9 MIN READ
I was a teenager when my sister committed suicide. She was 23 and I had no idea what she was going through. She had gone abroad to study and it was not as easy to stay in touch back then in the 2000s as it is now. I try to recall the last time I spoke to her. I was probably complaining about the banalities of being a teenager. I’m about six years younger than her and I don’t remember us having any heart-to-hearts.
My family didn’t talk about it for the next decade. We moved to a new house and it was like she’d never existed. We have a few photos on display and she’s in none of them. My parents didn’t tell me it was suicide. An older cousin was the one who did and at the time, I thought she had been tasked with it to soften the blow. It was only later that I found out that she had done it without consulting my family.
The news hit me like a brick.
I completely idolized my sister and she doted on me. A quote about siblings from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty comes to mind: “They were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away”.
When I was maybe in Class 5, I had to make a chart for my house club. Too overwhelmed with the task at hand, I asked my sister. She drew a fantastic picture that had a cartoon character leaping over a small gorge and it said, “look before you leap”. It was too good to be made by a fifth-grader. But the house in-charge was impressed and designated me to make many of the charts. I was stuck with them. Over time, I improved and even fancied myself an artist.
My sister's status as more than us mere mortals was instituted by the fact that she had a separate room and we weren’t allowed in without express permission. My other sister and I shared a room that was also used for grain storage. I played house by myself in my older sister’s room with small balloons I used as dolls. She’d create a space for me and I felt so special.
One day in her room, she randomly confided, “I hate all the men in my life” with no context given or demanded. I was young and dumb. I replied, “So do I!” I didn’t know who she was talking about, maybe our father, but I was thinking of the first boy in my class. She would laugh if she could see how often I still repeat her words in my head.
My sister loved reading, especially the classics. She had a friend who shared the same passion and gave her Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as a gift. Inside, the friend had written, “With lots of love, hope you understand Anna”. She loved writing down passages that resonated with her. I have a notebook full of her beloved passages. There are poems by Robert Frost, quotes from Villette by Charlotte Brontë, Josephine Cox, Khalil Gibran, Tom Robbins, and random quotes from the children of war-torn Sarajevo. There are prayers, hate notes, and attempts at poetry. She had lovely handwriting, not the boring cursive that we had to practice at school like mass-produced industrial soldiers. She was never any good at following the rules.
She had a membership at the British Library. We’d walk all the way there and back in the hot sun. It was housed then in a colonial-style building that was cool and peaceful inside. While she read Jane Austen, the Brontё sisters, and other classics, I read their abridged versions. When we were younger, we didn’t get to read any children’s books, no fairy tales, no Enid Blyton; it was just school books and then the classics. Some years later, when she was abroad, my father told me not to read novels, that they boggle the mind. A relative he looked up to had shared this nugget of wisdom with him. If he’d known everything I was reading at that age, he’d probably have put me in a nunnery.
My sister was crazy awesome sometimes. One year, my middle sister and I had both pulled an all-nighter before the final day of our finals. When we came back from school, she took us to Ramailo Mela to get on the Ferris Wheel and the Columbus ride. Maybe she thought we were taking life a bit too seriously.
We’d record FM songs on cassettes and painstakingly write down lyrics to songs we loved, or at least our interpretation of the lyrics. We’d sing Spice Girls renditions from the kausi as if we were on an actual stage. Having an elder sister who was cool meant you got street cred for knowing music that none of your friends were listening to. I still listen to Alanis Morissette sometimes. I find such comfort in her, the soundtrack of my time with my sisters, unsullied by all the trappings of modern adulthood.
I remember that day distinctly.
My mother, who'd usually be shouting for me to get up, had not done so and I had woken up pleasantly. As I walked up the stairs to the kitchen, there was an eerie silence. It was my aunt who broke the news to me. My parents were nowhere to be seen. It was a car accident, my aunt said, something about ice and my sister’s car skidding round and round and crashing into something, just like in the movies. I could picture it perfectly, the things the mind can conjure.
