November 12, 2005. Rain was falling outside the window, which was typical for Southeast Alaska. I was sitting on the floor playing my guitar when the phone rang. 2,500 miles separated me from my home in Wausau, Wisconsin when I heard the news that my cousin, Elliot, had died. He was 22.
Elliot was six months younger than me. The day I learned of his passing, I took a long drive to try to wrap my mind around it. Unfortunately, I was confined to an island and no stretch of highway seemed long enough to make sense of anything. Although we were not close, we still grew up together and it hurt my heart in a way I had never mourned a loss before.
I drove the stretch from Klawock toward Coffman Cove thinking about the times I spent with Elliot. He taught me how to play Nintendo one summer day at his dad’s house. We took turns pushing each other on the blue swing in Grandma and Grandpa’s backyard. He was a good kid. His smile was genuine and he had the sense of humor our family is known for. This is the Elliot I remember.
Throughout the last nine years, I have begun to cringe when I hear the phrase committed suicide. Some say it like they would speak of someone who commits adultery, or commits fraud. Elliot was struggling in ways I will never fully understand and he put an end to his suffering. I am ashamed to admit that I used to view suicide as a cowardly act, but I know now that this is not true.
Nine years later, I am working in the mental health field and it is not easy, but I could not imagine doing anything else. There is a stigma associated with mental illness and there shouldn’t be. It is an illness. People do not choose this as a way of life.
About four years before Elliot left us, I gave him a ride back to Wausau from Chicago. We spent five hours in the car together and he was a much different Elliot than the child I had grown up with. The conversation was difficult to follow, but his laugh was the same as it always had been. I think going through the what ifs is natural when you lose someone, but with a suicide, it’s exhausting.
I think of Elliot often. I wonder what his life would be like today if November 12, 2005 had not played out the way it did. I am remembering Elliot today. I am remembering Elliot everyday in the work I do and I have hope. Hope that someday we will be able to talk about suicide prevention, awareness, and mental illness as openly as we talk about cancer.