Editor’s Note: the following includes a discussion of loss, suicide, and death.
In May 2018 my older brother died of suicide in Boston.
Our family was supposed to meet him there in a couple of days for his graduation but instead, my father received a call from a detective a few hours before his flight, and he found out that my brother had hanged himself at the subway station near his apartment. Our family flew to Boston anyway to receive him, pack up his stuff, and bring him home to Pakistan for his final resting place.
Those days mesh into a blur of one long day now as I remember trying to fuse whatever I knew about dying with the knowledge that now my brother was dead, and that he chose this fate. Everything I thought I knew about death shifted.
1. The emotional paralysis.
When someone dies, there is an overwhelming amount of sadness that takes over as you feel wronged by the world for taking away someone you loved. When someone chooses to die, there is an asterisk against their death – an asterisk that pushes your sadness to the back as you continue to swim in a state of shock and confusion that doesn’t allow you to accept what just happened.
2. The taboo loss.
Support comes in all sorts of packages, I’ve learned. Some packages make sense, like when my cousins decided to join us in Boston for the most difficult weekend of our lives.
Some didn’t make as much sense – when people from the same families whispered their suggestions of changing the cause of death to something more appropriate on his death certificate. Or simply to avoid disclosing the actual cause of death to our mosques back home, to avoid the clergy from denouncing my brother’s death a sin.
3. The nervous mourners.
At other funerals, family and friends take the reigns so that the immediate family can simply just mourn; at my brother’s funeral, the roles were reversed. As much as people wanted to be there for us, they needed us to lead them in setting the mood and figuring out how to mourn him. We were all at a loss.
As I sat down to write his eulogy, I broke down wondering if I ever knew him at all.
Suicide is considered sinful in our religion and culture, but I can never deny the fact that we had an immense amount of support from everyone we knew.
4. The questioning of your own relationship.
Immediately after learning how much my brother had suffered in silence for years I began going over every conversation, every interaction, every fight we had ever had. We spent most of our lives in the same bedroom, sharing everything. And suddenly I find out there were so many layers that I was blind to for years. As I sat down to write his eulogy, I broke down wondering if I ever knew him at all. It’s a thought that still pays a visit every now and then.
5. The sinful death.
All I thought about was how I had failed him, how so many of us around him failed him, and how many countless more people we fail every day. But because suicide itself is such a sin in my religion, a lot of people were more focused on praying for his forgiveness.
After all the years of suffering he endured, how convenient of us as a society to absolve ourselves of any accountability because our scripture denounces suicide. What about our forgiveness for driving someone to this desperate point?
6. The reduction of a person to a cautionary tale.
My brother was charismatic, popular, hilarious, empathetic, handsome, loving, goofy. He was every color on the palette in his short 25 years – an older brother, the oldest son, a best friend, the baby cousin, a football coach – but then he took his own life and gradually I witnessed the shift in the way people spoke of him.
Despite how great he was, he has become reduced to a mere cautionary tale for many people.
7. The importance of self-accountability.
After surviving the suicide of a loved one, human fragility becomes magnified. I became more attentive to the different roles I play in so many people’s lives. Because I know I loved my brother, I can take accountability and say I wish I was able to do more for him, without hating myself for it. Once you can take accountability for something as horrific as your brother’s loss, it becomes easier to take accountability for the rest of my life from here on.
8. Pandora’s Box of advice.
After my brother passed away, a lot of people chimed in with an infinite amount of advice that we hadn’t asked for. My grieving parents were advised to marry me off, or at least not send me back to Rome to complete my studies. I was told my parents were now my responsibility, that my younger brother needed a better role model.
I was told so many things, I wondered when the word suicide became an open invitation to comment on my life.
9. Dubbing silence as “strength.”
My brother wore a happy face all the time, only to substitute it every now and then for some snarkiness. But when we found out how much he had kept to himself, a lot of people immediately reacted by saying he was so strong for keeping this all to himself and for hanging in there for so long.
I became more attentive to the different roles I play in so many people’s lives.
And yes, I believe enduring the pain he endured for however long, definitely takes strength. But also equating his silence with strength is glorifying pain, and is exactly why people choose to stay quiet.
10. The before/after split.
When I think back to any event in my life now, like my high school graduation, I imagine that part of my life as ‘Before Emad’.
My college graduation falls on the other side of the divide – ‘After Emad’ – in a world that’s completely changed. My calendar is no longer dictated by years but by my brother’s association, as the girl I was before was someone who was going through life with just one eye open.
11. Past memories are tainted.
Now that his death makes me question how well I really knew him, all of our memories together also feel somehow tainted. Was a really happy memory for me, actually a really difficult day for him?
On his last visit to Pakistan, he told me he wanted to throw a massive New Year’s Party with me at our house. We threw a combined party with all our friends and family and I remember that night as one of the best nights of my life. But now when I think back and hear people’s stories from that night, it seemed like my brother’s public way of saying goodbye.
12. Achievements today are tainted.
Any happy event after the loss of someone special is hard to endure. It feels incomplete and bittersweet and you wish they were able to spend this day with you. Death by suicide haunts you as its a constant reminder that this person chose not to be here for this moment today.
My college graduation. My first job. My writing. Every News Year and birthday since. And yet you don’t harbor any resentment because you’ve accepted their decision already.
13. The unfinished business.
We’ve all always understood and accepted death as the final end, especially because none of us were particularly religious but Emad’s death made things trickier for us to simply accept it and let go. Perhaps because we felt like he had prematurely let go of us, and we weren’t ready yet.
Despite our personal reservations, each of us in the immediate family went on our own journeys and found a spiritual connection to him that transcends any worldly emotion.
14. Personal dissociation.
After spending so much time questioning the kind of sister I was to him, it becomes difficult to stay the person you were before he passed away. Not only is it difficult, but it’s almost impossible. It’s as if the trauma from losing him has made me dissociate myself from the girl who I used to be while he was around; the girl who might have let him down.
15. Therapy becomes your friend.
There were not a lot of safe spaces after he passed away. As the adult of the family, I became the perfect person for people to ask inappropriate questions, for people to casually blame, for people’s unsolicited advice – all of it. I had been in and out of therapy for a couple of years as it is, but my relationship with therapy transformed after the suicide.
Was a really happy memory for me, actually a really difficult day for him?
It became the one place I wasn’t judged or questioned or blamed, but it also became the place that would give me the same tools I wish someone gave my brother.
16. It feels like the end – but it isn’t.
For the longest time, it’s bad but eventually some good begins to trickle in. The pain doesn’t disappear, but it’s not the only thing left in your heart. I don’t necessarily know if it becomes less, but slowly other things start filling up your daily routine, and the pain begins to share its space with all these other feelings so you no longer feel consumed by it.
17. The unexplainable connection with the beyond.
It can be a dream. It can be the right song playing at the right time. It can be a fleeting scent. It can be a distant voice. It can be absolutely nothing more than the wind touching your cheek right when you needed it.
It’s this intangible feeling that perhaps doesn’t have the right vocabulary to support it yet but it’s there. Whether it’s a delusional coping mechanism, or it’s a sign from him, at that moment you feel as if the universe is holding you.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, check out the resources below:
* People who are deaf or hard of hearing can reach Lifeline via TTY by dialing 1-800-799-4889 or use the Lifeline Live Chat service online.
* Text TALK to 741741 for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling.
* Call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), for free, confidential support for substance abuse treatment.
* Call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), for confidential crisis support.
* Call Trevor Lifeline, 1-866-488-7386, a free and confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ+ youth.
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