Saturday, February 25, 2017

Depression and Suicide: Reflecting Over My Sister’s Death

Michelle - 1980s
That warm, sunny day in February 2005, when I learned my older sister Michelle had ended her life, was agonizingly contradictory. Her death placed a punctuation mark at the end of a long battle with major depression. Yet, as I took a walk outdoors to clear my head and try to make sense of the news, birds tweeted and daffodils were already in full bloom, raising their little yellow heads to the sun as if to say, “Oh, what a beautiful day.”

And that’s the quandary in which many people suffering from mental illness find themselves. They’re often surrounded by happy people saying, “Cheer up, snap out of it. Find something useful to do, and you’ll feel better.”

Don’t get me wrong. Good physical and spiritual habits, as well as having purpose in one’s life, are all part of mental wellness. But severe depression can be debilitating and challenging to treat, despite the best efforts of those suffering or their loved ones.

Michelle and Me
When I was sixteen and Michelle was eighteen, sometimes we’d go to the University of Florida track and run. Michelle loved to run. Me, not so much. I had a tentative grasp on Michelle’s changing moods that were progressively growing darker. She tried. Oh, she tried. After all, we were out running, something she enjoyed.

One afternoon when we finished, we went into the restrooms. I heard her lean against the wall in the adjoining stall and begin to cry. I asked what was wrong. Most of what she said I already knew. In my naivete and helplessness, I said, “We’ll figure it out. I’ll help you.” Of course, what was I going to do? I was a kid myself.  I had no way of knowing this was only the beginning of a long journey—one I’d learn more about than I ever cared to know.

I’ve written many times about mental illness. My family experiences have mirrored others I’ve met at local and state National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) functions. I get emails from people walking this difficult path. I’ve read numerous scientific studies and first-person accounts. Yet, I don’t have the answers to explain the mystery of major depression—why some people overcome while others succumb.

Of a side note, one thing that alarms me after a suicide are folks who speak with great authority on the subject, yet their opinions often prove they have little actual experience with or knowledge of mental illness…which is why I continue to write.

For twenty years, Michelle suffered with major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, the former being the most intractable to treatment. Her heart broke for others battling major depression.  She once said, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

We had many conversations about the state of mental health care. At times, she shared my excitement for the latest news and scientific studies in medical journals. She’d say, “Laura, don’t ever quit looking for an answer.”

Michelle - 1997
But then, once, in a dark moment, she wrote: "There are so many people who love me and they just do not know what to do. Nothing is the answer. I have to do this on my own."

Years later, in her final note, she said, “I just can’t cope anymore. Forgive me, please.”

It’s in those dark, impenetrable moments that one takes their life. For those of us on the outside or left behind, we cope in differing ways. Some grasp for immediate or obvious answers: the person was selfish, only thinking of themselves; if only they’d gotten right with God, He would’ve fixed it.

(I wrote about the selfish angle on my blog a few years ago after country singer Mindy McCready’s suicide. Click here to read.)

I certainly know the validity of spiritual wholeness with God in order to maintain one’s sanity because I’ve experienced that myself, many times, especially since the death of my daughter six months ago.

But suicide goes much deeper than either of these quick explanations. It’s a riddle those of us left in the aftermath struggle to unlock. The conclusion I’ve reached in the twelve years since Michelle’s death is there are no easy answers. Ultimately, suicide reflects deep hopelessness in a person at the moment they make that decision. The only thing we can do is keep advocating for better mental health services and reach out to those suffering with a willingness to listen, encourage, and point people toward effective resources.

Behind every suicide is a real person with a real family who never gets over it. The fact there's still a stigma associated with treating depression medically or with counseling is a form of insanity itself. I can’t believe in the 21st century we’re still having this discussion, but we are.

Today, I also choose to think of the good memories because Michelle’s life wasn’t all dark. She had a happy, mischievous side. She loved to play practical jokes, like the time she put red pepper on my pizza when I had my back turned. Her risk-taking behavior often pushed me out of my comfort zone as a teen. As adults, I’d occasionally be surprised with a letter from her. The stationery was usually dotted with her familiar “smile” notations accompanied with a smiley face. Though she often didn’t feel like smiling, she wanted others to smile.

