I got the call on a Saturday evening in February of 2015. It was the day after Valentine’s Day and a weekend before my younger sister’s birthday. My mother called me in California, where I had been living for the last ten years from my home state of Maryland, where she and my sister lived. My only sibling. I would later learn that my mom waited a whole evening and one afternoon to notify me that my younger sister was deceased.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” Mom began the conversation. “Randle is dead. She took too many pills. She didn’t wake up.” Her words hit me like an avalanche.
“I’ve got to call you right back,” was my immediate response.
“What?” My mother’s voice panicked. “Please, call me back.” Her tone gave way to understanding, but I recognized the fear of desertion in her voice.
“Let me call you right back.” I hung up. I placed the cell phone down on the kitchen counter, where I stood washing dishes when the phone rang. There was a lump of disbelief in my chest. The devastation lodged like a bullet in my heart, my throat, my head. I felt like I couldn’t swallow. For a moment I starred at the phone. Watched the screen blackout before I hit the home button to turn it back on. I pressed the phone icon and scrolled to my friend, Kenney’s name. Hit dial and raised the phone to my ear. These brief movements were heavy and slow. She picked up on the second ring.
“Hey, hey. I was gonna shower then head over to your place…” Kenney immediately began. Her voice was upbeat and inviting.
I cut her off. “My sister is dead. My mom just called me. I have to call her back.” My voice was as flat as a desert plain.
Kenney didn’t miss a beat. “I will be right over.”
My sink was full of dishes and soapy water. I realized that I hadn’t shut the faucet off. I realized not from the sound of the water cascading from the faucet but of the dripping from the overflow as it slowly spilled to the pale-yellow laminate floor. Without worry, I pushed the faucet handle in the off position. Leaving the spilled water and the drowned dishes, I took my phone and left the kitchen. I dialed my mother’s number. I stood in the short hallway by the front door.
She answered on the first ring. “Are you okay?” Her voice sounded worried, but without judgment.
“Yes, a friend is coming over. I won’t be alone. Are you okay? Can I call you later?”
“I’m okay. Promise me you will call me later. Promise me.”
“I promise. I’ll call you back.”
I still stood by the front door when Kenney knocked. I opened the door, and she immediately took me in her arms. Kenney is taller than me. I’m 5,’ and she is 5’9 – 5’11 and slender. My face pressed against her bosom, below the shoulder. Upon contact, I cried; my sounds muffled by the fabric of Kenney’s sweatshirt. I didn’t feel ready for what was now my new truth.
Grief is an ocean that ebbs and flows. Huge, breaking waves and a powerful, dangerous undercurrent. Four years have gone by, and I’m still rolling in waves. A crashing pain that I don’t believe will ever pass. Grief is an undeniable facet of the human condition.
“Grief is a natural response to loss. It is the emotional suffering one feels when something or someone the individual loves is taken away.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grief)
The five stages of grief – the Kubler-Ross Model – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance was based on studies of terminally ill patients and their response to their impending death. The studies did not include the experiences of the loved ones that are left with the aftermath of a death. My sister’s sudden death was not an impending death that I had the opportunity to prepare for. The hierarchy of the five-stage model implies that there are order and a beginning and an end. The only beginning and ending that I can identify in my grieving is the life and death of my sister. The impact of her death did not lend space for denial. Any anger was muted by extreme numbness. Bargaining - again, I was not faced with the probability of her death, and her life was not mine to negotiate. Depression presents as a full-time companion, and acceptance must be realized to cope. It’s a misconception in popular culture that the Kubler-Ross model was intended to be applied to the grieving process.
Grief has no stages in which to pass. (George Bonanno)
It is difficult to comprehend that it has been four years since Randle committed suicide. It seems like a long time for her death and my grief to feel so present. At the time of her death in 2015, I had not seen Randle in six years. I had not been home since 2009 and Randle had a fear of flying, so she never visited. We spoke on the phone as often as our lifestyles dictated and we were not estranged. I was aware of her struggles with mental illness and addiction. I had similar battles. My personal experiences with psychiatric hospitals and treatment programs allowed me the perspective and understanding to be a supportive older sister during our phone conversations. The geographical distance was a barrier, and possibly, due to my own addiction, the extent of her troubles eluded me. My ability to cope on my own – independent of a family - caused me to take for granted the notion that she could also cope. After all, she had a Mom. There were important details of her life I was never informed of.
