“If love could have saved you,
You would have lived forever.”
It was October 13, 2013. Thanksgiving morning.
I was getting ready to go to work. Normally my dad got ready before me but this morning he was still in his room. I thought he’d slept in accidentally but as I got closer to his door I could hear a muffled voice; he was on the phone. I knocked, “I’ll be out soon” he said abruptly. I felt a knot in my stomach, something didn’t feel right. I waited in the kitchen impatiently. Several minutes passed. Eventually he came out pale as a ghost. I asked him what’s wrong. He told me to sit down. I started to become lightheaded. In a shaky, restrained voice he said: “Elizabeth died.”
Within a few hours, we were on a plane to Vancouver to sit through my sister’s funeral. A slideshow of Elizabeth’s short life played as my mum’s hysterical cries echoed loudly throughout the church.
Early autumn used to be my favourite time of year. It’s the perfect temperature with a breeze that still holds the warmth of summer. The trees put on a beautiful display of deep reds, bright oranges and golden yellows as if an artist plucked the trees out of the ground and carefully dipped them in paint. Piles of leaves are gathered on front lawns, and everyone is wrapped in warm, cosy sweaters.
It is of no coincidence that I write this from my sunny apartment in Sydney, Australia where the season is currently spring, not autumn, and Thanksgiving does not exist. I hoped this day would pass without notice. But moving to Australia did not absolve me of suffering. Now I know this time of year will always be painful for me, no matter where I am in the world.
I wrote this to bring more awareness and understanding to the ambiguous and murky subject of “mental illness.” Because the truth is, my sister did not die of cancer or in a car accident. She died of suicide.
It’s so hard to write that, let alone say it out loud. I quickly deflect questions about how she died because I am so scared of how people will judge my family. But here’s the thing: losing my sister is painful enough as it is. We do not deserve the added weight of shame and guilt on top of the searing pain of grief. There is only so much a human being can endure. So before forming an opinion on my sister’s character or upbringing, let me explain.
This did not happen because she was not loved enough. My sister was, still is and always will be, loved immensely. It was not an act of selfishness; in fact, it was very much the opposite. She did not end her life to cause us pain, she did it to end her own. It did not happen because she was not strong enough. My sister is stronger and braver than anyone I have ever known. To go through life weighed down by severe depression is incomprehensible to someone who is lucky enough to have never experienced it. She fought hard for many, many years – literally for her life. Her decision was acted out by the voice of depression; a voice of absolute hopelessness, of believing that death was more bearable than living another day. We as human beings instinctively want to live. Depression is so powerful that it engulfs our most primitive and strongest human instincts with an effortless, crushing force. Clinical depression grows, like a disease. It starts out benign, then it slowly consumes your whole entire being, leaving you with only a shell of the person you once were.
During university, I studied psychology and spent most of my time trying to find different ways to pull my sister out of depression. Elizabeth’s illness and everything around it consumed so much of my mental energy, I barely had room for anything else. I felt like I was in an almost constant state of worry and dread. I remember running home after learning something new and feeling like maybe I found a way that just might make her happy again. It breaks my heart because I can picture her sitting so keenly on the edge of her bed listening to me and taking notes, saying “talk a bit slower I didn’t get that last part.” Then faking enthusiasm and telling me she feels “happier already” and me leaving her room feeling so proud of myself for finally getting through. But I never got through. I used to get so mad at her for being lazy and unproductive, not realising the effects of her depression combined with her prescribed medications caused severe exhaustion. The very aspect of getting out of bed was excruciating for her. After she died, I was prescribed one of the exact same medications she was on to numb my own sadness. I remember standing there in the pharmacy and staring at the bottle for a few minutes before swallowing a pill and entering a state of dreamy numbness; a feeling of a complete disconnection from reality and fighting through exhaustion. I finally, only then, could understand.
When my sister was depressed, it felt like watching her drown and not being able to do anything to help. It felt like no matter what me or my parents did, she’d just keep getting sucked under. I’d literally try everything and anything I could think of, eventually collapsing in tears. I would get so angry that I would take my anger out on Elizabeth. I’d scream and yell and tell her I wanted nothing to do with her or the family anymore. I would storm out of the house and retreat to my friend’s place for a few days. Eventually, I’d return home late at night, slowly open the front door and catch eyes with her sitting on the couch eating pickles, watching Cold Case Files, and looking at me like ‘can we stop fighting now?’