I treasure the quiet conversations we shared. These became rarer as physical distance of living almost 500 miles apart separated us later in life, and her schizophrenia interfered with her rational thoughts. But in those quiet moments, Michelle spoke from her heart. During her stretches of wellness, she modeled what I feel Christian behavior should be in its truest form—caring for others more than herself and uplifting others to make them feel better about their life situations.

If Michelle was ever angry toward God for how her life played out, she didn’t voice it in our conversations. Instead, she embraced the promise of a better life one day in eternity. She understood what so few grasp—life on earth is temporary. Her temporary life was a minefield. I pray she found the peace in eternity that seemed to elude her here on earth.

Michelle - 2004
Are you struggling with depression, the suicide of a loved one, or maybe just a situation that's overwhelming you? I’d love to hear your story and pray for you. Please leave a comment or email me confidential comments or prayer requests. Also, check out the mental illness tab at the top for a list of resources that might help you or your loved one.

©Laura Hodges Poole


  1. Laura, I'm so sorry for your loss. I actually had an aunt that took her life. My sister made an attempt and so did one brother. They were unsuccessful but they battled depression too. My husband also made a few attempts, but he too was unsuccessful. I remember one day he explained how it felt, after the fact. "It was like I was in this black hole and I just couldn't get out." Even my son made an attempt. In my husband's family his father attempted and succeeded. Which made it an option for my husband, I'm sure. I think people readily have opinions when they hear of someone who committed suicide. But they should hold their tongues. Unless you have traveled that road, you have no idea of all the treachery. Thank you for speaking out in behalf of your sister.

    1. Thank you, Anne, for your kind words and for sharing your story. 1 in 4 Americans battle some form of mental illness, so if a person has been fortunate enough not to experience it themselves or through a loved one, they should tread lightly when they speak, or like you said, hold their tongue. We can all reach out to those around us who are hurting. I'm sorry you've been through this with your family. God bless you, Anne. Thanks for stopping by. Always good to hear from you.

  2. My family pretends my mental illness doesn't exist. Their comments are you brought this all on yourself, get over it, move on, you have responsibilities, etc. In spite of my problems I took care of my mom with Alzheimer's 24/7 with not even a minimum amount of help from my family. I'm lost and alone. Because of insurance I had to leave my personal physician and psychiatrist that I've been seeing for many years and kept me on an even keel. When I went off the grid they reached out to me and supported me. A year-and-a-half ago I had a major depressive episode and fortunately I was able to call for help before I did anything foolish. They dismissed me from the hospital because the answer that question, do you still want to commit suicide, my answer was always no. The better question to be asked was do you want to live. My answer would have been no and would still be to this day. I didn't go to any follow-up appointments and no one reached out to me. One brother has not spoken to me since I got out of Hospital. I rarely see or talk to my other other brother and his family that live locally. They ask me what I'm doing or how I feel physically but not once have they ever asked about my hospitalization. I live alone and my parents house. I rarely Leave It. My out-of-state brother's ex sister-in-law is the only person who reaches out to me on a regular basis to make sure I'm okay. If it wasn't for her, I could easily be dead for days before anyone would know. I am a Christian and if it wasn't for my faith and strong beliefs I probably would have already taken my life. I used to be able to stay with a surety that I never would. But these days I'm not so sure. Please pray for me.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Gail. I'm sorry you have gone through all of this, and that your family has had a hard time dealing with it. Being so alone is not good for anyone, particularly with depression. I will definitely be praying for you. Please stay in touch and let me know how you're doing. My email is God bless you.

    2. Gail I am in tears reading your post. I am so sorry for all you continue to go through. Please know I will be praying for you. I mean really praying - I don't like to make that promise and not keep it. I just wanted you to have my email address if you need to reach out at anytime it is: God Bless!

    3. Laura had to add that the Michelle I remember is the cool older sister of my best friend who was sweet enough to drive us places and take us to concerts. I also remember her fun spirit and laugh. I truly believe she is finally at peace.