Our mother had raised me to be tough and independent – she was softer towards Randle – everyone was. My younger sister was spoiled, and she always expected to have her way. She possessed a unique quality that made those around her to want her to have her way. She had quality. Something majestic. It shone in her hazel eyes. From a distance created by years and miles, I couldn’t see how deeply broken, and alone, my sister navigated her life. The many reasons why the severity of Randle’s situation was unknown to me are mute now. I survived weeks upon weeks in a mental hospital. I recovered from mental health breakdowns and failed suicide attempts. I assumed Randle would also recover in time.
I moved home in 2016. Mom asked me to. I said yes because – now it was just Mom and myself. It somehow seemed wrong to leave her living alone while I too lived alone on the other side of the country. As a daughter, I had a duty to care for my mother. It was the day after Thanksgiving Day when I deserted my material possessions in San Francisco, California, and took a flight with my dogs to Baltimore, Maryland. My version of the return of the prodigal daughter.
One of the first things that I did was to locate a local bereavement group for my mother and me to attend. This helped. A bit. It was good to talk openly about our loss amongst strangers – all grieving the death of a loved one. In the interest of protecting her feelings, before attending the group, I had approached the topic of my deceased sister like I was walking on broken glass. I reserved my grief as much as I could. I tried not to initiate conversations about Randle too often. When I would speak of Randle, I decided to be brief and conscientious of my mother’s feelings. Through the group sessions, I gained the understanding that it was okay to speak openly about Randle with my mom. I learned that she fears she’ll lose the memory of Randle just like I do. I don’t think that it is possible ever to forget my sister. It’s simply unfathomable. She is everywhere that Mom and I exist. In our past and present. We didn’t stick with the group. The religious overtones became forceful and not in line with me and my mother’s beliefs. Of course, the facilitator went through the five stages of grief, which wasn’t applicable. After three or four weekly sessions, we quit. I gained a better understanding of how to navigate my mourning around my mom. For this, I am grateful.
A word that was not used to describe Randle’s death was suicide. It was implied, but the use of the term was seldom. Mom would say things like, she took so many medications, she didn’t wake up, your sister was on a lot of pills, she was so out of it all the time. Mom described the night Randle died as not unlike many other nights. Randle showed up to Mom’s apartment in East Baltimore already out of it from her pills. Randle laid down next to Mom and told Mom that she was tired but that she loved her. Randle had always been a heavy sleeper, but after a long while, there came a complete stillness, an absolute nothing where Randle laid that’s how Mom knew she was dead. Unlike, so many times before, Mom did not rush to call the paramedics. Mom would later tell me that she cradled Randle’s head in her lap and yelled “Fuck” a few times into the quiet. It was right before sunrise when she called the authorities.
Suicide is a death that brings shame to families in many cultures because of this, people who lose a loved one to suicide may experience what is called disenfranchised grief. “Disenfranchised grief - the pain of a significant loss that is not openly acknowledged or socially supported” (Vatner). Suicide is uncomfortable. It creates judgment. It causes some to pry, and some to disengage. It raised self-doubt. My identity as a sibling came into question. Did I fail as a sister because I failed to protect her – to prevent her from taking her own life? There are times that I feel undeserving to grieve. These thoughts are also the perceptions that I believe people have when I share that my adult sibling committed suicide. My rational mind comprehends that these thoughts are insignificant and untrue. Grief is not a logical process.
“It’s a lonely experience being a sibling bereaved by suicide” (Royden).
The loss of a sibling to suicide has challenges that other family members may not face. Leah Royden articulates the experience in Sibling Suicide Survivors: The “Forgotten Mourners.” In her quest for answers after her brother committed suicide, she found that there was very little research done on the subject. Adult siblings who experience the loss of a sibling are often overlooked. Surviving siblings can feel responsible for their parent’s feelings. I altered my entire life to move in with my mother. My needs became what was best for Mom.
“Many grieving siblings try to appear "emotionally together" or even cheerful around their parents, despite their own intense pain. They usually experience a desperate desire to make their parents happy again” (Royden). The stigma surrounding suicide isolates the surviving sibling and support from within the family and outside the family can be limited and inadequate, Royden found in her research.
The stigma surrounding suicide is so profound we didn’t say the word in my family. Mental health illness affected both my sister and me. My mother has always been open about our mental health illness and always supported us. She didn’t want us to feel ashamed for having depression or having mania, but suicide was not a manageable topic. I first attempted suicide when I was 14, and she would never talk to me about it. I always felt such guilt the other times I’d had a suicide attempt and would need to call her from a hospital that despite how dire my situation, I was sure to sound reassuring and safe. When Mom would call me about Randle, she’d say: “Randle’s had an accident. She’s in the hospital. She’ll be okay, but you should call her.” Mom wouldn’t say suicide, and when I spoke to Randle, I wouldn’t use the word either. I wouldn’t ask Randle what happened. I would ask her how she was feeling, and I would do my best to sound reassuring and safe.
