deaf ears. You cannot paint a picture of a positive future when someone is drowning in agony. Death is something that offers tranquility and freedom from pain, fear and unendurable suffering and tiredness. Suicide does not require either bravery or selfishness. It becomes the only option.

I’ve also learnt that we are stronger than we think. I thought none of us would be able to stand up and go on with our lives. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a family. Yet we have more than survived. We have all gone on with our lives. It doesn’t mean there isn’t permanent damage, but yes, the cliché is correct- surviving trauma can make you stronger.

Knowing what I know now, I would definitely have tried to talk to my brother more, shown him that I understood his world, tried to persuade him through any means to try medication. We take meds for physical ills but shy away from dealing with chemical imbalances of the brain, which are just as physical as a cancer.

Many thanks to Nikki for sharing your story with me & allowing me to publish it here. 

Resources Nikki used the following sources for information and support:

Nikki is happy to spend time talking to anyone who needs help coping with the suicide of someone close to them. You can contact Nikki through me.

Sadag runs South Africa’s only toll-free suicide crisis line – 0800 567 567 – open seven days a week from 8am to 8pm.

Also on this blog: Picking Up The Pieces (tips for survivors)

Please take care when commenting on this blogpost – no judgement of survivors, victims and my friends & family will be allowed. I simply won’t publish your comments. I’m sure you understand. Thank you. Melanie


11 Replies to “Losing a sibling to suicide”

  1. Don’t think one needs to take the link away, but it is a bit emphatic about potentially misleading behaviour and no article can give “recipes”. As with everything in life, so many variations are possible. I can tell you with certainty, I, despite my experience, would not detect 75% of potential suicide candidates. It is a hard “game”.
    Cheers Gerd x

  2. Nikki,

    Its been almost 2 years since my brother left us. I still run into people that ask how my brothers are doing? That awkwardness in having to explain that he is gone and how is awful.

    I also ever know how to answer the questions about how many siblings I have. I usually say 2 and hope that they dont ask anymore questions.

    I have mostly come to terms with his death, a reluctant understanding of why he did it. But there are still days when I am so angry at him, mainly because he isnt here to see his nephew and niece grow up. Because I wont be able to hold HIS children. For taking away all that potential.

    Ultimately though I believe he is now at peace and I take comfort in that.

    From one sibling to another (((hugs)))

    1. Hi Gina,
      Thanks for sharing that with me. It’s good to know there are people out there that understand how you feel. I really do believe he is in a peaceful place now. He will still have a journey to travel. In the words of Don McLean “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”.
      Doesn’t make it much easier for us left behind though. Thinking of you.

      Big hug

  3. Don’t agree with those 5 key signs much at all. No. Really not.
    As I said in my account of my suicide attempts. It takes a person who know the candidate extremely well and then extreme empathy is still required. The signs can be so very many things. Regards Gerd

    1. Thanks Gerd. Do you think I should delete those 5 signs from the comment feed? Or do you think they (the signs) could provide benefit to someone else perhaps?

  4. Hi Nikki, glad you got through all that darkness well and that you have learned so much and all of this adds to the “quality” of your life. I understand your brother extremely well – even from just the few lines of reading. I understand you well too. For myself, a whole new and much better world opened. What a shame that I and those around me had to go through such unfathomable agonies. Kind regards Gerd

    1. Dear Gerd, thanks for your reply. Im so glad to hear that there was a positive outcome for you. Really good to hear from you.


    1. Hi, please would you post these 5 signs in full comment form (you can still included a link to the original website) on my other Blog Post – “International Suicide Survivors Day”.
      Many thanks.

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