On New Year’s Eve, my older sister tried to kill herself. My mom’s phone started to ring and when I picked it up, we learned that sometime around when 2017 turned into 2018, my sister had swallowed a handful of pills and chased it down with a generous helping of whiskey.
Our family was no stranger to mental illness: I had been diagnosed with OCD several years before, and although I eventually got it under control, learning to manage it had been a harrowing experience.
This, however, was unlike anything we’d known. To think that depression could strike my sister - and severely enough to push her to a suicide attempt - we all felt it like a slap in the face.
Throughout the year, my sister was in and out of hospitals, passed around from doctor to doctor, and shifted between diagnoses. It has been (and still is) a bumpy road to recovery. I’d be lying if I said that any one of us was now “all better” from the whole experience, but we did slowly, eventually, get accustomed to a new way of life.
As we keep treading on down this road to recovery, I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned about how to cope after a family member attempts suicide.
Allow yourself to feel all the feels
A crisis has happened. Maybe it came completely out of the blue, maybe it’s something you’ve secretly feared for a long time but never actually believed would happen. Either way, you feel out of your depth and you have no idea how to react.
Perhaps you’ve read about this kind of situation in books or seen it on TV, so you have an inkling of how you’re supposed to feel, the kinds of things you’re supposed to say.
These ideas of “what’s supposed to happen” are called schemas: they tell you what “script” to follow under specific circumstances. In the aftermath of the crisis, you might feel compelled to act according to their guidelines; after all, you’re uncertain about everything right now, and they provide a practical, ready-made blueprint.
But this isn’t fiction. These aren’t stock characters. These are your family members, your loved ones. This is real, and it’s happening to you.
The simple truth is that there is no “normal” reaction to something like this. The schemas you form don’t prepare you for what to do; they definitely don’t prepare you for how to feel.
You may feel all sorts of weird things. You may feel afraid, saddened, tired, or even hungry. If you find yourself strangely indifferent to the crisis - “I should be feeling more upset about this,” I thought to myself as I sat on a very uncomfortable ER seat - don’t beat yourself up about it.
It’s very likely that the whole scope of the situation hasn’t fully hit you yet; you need to let shock do its thing. You might thank it later. Shock is a defense mechanism, and it’s actually protecting you from having the full range of your emotions crash over you. Later on, when the crisis has been dealt with and you’re in a calmer environment, you’ll be able to feel all your other feelings and process them in a more stable manner.
It seems that trauma takes a certain amount of time to break through the hardened shell of normalcy; old habits die hard, after all. On that night, I found myself making the same old silly jokes with my sister as she was lying in an ER bed. Every once in a while, a thought flashed into my mind: “This is so weird. This is such a weird situation.”
But it’s okay to let it feel weird. And it’s natural to fall back into old habits, no matter how out of place they may seem; because when we find ourselves in scary, unfamiliar situations, old habits can be one of the only things that make us feel safe.
So allow yourself to feel all your feels, in whatever order they happen to come.
You never know how you'll react when it's your sister, your parent, your best friend. You're allowed to feel whatever comes up - don't judge your emotions or reactions.
Don’t run away
Less than two weeks after my sister’s suicide attempt, I got on a plane and flew back to Canada. One can imagine I did so reluctantly, full of worries about whether or not she would be okay without me there.
Truth be told, I was mostly relieved to come back to my courses, my friends, my exams, and even to the cold winter sludge of downtown Montreal. Normalcy seemed to have fled from my family home; I was hoping to find some of it left in my student life.
If you don’t usually live with your family member, it can be tempting to head for the hills as soon as the situation has stabilized. This reaction is completely normal. Going back to familiar settings is comforting and can help you stay grounded in reality.
Besides, my physical presence wasn't necessary. My sister was in a hospital with capable staff, and my parents visited her every day. I had a degree to finish, and my mom admitted that she wouldn’t have known what to do with a second child to take care of during those trying times. All things considered, I probably did the right thing.
However, I could have done a better job of keeping in touch with my sister. I Skyped my parents regularly. I asked her friends to keep tabs on her for me. But for some reason, actually interacting with her proved a lot more difficult. Now that we’d all had more time to process the situation, making the same old jokes with her just felt… awkward.
It got to the point where I started ignoring her messages. I’d reply in the conversations we shared with our parents, but I avoided any private talks with her. I could sense that there were things she wanted to tell me - things our parents didn’t know about - and I was afraid of the weight her words would put on my shoulders. I’d kept secrets for her before, and I didn’t want to do it again.
