The public safety officer kept me from getting too close, but standing on that wet sidewalk in the drizzle I knew exactly what Jo’Rae Jenkins was feeling. Even though journalists are supposed to be detached, I felt my secret soft spot cramping.
I’d felt that same grief, the shock and loss that Jo’Rae Jenkins was feeling – the deep grief that comes not just with an unexpected death, but with a loved one dying by their own hand.
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That was 10 years ago when my older brother completed suicide.
He was 19. I was only 11, but I remember feeling guilty and angry.
I know how everyone touched by the death, especially suicide, wishes they could have done more and feels guilty that they did not see the signs.
When my parents told my younger sister and me about my brother’s suicide, I remember falling to my knees.
I was paralyzed by the question, “Why?”
Why our family?
Why my brother of all people?
We were good people. My mom did not deserve this. Why did none of us see it? Why didn’t I see it?
The only answer my mother could give at the time was that my brother’s clinical depression made him forget how beloved he was by his family and friends.
“He got confused. He made a mistake,” she told us.
In my months working at The Augusta Press as an education reporter, I never expected to be writing about suicide and my own excruciating experience. I especially never expected to be standing on a wet sidewalk in the drizzle while a woman lived out her own loss.
Reporting about suicides of public men and women are challenges for journalists. Our code of ethics requires us to be sensitive in such situations, and for most suicides, that means leaving the story alone.
It’s different when a public figure — someone who’s run for office and been elected — takes his own life, especially when allegations of crime are lingering, as was the case for Tyrique Robinson, a young man who was only a year older than my brother.
With that kind of circumstance, there’s a journalistic obligation to tell citizens what happened to a man who asked for their trust, in this case to make decisions that impact our schools.
Tyrique Robinson was more than just a politician and erstwhile school board member, though.
In a time clouded by grief and loss after the death of this young man, I think it is important for others to acknowledge that everyone experiences grief differently. Traumatic deaths like suicide are not like others, and they cannot be categorized so easily. Grieving such deaths is not a linear experience, and often presents itself in recurring stages
Suicide of a loved one is something that hurts among an enormous circle of individuals and yet alienates those closest to the victim.
Journalists are supposed to be unbiased and detached – not emotionally involved in their stories. Rarely is that possible with a story like Tyrique Robinson’s.
I vividly remember feeling isolated and alone and guilty after my brother’s death.
When I walked into a room, the stares felt like bricks on my shoulders. I lost friends because no one knew what to say or how to approach me.
I know from both sides the harm of a “Leave her alone. Don’t talk about it. Don’t make her cry” mentality. And I want you all to know, in the long term, that’s the wrong answer.
For me, it made losing friends even more painful and made my brother’s death feel like a burden I had to carry alone.
Apart from the therapists and my mother’s loving hugs, the most helpful thing for me was finding individuals my own age who had been through a family member’s suicide too. It wasn’t until I met someone two years older than me who also lost his brother to suicide that I truly felt seen and understood in my grief.
Pre-teens, teenagers and young adults don’t often have group therapy options, which leads to many of us feeling like a bad pimple on a face caked with makeup – obvious and failing to blend despite the best of efforts.
Unlike other deaths, suicide and the isolation it imposes on those left behind can lead friends and family to ponder whether it might be an on-the-table option when life gets hard. My mother, though, pounded into all of us that my brother’s choice was a mistake and that he wouldn’t have wanted his choice to hurt us like it did.
“We can be sad, but we cannot stay there. We don’t want him hurting in Heaven, because he is looking down and seeing us sad,” my mother often said.
Although I was not religious and might never be, her words still struck a chord, and I remembered struggling to find ways to keep his memory alive.
My family loved Nutella – especially my brother. So much in fact, my mother would have to buy a new jar of it every week to supply her children’s shared love of chocolate and hazelnut. But following his death, the same jar remained in the kitchen cabinet for weeks. Untouched and undesired.
I think none of us could dare open it without imagining his grin as he dug out an overfilled scoop in his pajamas. As I opened that cabinet for the first time after his passing, I felt what so many of us do but won’t say: the overwhelming need to keep his memory alive, and not let our grief rob my family of something we all loved together. It was something small, but in my young heart, it mattered.
Determined to beat the substantial statistics of this happening to another one of her children, my mother sought immediate professional help for our family.
While my grief made me forget a lot of it, I remember the therapist sitting with my sister and me at a table and setting an empty cup before us. She then pulled out a large pitcher filled with water and proceeded to fill the cup halfway.
She explained that each water droplet was a daily struggle. Maybe it is a divorce, money problems, a fight with a friend or even a bad grade. As she spoke, she poured an overflowing amount of water into the cup to visualize that eventually these struggles could spill over if not dealt with.
“Can you tell me which specific drop caused it to overfill?” she asked. My sister and I both shook our heads in confusion.
“That’s because it could have been anything, and it all contributed. If you do not learn how to empty your cup, it will overflow and can lead to things like your brother’s death,” she said. She then shared small ways we could lessen the droplets in our individual cups. For some it can be medication and talk therapy, while for others it can be smaller things like journaling, meditation or exercising.
She followed by placing a second cup beside the filled one, and explained that we can even lessen our cup’s fullness by having a friend or family member come alongside us. But she emphasized that, like a colored cup that cannot be seen through, we have to let our loved ones know about the overfilled cup so they know when to help us.
As School Board member Wayne Frazier said to me after Jenkins’ was driven home that night, it is no one person’s fault, and there is no one entity to blame. Tyrique Robinson could have been burdened with a multitude of reasons – reasons we might never know.
While I never met Robinson, I could tell from Jenkins’ outburst and Frazier’s kind words that he was loved despite possible mistakes he may or may not have made. Like my brother and myself, we all make mistakes, and we all have to allow ourselves to learn from them.
We can honor Robinson’s wish to serve the community and thereby give meaning to his death by stepping up and doing what we can to make Augusta a better place to live. Finding meaning for our lives is a way to give meaning to what happened, and it can bring healing.
Most of all, we should all remember my mother’s words – that it is a mistake; one made from a brief forgetfulness of how treasured each individual is by those closest to them, and one that is often caused by many “droplets.”
Liz Wright is a staff writer covering education and general assignments for The Augusta Press. Reach her at email@example.com
This is beautiful. I love the therapists visual explanation. Thank you for sharing your horrible experience as a young girl and for sharing the assistance that your wise mother provided for you and your family. This had to be a difficult assignment for you but hopefully it will help others.
A bird’s-eye view, so to speak. Excellent commentary!
Well done, you.
I went to too many suicides as a paramedic and always asked why to myself would anyone ever do this to their friends or family. Your column is excellent especially coming from someone who had to experience it first hand. My prayers to all involved and hopefully someone who is contemplating suicide will reach out for help after reading about what you and your family went through and continue to ache on your loss.
A very difficult story to cover, and the entire AP team handled it with dignity and professionalism.
God bless all who loved Tyrique, and all who have also suffered such a tragic loss.
I’m sure it wasn’t an easy task for you – both witnessing the pain of this most recent loss or writing about the pain you’ve personally experienced. Thank you for sharing, Liz.
What a well written and meaningful article. It must have been hard to write –oh but you did a beautiful job!!