When I first moved back home, I found a red composition notebook that had been Randle’s. On the cover, she had written Sexy Ran in black ink, and block letters. Only a few pages were filled - the first six. At that time – a year after her passing - I couldn’t read it. Her handwriting on the pages filled me with dread. The permeance of her death sat on those pages so close to my face.
I used the notebook, however. It was all that I had to write in at the time. I wrote in the composition from the back end, never looking at the front end. It wasn’t until last month; just a few nights ago that I read those pages in the front. Randle was twenty-seven when she wrote it and had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She talks about her addiction, fucking up a relationship with a girl she loved deeply, her regret for her behavior towards the way she treats the people that she loves; like our mother. Suicide comes up. At the age of twenty-seven – three years before her death – she had attempted suicide five times. One of which was an attempt by walking into traffic. She also wrote about how she wouldn’t try to commit suicide again because she didn’t want to keep hurting the people who love her.
What my baby sister wrote is heartbreaking. I had no idea there had been so many suicide attempts. I had no idea she had walked into traffic. The isolation and loneliness she felt. She felt she was losing herself to the madness that her bipolar diagnosis created. It not only hurts that she felt such a way but that I completely identified with the feelings she expressed. I have known them myself. The unbearable weight of losing your mind and the destruction it causes. I should have been able to protect her from those feelings. But that’s not the way life works, now is it?
The last conversation I had with Randle was maybe a week before she passed. She called me during the early morning. I remember standing by my window looking at the empty street below thinking that it was so early traffic had yet to begin. The conversation was harrowing and heart-breaking. She called me crying. It was a bewildered cry that made it difficult to make sense of the events that have led to hurt pain she was going through. She had been attacked and robbed by a group of people. Beaten up badly. A girl she was dating had facilitated the attack. “Why? Did they hurt me?” She repeated herself, and the distance between us felt galaxies because I could not comfort her.
If I were near her, I would have brought her to my home and given her what she needed. A bath. A bed. An embrace. Tended to her physical pain. But I couldn’t do any of that. Instead, all I could do was give her my words. I told her that I didn’t know why people hurt each other, but I was sorry, and everything would be okay. Her crying quieted, and her voice calmed, but she remained lost. I confirmed she had a safe place to go. I made her promise to call me anytime if she needed to talk. But the loneliness and misery in her voice were so intense – so relatable – so tangible – If only I weren’t across the country.
That call hurt my heart in a place where I feel to this day. I wish I could’ve reached through the distance that separated us and brought her to me. I sat in silence for a long time after that phone call. Paralyzed by my loneliness and powerlessness.
Survivor guilt is a thing for adult siblings. Guilt over a failure to protect. Guilt towards how the relationship was maintained. Immediately, following her death, I did not like to think about our relationship as adults. Maybe denial is a thing when grieving. We were close because we were bonded as sisters, but we were not involved in each other’s day to day lives. Our lives had so many similarities but so much distance. Thinking of the loss of my sister and the time that we didn’t share while she was alive was something I couldn’t bear. I suppose now that is changing a bit. Here I am. Four years later writing about her death, reading her thoughts. Searching for meaning in my grief, I reflect on not the distant past we shared as children, but the recent past, we lost to mental illness and geography.
What I find, that exists in this space while we were separated – what always remained was our sisterly bond. It exists still. In my memories and an even more intangible metaphysical realm. They are moments I feel Randle’s presence near me – the sense is so strong I can reach out and nearly touch her. There have been moments where I’ve heard her voice. It’s a vivid sound that tells me she is okay now, better than before and that she will never be lost to me. She never was.
Royden, Leah. "Sibling Suicide Survivors: ”The Forgotten Mourners"." 15 February 2019. Psychology Today. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mourning-after/201902/sibling-suicide-survivors-the-forgotten-mourners?amp>.
Vatner, Johnathan. "Mourning Becomes Neglected: 4 Healthy Ways to Grieve." February 2009. Oprah.Com. <https://www.oprah.com/health/healthy-ways-to-mourn-disenfranchised-grief>.
Wikipedia. George Bonano. n.d. Wiki page.
—. Grief. n.d. Wiki Page.