Five years ago, on December 19, 2011, I had to make a decision: Put a permanent stop to the depression that I’d been fighting for the thirty-two years since my only natural sibling’s suicide, or reach out to others in one final attempt to find someone that might relate. I wasn’t techno-savvy but, feeling desperate, I managed to start a WordPress blog.
I wrote the following piece for my first blog post that day (“Writing Through the Monsters of Our Childhood”) and, terrified, hit Publish. Hundreds of people viewed, commented and shared the post. The response wasn’t just about my brother or me–although there were certainly many wonderful supportive comments–but people wanted to talk about their stories of loss, of feeling something was wrong with them because they couldn’t get over it. They opened up, for the first time, about being sexually abused as a child. That was the first Christmas I didn’t feel my normal want-to-die grief.
For the next four years, I wrote stories about my childhood that had tormented me. I put those stories in a memoir and published it. I thought that would mean wiping my hands of the past, of the memories, but this year, I’ve had to face the fact that writing the book was not a cure-all. I continue to dread the arrival of Fall, and the grief I associate with Christmas. Recently, someone asked me if I’d be doing something special to commemorate the anniversary of Cliff’s death this year? Already deep in grief, that question smacked me right between the eyes. Was I supposed to do something? Wasn’t keeping my head above water enough? Maybe not . . .
Reprinting this post is a reminder that I still have work to do.
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December 19: The Day My Brother Died
They say he put the barrel end of a 30.06 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. There would be no need for an open casket. “But how can we know for sure it’s him?” I pleaded at the funeral. I needed to see something of my brother one more time. “It’s him,” they said. “Now let it go.”
Every year as the holidays approach, the days remain dark even when the sun shines. A crushing ache develops in my chest in early fall, and by Thanksgiving, surface breathing has become my norm. Even now, thirty-two years after that fateful day, an ever-present voice needles me: How can they know for sure it was him?
When the search-and-rescue team spotted Cliff walking off the mountain, naked and hallucinating, they knew instantly he had severe hypothermia. He had gotten separated from his friends on a hunting trip, his feet irreparably damaged. My brother would never again work the land, break horses, or do the things a true Montana cowboy does. This cruel twist of fate propelled him into a descending dark abyss of no return. Only I would understand that what Cliff was really losing was the thing that had kept him alive all along—a means of escape from the memories that haunted both of us.
My brother’s disabling depression ended that day in 1981—and mine began. When he took his life, he took mine, too. He was my only natural sibling. We shared dark secrets of childhood abuse. Now I would be left to carry those secrets, and the shame, alone.
I’ve spent most of a lifetime in hiding, holding tight the secrets of my past: childhood sexual abuse, rapes, a baby stolen at birth. I’ve accepted the shame and grief as if they were crimes I committed, and that I must pay for. Fear of rejection has kept me from living the one and only life I’ll get. But it’s my time to come out of that closet of shame. I can no longer worry that the world will come crashing down on me—it already has. The risk of revealing my hidden truths could be tremendous—but so could my freedom.
John le Carré wrote: “The monsters of our childhood do not fade away. . . .” After Cliff’s life-changing hunting accident, he no longer had the strength to continue fighting the monsters. And for the thirty-plus years after his death, I didn’t think I did, either. But, writing about my childhood over the past two years—my brother’s spirit at my side—I found the strength to keep going. I grew to understand why he had to leave me, and I forgave him. In writing our story, I finally understood why I was the one still here. There would be much work to do—when the time was right. I would share our story and advocate for others abused as children. Cliff’s quiet, gentle demeanor would never have allowed him to talk publicly about his hidden shame. It would be up to me to take on the monsters for both of us. I want my brother to know: I got this.