All of us have walked in dark places at one time or another. When a life-altering tragedy occurs, it’s like a sinkhole suddenly collapses the sunny sidewalk beneath us. Dropping into a black pit filled with despair, fear and grief, we become reluctant pit dwellers.
In December 2012, my brother Chris attempted suicide; he died five days later. The Pit Dweller Series is my testimony of God’s goodness during that dark time.
An Admission of Weakness
The only time my brother allowed me to help in a substantial way occurred about a year and a half before his suicide, when I traveled to Michigan in August 2011.
Chris lived at home and had become our aging mother’s full-time caregiver. After he started managing the household bills, I often asked how they were doing financially. My brother’s standard answer? “Fine,” Nothing more.
Chris didn’t want any interference. Being proud, he also didn’t want any help. I think my brother believed asking for help would be an admission of weakness. Our father had felt the same way.
My family had two sources of income. Dad had worked as a chemical engineer. When he’d died in 1984, Mom began receiving social security checks based on his salary. The house was completely paid off, so overhead was low—just utilities, food, taxes, gas, car payments and insurance.
The second source of income came from my mother’s wise investments.
Financial Security: Playing the Stock Market
In her mid-fifties, my mother inherited stock from her parents. Unlike many of us, she didn’t just bury the stock certificates in a safety deposit box. Instead she went to the library. Soon Mom had read 10 or 12 books about how to invest money in the stock market. Some of the books—according to my mother—were rubbish. Two or three gave her knowledge and good investment advice.
My mother often proclaimed that Wall Street was made up of “a bunch of little old ladies.”
Keep in mind, it was a “little old lady” who voiced this scornful opinion! She also said, “A good company’s stock will always recover” and the market proved her right. Mom’s shrewd investments supplemented her social security check for decades. She sold some stocks whenever she needed cash.
This financial cushion allowed my reserved brother to always say, “Fine” every time I asked.
Until my visit during the summer of 2011.
Chris picked me up at the Amtrak Train Station. During the ride home, my usually reserved brother suddenly erupted. All his frustration and panic spewed out, in a flood of angry words, as he told me how bad everything had gotten.
Earlier that winter, Mom spent two months in the hospital and in rehab. The 20% co-pay wiped out the remainder of my family’s savings. Their “nest egg” was gone. They were now living solely off the social security checks.
Depressed and suicidal, Chris saw no way out.
Fortunately, there was a simple solution to the whole mess.
The Simple Solution
By chance, my husband Ralph and I had opened a homeowner’s loan with my credit union, which we used for emergencies.
And this was an emergency. With Ralph’s blessing, I got to work.
Within a few days, I purchased a new monitor for his computer, so Chris could watch sports again. A landscaping service mowed the lawn, which was badly overgrown—the city had threatened to cut it for him and then charge my brother $150 for the service. Paying the car insurance meant Chris could renew his driver’s license. And that week, Ralph and I took over paying the semiannual taxes on Mom’s house. By contributing slightly less to my 401K, I also increased the money I sent Chris every month. The extra dollars helped cover the monthly car insurance.
There were other things I could do too. Chris and I went to a free local mental health clinic, to see if they could treat his depression. After a quick evaluation, the doctor explained Chris’ depression wasn’t clinical. Instead his depression had been caused by the stressful circumstances going on in his life. We discovered, unfortunately, that with the clinic’s limited resources, they couldn’t treat Chris. But the doctor suggested we go to Michigan’s Health and Human Services Department to find practical help, so we did. I sat there while Chris filled out all the forms.
I think my brother felt hopeful for the first time in years. He was assigned a caseworker to discuss his circumstances and the kind of assistance our family was eligible for.
Because of their low income, both Chris and Mom would qualify for a whole host of services. In Michigan, family members caring for their ailing relatives could receive a “Caregiver’s Allowance.” Sometimes the state sent out people to do home repairs. Chris could potentially receive medical care from Michigan—including treatment for his depression.
I felt encouraged too. At last my family was going to get some help!
Neither Chris, Ralph nor I told Mom anything about her changed financial situation. She was 83; we didn’t want her to worry. The three of us would take good care of her. So every Christmas and on our birthdays, Mom continued to send us money. We always thanked her—but never cashed the check. And Chris breathed a sigh of relief.
I went home to North Carolina, quietly content, leaving behind my stunned brother—who’d gotten tons of help he’d never asked for.
Sliding Back Down Again
When I returned that Christmas, our chance of getting any help from Michigan’s Human Services Department had fallen through. Chris hadn’t followed up with the caseworker on anything and it was impossible to make him do so.
Three months later, Mom died on March 28th, 2012, just before Easter. I visited her in the hospital a few days before she died. The three of us made funeral arrangements, met with a lawyer to probate Mom’s will, selected a tombstone, etc.
And in the midst of all that, I found a handgun with bullets in a small case underneath a bed. My father had only owned hunting rifles, so I knew the gun belonged to Chris—my depressed, suicidal brother.
After consulting with my husband and showing him the gun, I spoke to my brother privately and said, “I want to buy something from you—and I’ll pay $500.” Chris was mystified until I bought out the handgun.
My brother agreed and sold it to me. Then since Chris was the legally registered owner, we both went down to the police station and turned it in. After getting rid of the handgun, I felt better.
But ultimately it didn’t stop my brother from choosing to walk down a self-destructive path.
Many months after his death, when I finally read his suicide note, Chris had written these words to me in his first sentence:
“I love you, but I do not love this life.”