December 19-The Day My Brother Died

cliff-and-me-on-steps-1957Five 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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.

 

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24 thoughts on “December 19-The Day My Brother Died

    • Oh, Marie, that’s so sweet, thank you. One more day until the New Year, and my mood is lifting, as it always does when December is on its way out. I really like your blog, enjoy your writing, your voice. Thank you for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are very welcome Mandy. Thank you for your kind comments which are really appreciated. May you have a peaceful and above all Happy New Year! My wish for you is that there is more joy than sadness in 2017. :))

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  1. Do not give up the fight, whatever else you do. Your life has value and purpose.

    Most people — certainly child abuse victims, of which I am one — have been wounded somehow. For some their pain is physical, for some psychological, for some spiritual. But life can still be worthwhile. I know a man w/ ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) who writes a blog about hope.

    Your brother was crushed by his pain. Surely, he would not want that for you. By telling your story, you are telling his. By going on w/ your life, you are honoring his.

    You are more than the abuse you suffered. You are obviously intelligent, loving, strong, and courageous. The abuse did not manage to destroy those things about you. Do not let it destroy your dreams.

    I suffer from depression. I know how debilitating and deceptive that illness can be. Our judgment is skewed. Everything seems pointless, drenched in sorrow. But there is beauty in the world. It is up to us to find it.

    I urge you to get necessary medical treatment, if you have not already. Anti-depressants are not a panacea, but they can be of great assistance is stopping a downward spiral. And therapy allows abuse victims to vomit out the poison, at last discard the shame. I wish you brighter days.

    A. ❤

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  2. So sorry for your loss. I was sexually molested as a small child. My only son was also molested by someone I trusted. He was later killed by a drunk driver in ’99. In 2013 my granddaughter was molested by her then step-father. My wife and I were able to gain custody of her and get her help. When a loved one is hurt or killed we never get over it. We just learn to live with it. While others can be insensitive and tell us to just get on with our life, my faith in God was the only thing that kept me sane and gave me the strength to go on. Our tragedies can also give us motivation to advocate for others who have been through the same things and comfort them with the same comfort we ourselves received from God. (2 Corinthians 1:4) May God continue to bring healing to you and use you to comfort others.

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    • I’m terribly sorry for your many losses and tragedies as well. All of that on top of your own childhood trauma is more than a plateful. I’m glad you have found healing-though as you say, you never get over it. I have advocated for child abuse prevention and adults survivors of childhood sex abuse for a few years now. That is where I have found my support and healing–though it’s not a cure-all as it doesn’t take much to trigger old wounds. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

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  3. This post is heartbreaking… it is so recognizable what you write about. It’s so good what you did in your brothers name as well. In your story I find a remarkable coincidence. Not only about childhood abuse, but I lost my brother who experienced the same types of things, seven years ago at exactly the same day, 19th December 2009, when he was frozen to death in the streets somewhere in Germany. Many thanks for sharing, God bless you with your struggle, it’s great inspiration.

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    • Oh, I’m so terribly sorry that you’ve experienced the lost of a brother, too. What are the odds it would be on the same day? Yes, the struggle seems to be unending, but I’m glad to connect with people like yourself who understand. Thanks so much for your comment.

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  4. I’m so glad, Mandy, that you finally found an outlet to help you handle your brother’s death and your troubled life. I never suffered physical abuse but lived for over forty-one years with my husband who suffered from bipolar disorder so I suffered verbal and emotional abuse. He always denied he was ill and wouldn’t stay on medicine that could have helped. He was in and out of hospitals three times and always stopped taking the medicine. We suspect he tried to commit suicide by drinking a poisonous substance but he said someone put it in his drink. Physical abuse like that you suffered would be worse. Keep on writing and taking care of yourself. Thanks for stopping by my blog and reading. I appreciate it. 🙂 — Suzanne

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    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Suzanne. I experienced emotional and verbal abuse, too, so I know your abuse was terrible, too. I’ve come to think it might be worse than the physical abuse. Scars heal; the verbal/emotional has stayed with me far longer. Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by.

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