I lost my sister, Katherine, at the age of 37, to suicide on March 26, 2012. I didn’t think about her every day before she died. I think about her every day now. Yep, nearly four years later – every single day. Who should you be thinking about every day? Take a few deep breaths…think about those people now. Repeat each day!
It’s amazing the lessons and reminders we get all around us when we find a moment to pause and reflect. My sister, Katherine, could brighten any room with her smile and laughter. She smiled until the end – keeping a brave face and hiding her struggles. So many of us were not aware of the signs of mental illness, depression, and anxiety, and how very real the possibility of a suicide could be.
Bear with me. We grew a giant pumpkin in our yard last year.
In December it snowed, and I had visions of sprinkling the pumpkin with birdseed all winter long to watch birds and squirrels have fun with it.
But then it warmed up a bit, and the pumpkin started to sag. As weird as this may sound, it was about this time that I had this random thought that my sister kept right on smiling and putting on a show that everything was ok, even though she was feeling bad. The pumpkin kept right on smiling. Every time I saw the smile on the pumpkin I thought of Katherine.
I have many random thoughts, some I shoo away, some come back to me often, and this thought kept coming back to me. No matter how bad that pumpkin must have been feeling, that darn smile wouldn’t go away. And I thought of the struggles that are hidden every day by so many people.
I kept thinking of this connection to my sister and complications associated with depression and the stigma of mental illness…still smiling.
Of course. Still smiling. “I’m fine” said the pumpkin.
I thought about the pumpkin while buried under snow and frequent sub-zero temperatures for over two months. The pumpkin could be seen again in March…still smiling. “You ok?”, “I’m ok, don’t worry about me. Check out my smile.” The smile is there, but the pumpkin is not ok.
We had so much fun growing this pumpkin, showing it off to people, wondering how big it would get, etc, etc, etc, but I never ever would have thought the more the pumpkin rotted away, the more I would feel this connection.
So many people face struggles every day. They try to hide it from the world. They try to hide it from themselves, and they don’t share everything with their loved ones. They don’t know or see any way to get better. The rest of us don’t know what to look for, or think this will pass, or don’t pause long enough to look past the smile.
We cared for our pumpkin and watched it every day when it was growing and healthy.
Maybe it felt heaviness from us.
Being pushed or pulled in too many directions.
Feelings of pressure.
Or of emptiness.
That it wasn’t good enough.
Or was scared.
But that darn pumpkin kept smiling through it all. Check in on those around you – listen to them. REALLY listen to them. Notice their changes in behavior and understand how very real suicide can be. If in doubt, get professional help. Mental illness, depression, anxiety, etc – they are so tough to talk about and share. You feel judged. You feel like you won’t get better. You feel helpless. With suicide you are fighting to live and die at the same time. It’s not that people in this situation don’t want to face the world and get better, they just don’t know how and don’t see a way out. Smiling puts people at ease and provides some escape from facing your reality and having to share the uncertainty that you have. Smiling on the outside, while caving in from all directions.
That’s what I learned from our giant pumpkin last year. It’s important for all of us to smile, but please be open and share how you’re doing with others. If you’re struggling then please let someone know. If you’re concerned about someone, don’t keep that to yourself. Reach out to them. Last year I wouldn’t have done this, but recently I noticed someone’s post on Facebook and sent them a private message, “…checking in to make sure you have people to talk to and have a good support network.” Sometimes that’s enough to get people talking. And to get a conversation started. But we have to pause long enough to make it happen. Peace in the week ahead.
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As always, I can’t thank you all enough for reading these messages, being there for those around you, and helping fight the stigma of suicide and mental illness. WE are saving lives. Thank you.
I loved your analogy of the pumpkin that continues to smile to people struggling with depression and mental illness. Many of us who try to come to terms of losing a loved one to suicide often keep a smile plastered on our face even though we are sad inside and don’t want others to know our true feelings. I am so proud of you for bringing so much awareness to this illness and for your unwavering determination to keep up your training regimen for the Boston Marathon. We totally support you during this process and will be there on PATRIOTS DAY to cheer you on. Love you lots!
David, another wonderful message with meaning to so many people. Great job! This message has particularly special meaning to me and I am encouraging anyone I speak with about Katherine and your work to read your giant pumpkin message.
The special meaning to me goes back to Sunday, March 25, 2012, the day before Katherine died. I am so thankful that on that day mom and I went down to spend the afternoon with Katherine’s family. While mom, Katherine and the girls stayed indoors, baking, playing with the girls and enjoying their girl talk, Erik and I were outside throwing the ball for their dog, talking and enjoying some time together. When it was time to leave, I am so thankful I had the chance to hug and kiss Katherine, tell her I love her and say good-bye. Little did we know that would be the last we would enjoy her loving presence. It was a nice day and during our visit Katherine was her usual seemingly happy self. Like your pumpkin, she had her beautiful smile and gave no inkling about the terrible demons which must have been tormenting her so greatly on the inside.
Just like your Pinterest quote about being kind that I like so well, we just never know what another person may be dealing with, no matter how happy they seem or how big their smile may be. I have learned since that time there is a big difference between being unhappy and depressed. We all have those days when things aren’t going well and there seems to be a dark cloud over us, but we know better times will follow and soon the cloud will pass and eventually display a silver lining and maybe even a rainbow. Unfortunately, for the depressed that cloud doesn’t go away and even worse, darker clouds may be anticipated.
In reality, your pumpkin has a message for those of us dealing with such tragic losses. The wonderful memories we have and happier times may help us put on a happy face, but inside there will always be a wound and void in our hearts and feelings that can never be fully mended. All we can do is smile, carry on and do what we can to help others as you are doing. You should be proud, as we are, of the help and inspiration you are providing to others.
Your closing two paragraphs about checking in are so important. If only we could turn the clock back to March 25, 2012…..
What a powerful message in words and pictures you have shared with your “Pumpkin Lesson”, David! My husband and I found out that you were running in the Boston Marathon from a letter your parents wrote in the First Church Newsletter. Our triplets, Trisha, Kara, and Todd Winton, were classmates and friends of Katherine’s in school and in church. I still get tears in my eyes whenever I think about how tragic the loss of Katherine’s life was for her family, her friends, and all who never got to know her. Our daughter, Trisha ran in the Boston Marathon for the New England Patriots Charity Team the year of the Boston bombing. Trisha was at mile 21 and we were 10 minutes from the Grand Stand viewing bleachers where we were walking to see her cross the finish line. An unbelievably emotional experience for all of us, to say the least. The following year Trisha ran again, and this time she triumphantly crossed the finish line and we were in the grand stands to watch her! We know from her and from watching all the other runners what an incredible experience the Boston Marathon is!! We will be thinking of you and Katherine on April 18th as you honor her memory and raise money to help others dealing with depression. Best of luck, David, with your run. I know Katherine will be running with you, giving an extra push when the going gets tough!
What a beautiful and thought-provoking analogy and tribute to your sister! I too lost a sibling to suicide and you capture so well the importance of articulating your appreciation for those you love, as well as to not be afraid to reach out to someone who seems in despair. As a board member of Samaritans I am most grateful for your generous and selfless support. As a “survivor” I am humbled by your eloquence. Thank you on both counts.