  3. I miss Miichelle so much and think of her often. We became best friends in Kindergarten and it continued through middle school, high school and there was never a dull day with her. Her sense of humor was great and got me through any rough day I may have had. Laura as u remember I spent a lot of my childhood at your house. It was like a big party all the time with all of you and your siblings. She would come to my birthday slumber parties every year and she was the life of the party.. I left school and got my GED but we still stayed in touch. Matter
    Of fact she asked me to meet her one day in Gainesville, we met up and she was all worried and scared. I was the first person she told
    That she was pregnant with Jodi. She was
    Scared of what people would think. We talked a lot and I assured her that her parents and everyone else would be fine with her pregnancy. I told her how I envied her since me and Mickey had been trying to get pregnant with no success. I was happy for her and told her I would be there for her if she needed me. I still remember the day Jodi was born. Michelle was so in love with her baby. We would
    Continue to see each other now and then but the visits spaced out.'I met with her one day and she had told me she was diagnosed with depression. She had lost so much weight I hardly recognized her. We talked A lot at that time and I continued to see her through all of her pregnancies and saw the battle she seem to be going through. At the time I couldn't understand major depression. But trusted the doctors knew how to take care of her.
    One of the last times I saw her, her youngest daughter Rachel was a little thing, Michelle seemed happier than she had been in a while. She had met Roy and seemed happy in her little world. The next time I heard anything about Michelle was when I learned of her suicide. All I could do was cry and felt
    Was there something else I could've done? When I see her pictures tears always come to my eyes. I developed major depression about 8 years ago. It is one of the worse things that one can have. And people don't understand the first thing I'm asked is what do I have to be depressed about? If it were only that easy. I'm finally at a point that I don't wish I could die, im taking one day at a time and with the help of counseling and medication they told me I'm finally stable on this medication regimen. Depression is a disease that many people just don't understand.

  4. So sorry. Mental diseases are so so difficult.

  5. Laura, thank you for sending me a friend request. By us sharing our stories, perhaps we can spur research, promote medical treatment and stop the stigma. God bless you and your family.

  6. Dearest Laura thank you for sharing your pain and loss. I appreciate your description of a whole person suffering with mental illness. There are points of light. Certainly in my past without God, hopelessness sometimes begged me to give up. Let's stay the course and keep sharing the power of His light and of resources to help on this earth. Thank you Jesus and thank you Laura again. In His love, Julie

  7. Thank you for this Laura. It comes from your heart- straight to mine. I am glad we both know the same, great God. You spoke of the times you treasured with your sister. I remember the times I treasured with my brother. Although he did not commit suicide, his schizophrenic behavior was self-destructive, and he died young. I am no authority on either suicide or mental illness- please keep informing those who need to know. (April Boyer - please visit!)

  8. Thank you for continuing to be a voice for so many who are overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood.

    When I worked as an ER RN I was continually baffled by life and death. Why did God take one person but leave another? Why all the suffering? Is there really a point to it? And how can I help?
    I never found the answers... but most days I can take comfort in trusting God. But there are times when I still want to know "why". There are times when it all seems so overwhelming.

    I guess this is why it is so important to have fellowship with other believers. For when one is weak, the other can lift them up and vice versa.
    We are not meant to travel this world alone. God is with us, even when we can't see Him or feel Him.

  9. hi Laura
    Like Michelle I suffer from Schizophrenia and major depression. I've battled mental illness since the age of 19 (I'm now 54). As bad as psychosis is, I believe the suffering of depression is harder to deal with and causes more misery for the person who suffers with it. I've made 4 suicide attempts...most of which were prompted by psychosis but also depression played a role, particularly the attempts that took place many years ago. I have a blog ( which was begun just after my last really major episode of SZ. Maybe if you search for "schizophrenia" on my blog you will maybe have a clearer understanding...but I think that due to your love for your sister, you already understand much more than the average person. Just writing about it...just THINKING about it invites that dark heavy mustard gas cloud that you breathe in and it eats you from the inside out.

    Keep writing...sometimes it is our only salvation. I have chronicled my lifelong battle with these two illnesses in my book Treasures from Darkness. Maybe reading my book might help. (I'm not trying to sell you a book...if you want, let me know and I will send you one.)

    May God bless you and heal your wounds.