When I was six years old and my brother was four years old my mother told me how my uncle died. I was told he had a disease in his brain that made him act and feel differently. She told me he would be happy one day and sad the next, that he behaved in a way that did not make a lot of sense. That he made a decision because he was sick and that he killed himself a few years before I was born.
It took me years to understand exactly what bipolar disorder and suicide are, but I am glad I had those years to figure out what they meant and who my uncle is to me. I never met my Uncle Stephen, but he is just as much a part of my life as any other relative. After all, I have his blue eyes and my middle name is Sophia, with an S for Stephen.
Too many people are ashamed to have had a suicide in the family. The topic of suicide is scary and stigmatized and can be hard to talk about, but I am so thankful to my family that they did not keep the truth of my uncle’s death a secret. I understand the thought behind the desire to protect children or a legacy, but I think hiding the truth is the last way to do either of those things.
As a young child, I did not need to know the method my uncle used to kill himself, nor did I need to know about his medical journey. The gory details were not important. What was important was knowing the truth and learning to be sensitive to others’ truths. To know that my uncle was and still is loved and that his death does not define him. Because I learned about my uncle’s death at such an early age, I grew up sensitive to mental health struggles of those around me. I learned to care for others and to empathize without pressuring for details. I learned to care about a cause and to stand up for those who may not be able to stand up for themselves.
My uncle’s legacy is not his death. His legacy lives on in my family’s efforts to raise awareness and educate about suicide prevention and postvention. His legacy lives on in the dinners my family hosts every year for him that twenty-five years later, his friends still attend. His legacy lives on in me. While I never knew him and I did not have to survive through the pain of the aftermath of his death, I am an advocate for him and what he went through.
I am lucky that I learned at a young age about my uncle. I’m lucky to have been raised to know him even though I never had the chance to meet him. Having a suicide in the family and being a survivor are not shameful. So, do not be shamed into silence, rather know that your survival makes you a powerful agent for change.