I just love my sister so much. I could never give up on her. So, I would just sit down on the couch, ask her about the TV show and she’d look at me with a big smile and continue to explain every detail to me.
Elizabeth’s brain chemistry was different to that of someone who isn’t depressed. When her depression hit it was like throwing a bucket of black paint on a beautifully vivid, colourful painting. It took the core of who she was away. It stole her creativity and smothered her spark. Growing up we used to have fiery arguments with each other, it would be over something small like who got the front seat. Hair would be pulled; tears would be shed and my parents would roll their eyes and beg us to please grow up. But as we got older and her depression set in, she just didn’t have the energy. I remember instigating fights and she would simply shrug her shoulders and walk away. It hurt me more than a fight ever could to see her like that. Looking back now, this was a clear sign that a real problem was developing, I kept thinking it would fade. But it didn’t.
If you believe this happened because of faulty parenting, please know that my sister and I were raised in the same family and were together every step of the way. I have bad days just like everyone else, but I have never been clinically depressed, nor have I ever felt suicidal. My parents did everything to provide us with the best life they could. I really don’t know how or why her depression developed. It just did. Similarly, I don’t know why my grandma developed Alzheimer’s disease when she spent her life as an accountant and kept her mind active by doing crossword puzzles every night before bed. When my grandma struggles to remember things, no one would dare blame her because we know that it’s out of her control. Depression falls into the same category in that it is uncontrollable and sometimes develops completely randomly. Both deserve equal amounts of empathy.
I know in my heart that my family and I did everything we could to save my sister. I know that my sister did not want to die, she just wanted the pain to end. I wish I could’ve taken her pain away, I never wished for anything more desperately than that. But it didn’t work, my love for my sister was not enough to save her from depression.
However, I do not want my sister to be defined by her depression. I want those who knew her to remember her for the energy she brought to them before depression took it away. I want her to be remembered for her pure kind-hearted generosity. For those Christmas’ when she’d send us a large, wrapped box written in a decorative calligraphic font “~ The Hetherington’s ~” even though we told her repeatedly we didn’t want anything. Or for those times when she literally had homeless people over to her place for dinner. I want her to be remembered for her sense of humour and that infectious laughter that made everyone smile.
I think because I lost my big sister that I feel an instinctual need to stand up for her. I can’t allow her legacy to be one of pain and sadness. I can’t allow whispers and judgements to be made when no one understands the whole story. I want Elizabeth’s legacy to be filled with hope and joy because hers ended in the opposite. I hope it inspires people to be supportive and encouraging to others. To listen when someone is hurting, even if you can’t understand why. Just listen. Never minimise a person’s suffering by comparing it to another’s. What hurts one may not be a concern to another; we all feel and interpret things differently.
I am forever grateful to have a sister like Elizabeth. My amazing big sister, who washed the wheels of my stroller as a baby, protected me from the boys who bullied me in high school and created the kind of art I could only dream of replicating. I watched the person I idolised the most get taken down by depression. My time with her has opened my eyes and my heart in so many ways. It made me more empathetic, understanding, and open-minded.
I hope anyone out there suffering from a mental illness knows that they are not alone; that those negative, poisonous, self-defeating thought patterns are not facts. I want them to know that they deserve to be here just as much as anyone else.
I hope we can find effective ways to save people suffering from a mental illness. I hope they receive the kind of medical help that fell short on my sister. I hope that no one else will ever have to endure the pain of losing someone they love to suicide. I hope that one day mental illness will be treated in just the same way as any other fatal illness. Each time we share our own stories of mental illness we are slowly breaking down previously held beliefs and coming towards acceptance and understanding. I know things are changing for the better and I hope this story this adds to that.
Since she has passed, I have been overcome by emotions that I never experienced so intensely before. I don’t know why, but when I experience joy now, I feel absolutely immersed in every particle of it. I think it’s my body’s way of creating balance within itself. The pain from my sister’s death was like a pendulum that crashed through walls within me I’d never even knew existed. But it also swung back with such force it has allowed me to experience a level of happiness that is so potent it feels almost euphoric.
And when I feel that kind of pure euphoria, I hope that wherever Elizabeth is, she feels it too. I hope she feels it every single day.