We never got her remains or her belongings. If my parents did, they never told me about it. I remember crying in their room, hugging my father for the first time. The house was soon full of relatives coming to pay their respects. For some reason, I remember my mom telling me not to tell anyone. But why would she do that, if they didn’t ever tell me about the suicide? I worry if I didn’t make it up in my head. I am still afraid of talking to my mom about it. How will she react? Will it help? The sentiment ‘what’s the use?’ has always been my excuse for not talking about my sister.
For the longest time, I had deep-seated anger towards my sister for what she did and towards my parents for the pressure they put on her and how they handled her death. I have been stifled by my mom’s protectiveness, her obsessive check-ins to know where I was at all times. I have felt stupid, hurt, and guilty for not having even an inkling of all the tensions between my sister and our parents.
For years, I just didn’t think about her, apart from the dreams I’d have. She was always alive in those dreams. Once, I dreamt that her death was all a hoax she’d created so that she could disappear. She had finally come back and our meeting was awful. I was just so angry at her.
I have been shattered and I have been anxious. It took me a while to know that I was depressed. With each depressive episode, I hoped for rock bottom. How much worse can it get before it gets better? In hindsight, it was the wrong strategy. There was a thick layer of guilt and shame for failing at adulting, for all the people I had let down and the bridges burnt. What was worse was to have to convince my mom and sister that I was depressed, not suicidal. The implication was there in their concerned looks and prodding.
When I am deeply depressed, I think that things will never be the way they used to be, that I can never be happy again. I dream of disappearing far, far away, of forgetting and being forgotten, of a clean slate. I start missing my old self.
Therapy has helped. It wasn’t easy to find a good therapist in Kathmandu. The one I finally ended up seeing was expensive. Regardless of how good or bad your therapist is, just the act of jotting down and speaking aloud all the things that are fucking you up to a stranger, freely and without consequence, can be cathartic. It was in therapy that I talked about my sister’s death aloud for the first time. It was the first time I grieved properly. It took me more than 10 years. This helps too, writing it down and reaching out to ye beleaguered masses with your trials and tribulations, creating some sort of a connection.
I cannot imagine being depressed in my 20s and not having the means and support that I have had, not having the awareness and knowledge to seek help. Even in my 30s, I saw it as a failure of character on my part. Why couldn’t I just shake it off? My self-esteem nosedived. I was afraid of facing people. The mechanisms I used to forget and cope led me further into a depressive spiral.
The more I read, the more I become aware that self-blame is part of the problem. The reason behind my depression may partly be the things I have repressed and/or some ‘defects of character’ like self-pity, self-centeredness, and dishonesty, which comedian Russell Brand talks about in his book Recovery. But at the same time, it could also be genetic. It could be what I eat, my gut microbiome, or a side effect of my auto-immune condition. I don’t need to know what it is exactly but it helps to know that I don’t have to beat myself up for being depressed and that I can take responsibility for changing certain ingrained thought patterns and tendencies. Having a sense of agency and autonomy has been crucial in my journey so far.
I think of my sister and what it must have been like for her, all alone, far from home. She had so much promise, she was so special. I’m shocked at how effective we have been at not talking about her. She was there one minute, gone the next, and life went on without a hitch. It was as if grieving her openly would bring shame to the family. She never did get the yearly death commemorations she was due.
It is not easy to talk about, I’ll be the first to admit. But it has been even harder not to. A colleague used to talk about her dad’s death. I was suspicious at the ease with which she could speak so openly, and at the same time, I was envious.
It’s taken me a long time to open up about my sister’s suicide. I doubt that her friends know, or maybe they know and nobody’s talking. It’ll take even longer to know what actually transpired. I am still afraid to ask my parents outright. I have debated contacting her close friends and finding out what they knew. I will probably never find out anything concrete, but it would be good to get some closure.
My one act of rebellion against the whitewashing of her memory has been to have a photo of her framed. My therapist asked me what I’d say if I could speak to her one last time. I’d tell her that she is loved, missed, not forgotten, she lit up my life however briefly, and that I am devastated she did not get the help she needed. I’d tell her that it’s okay, what’s past is past, and we are doing mostly fine. It’s okay, we’re okay, and I’ll be okay.
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