It all started in celebration: I was cast as the lead in my school show. My mom took my brother and me out to celebrate. We were perusing through Target, en route to dinner, when she received the call from my dad. I picked up her phone:
“Hey dad, guess what?!”
“Put your mom on the phone.”
“I got the lead in the musical!”
“Jennifer, put your mom on the phone.”
“Dad did you hear me?”
“Damnit Jennifer I need to speak to your mother NOW.”
“Dad’s being a dick, enjoy.” I begrudgingly handed the phone to my mom, then continued prancing through the aisles. I took my mom’s distraught reaction as theatrics, tossing snacks in our basket as she melted towards the floor.
Through sobs, my mom muttered “we need to go.”
“What’s wrong?” My brother and I persisted.
“I...I...I’ll tell you at home,” she replied, stumbling out of Target, her weight falling heavily upon our arms.
“But mom, I’m hungry!” I fought back.
“What’s going on?” My brother inquired.
We stepped on the escalator towards the parking garage when my mom grabbed both our hands. “Your cousin’s dead, she killed herself.” That’s when time stood still.
The first 24 hours, I had a difficult time processing this new reality. First I was angry: angry at the situation, angry at my cousin, angry at my grandparents and at my aunt and uncle... Angry at myself for being a brat at the mall and making it all about myself, for being a bad cousin, and on and on and on. Then I moved through to confusion, an overwhelming sense of discomfort and loneliness. Who could I talk to about this? Who could possibly understand? I lay awake staring at the ceiling. The world kept spitefully turning. It felt wrong to gift the night even one second of my sleep.
The following week, I moved through the motions. My performative public persona didn’t deceive my headmaster, who called my parents to ask why I wasn’t “over it yet.” The school weaponized the stigma of suicide, claiming that my cousin’s “selfish act” shouldn’t “effect my schooling.” With teachers refusing to reschedule my finals, my parents forced me to miss the out-of-state funeral.
My cousin’s suicide shattered my family, who sought to answer the unanswerable “whys”. “Why did she do it?” “Why is she gone?” “Why her?” “Who can we blame?” You can place a bandaid over shattered glass, it’s still broken. The collective reaction: resentment. Pointing fingers became a coping mechanism that kept us all from healing.
The impact of her loss was debilitating. If only she could see how missed she was, if only she could have ask for help, or gotten the right help, or surrounded herself with the right people. If only she could have gotten the right medication, if only, if only, if only. Thus began a cycle of questions and unsatisfactory answers.
But resentment slowly faded to resilience, and that’s when the healing began. An awareness needed to happen, that suicide is a disease, and that my cousin’s death was nobody’s fault or burden to carry.
My cousin lost her battle to a debilitating illness, one that isn’t talked about enough. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, and I firmly believe that destigmatizing mental illness, and encouraging mental health care, can help reduce these mortalities.
There are innumerable contributing factors which might lead someone to feel suicidal: genetic predispositions, social or environmental issues, etc. Resources including crisis intervention or counseling, therapy, medication, and hotlines are available to help combat these demons. Instilling a sense of hope is crucial to recovery, and there are options to improve upon your current circumstances. If you need immediate help, you can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Don't be afraid to ask for help, someone is willing and wanting to listen, and your personal impact is far greater than you may ever recognize.
My aunt and uncle have since dedicated themselves to supporting mental health and suicide prevention initiatives, my cousin’s sister found her path in social work, and my grandparents made it their mission to reunite our family. I'm in awe of them, at the strides they've made since, at their ability to channel their loss into someone else's hope.
The night of her death, my cousin called for help at 2am, to no avail. Now, my phone stays on at all times, and my loved ones know: I'm just a phone call away, on any day, at any time.
All this to say: don't lose hope, it will get better, you can get help, and you are loved.
Jennifer Levinson is an LA based actress, pizza connoisseur, and fashion addict.
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