My silence allowed me to carry on my life, but it must’ve only increased the feelings of loneliness and hopelessness my sister was experiencing.
It’s normal to need distance and time to process your feelings. It’s okay to feel like you don’t know how to interact with your loved one anymore, like the parameters of your relationship have changed. But remember that they need you. Do not shut that door. The fact that they want to talk to you shows they trust you, and you don’t want to lose that trust; one day, it might prevent another crisis from happening.
You don’t need to spend every hour of your day replying to their messages. Just don’t disappear. Send them good morning texts, check if they got out of bed, Snapchat them funny things that reminded you of them, make sure they know you’re there.
Minutes after receiving that phone call on New Year’s Eve, I messaged a trusted friend. A few days after my sister was admitted to the hospital, I told two of my other closest friends about it. When I went back to school, I reached out to my friends and to my school’s mental health services. I even made an effort to be more outgoing in general to make new friends.
When people asked me how my family was, I told them the truth. I did the opposite of shutting myself in. It was almost as if I walked across campus grabbing random passersby and saying, “guys, guys, guess what! something terrible has happened!”
When I put it this way, it might not sound like the healthiest way to cope, but this openness was better for me than the alternative. I knew I needed all the support I could get, and I was going to make sure I got it.
People awkwardly skirt around the topics of mental illness and suicide in everyday conversations, but you might be surprised to find that many have had similar experiences. As I was confiding in an old friend about what had happened to my sister, he told me that he had recently lost a family member to suicide.
It affects so many people, but we rarely talk about it.
Initially, it may feel weird to go out partying with your friends as if nothing has happened. Just make sure to surround yourself with friends you trust and are comfortable with. You shouldn’t ever have to force yourself to look like you’re having fun.
Even as I pulled away from my sister, I spoke regularly with my parents. We’d always been close, and I now held on even tighter to that connection. If you truly feel uncomfortable sharing your feelings with friends or a therapist, there are still people you can turn to: your other family members probably understand what you’re going through better than anyone. Don’t ignore them now. Keeping your bonds strong will help each one of you stay strong.
Practicing self-care will help you be there for your loved one and help you cope. Drink tea, read, write, play music - whatever soothes you.
Take care of yourself.
For a long time after my sister’s attempt, life went on pretty normally for me. I went to school and got good grades. I took my usual medication. I went to yoga classes every other day, and I planned fun stuff to do with my friends. The only thing that changed was that I now spoke with a therapist every week at McGill’s Counselling Center. Even though things felt okay, I knew I needed the extra help. It was a simple measure of precaution, like buckling your seatbelt in the event of a car crash.
And I did end up crashing. Near the end of the semester, the pressure of finals mixed with my pre-existing anxiety and my memories of the attempt to make a wonderful cocktail. Within the first two days of what felt like a mental breakdown, I went into full survival mode: I deferred two of my exams, messaged all my friends, and asked my mom to fly in for a couple days. In retrospect, I might have overreacted. Nevertheless, I don’t regret it.
In the aftermath of a life-changing event, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. If you already have a self-care routine you follow regularly, keep it up. If you don’t, now is the time to implement one.
Use your support network, reach out for professional help. Don’t self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Try to cultivate a healthy lifestyle in general, it will be your safety net for when things get ugly. You know all the tips: drink lots of water, eat healthy, exercise.
I know it can be so annoying to find these little reminders everywhere, but there’s a reason all the experts recommend them.
You may feel selfish for taking care of yourself when your loved one is so sick. But neglecting your own well-being won’t make them better; in fact, it might make things worse. When a bunch of sick people try to heal each other, they end up feeding into one another’s problems.
If you have any pre-existing mental disorder, keep in mind that your own symptoms may be exacerbated by this sudden stressor. Don’t beat yourself up for “regressing” or “getting worse;” there are many bumps on the road to recovery, and this rough patch doesn’t take away all the progress you’ve made.
Refusing to acknowledge your struggle and deciding to “just tough it out” is not a sign of strength, it’s irresponsible. Your family - and yourself - need you to be as strong and healthy as possible.
Try to accept what happened
Now this one’s a doozy. It is, without a doubt, the hardest part of the process, and it’s something I’m still struggling with right now. Because no matter how many hours I spend in therapy, no matter how many yoga classes I take, no matter how many vegan burritos I gobble down, I can’t change reality. And I try to accept what can’t be changed and move forward, but at the end of the day… I still really, really wish this hadn’t happened.
I’m not sure how long it’s going to take me to get there, but if any of you have tips, please do share.
Want to talk? We're here to listen.