Surviving a Brother's Suicide
Introduction by David Wight
© Copyright 2021 by Winston Wight
At age 18, my elder son Rion enrolled in Cornell University’s School of Architecture with a future full of promise. At age 22, he committed suicide. This story is primarily a letter written by his surviving brother Winston depicting Winston’s search for resolution, healing, and new meaning following his Rion’s death.Almost four years had passed since Rion’s suicide before Winston began to fully open up to his mother and me about his brother’s death. Aware that Winston had been sharing his thoughts and feelings with his therapist Brent throughout his years in high school, Susan and I felt comforted knowing there had been someone our younger son could go to with all he must have been keeping inside. In our monthly parent check-ins, his therapist reported, “As soon as Winston walks into my office, he plops down on the sofa and immediately starts talking—he’s pretty much an open book.”
That was the Winston we knew before his brother died when he seemed carefree to speak with us about any major burdens that were on his mind. Now, we were starting to see some of that side of him return. Gradually, he had begun confiding in us again. Then, recently he surprised Susan and me by mailing us a long, hand-written letter.
Dear Mom and Dad,
You said you wanted to know how Rion’s death affected me, and I hope you meant it and can handle some honesty. But Brent always encouraged me to write an actual letter to you two about what happened, but it’s taken a while for me to realize that it might truly be a helpful thing to do. I’ve thought long and hard about what to write about Rion and what we all went through after his suicide—feelings that I’ve buried the past few years. I started the letter a few weeks back, but needed time to stew on it, picking it up and putting it down many times. Sorry it took so long. Getting the feelings out has been cathartic. So here goes…
I definitely did not appreciate that my brother killed himself. Rion didn't stick around. He didn't talk to me about it. He didn't think I'd understand any of his problems. That was hard. He’d tell me things, but only the superficial stuff. I didn’t know if he wanted to share what was going on near the end of his life, but I wish he had said something. I remember texting him while he was back in New York having such a hard time, and I said I missed him and loved him. But he didn’t respond. That was the last time I reached out to him before he killed himself. I never knew if he saw or read my text. Mom, you said his cellphone wasn't charging well anymore. But maybe he did read it and just didn’t reply. Maybe he was pulling away and couldn’t allow himself to communicate with me, or any of us.
Rion took away the chance to have the relationship we could have had. He ended that possibility forever. The hardest thing was knowing that in important times, like if I get married someday, my brother won’t be there to be my best man. He won’t be there to share the experience with me. He didn’t realize that with his one fateful decision, he cut that chance off forever.
I didn’t appreciate how much Rion teased me as we were growing up. He bullied me quite a bit when I was little and messed with me a lot. Then again, I guess that’s what older brothers do.
One of the things I liked most about him was that even when he was behaving that way, I knew he didn’t really mean it, which made it especially nice when he started making an unspoken effort to spend time with me the last couple years of his life. He didn’t announce it, but he was making more room for our relationship. He was really bad at sharing what was on his mind or talking about his feelings—at least when we were together—but his actions were so obvious. He didn’t have to say anything, and I knew he wasn’t going to, but his behavior spoke loudly.
He’d pick me up after school and we’d go to the movies, or we’d come home and play video games together. He also tried to teach me how to drive a stick shift. We’d go down to the race track and drive around in the parking lot. He made a lot of effort to get closer to me, and I thought he wanted to bond in a way we hadn't so far because of the big age difference between us. I liked that he confided little secrets to me, like that he smoked cigarettes. He always had a pack of them in the car, which he didn’t even bother to hide from me. He’d keep saying, “Don’t tell Mom and Dad.” It was the first time he had ever done something like that, shared a big secret.
As you know, Rion and I were very different. Although, some of our personality traits were similar—like stubbornness—but he was much more withdrawn, and I was always way more extroverted and had more friends. It was funny how that happens with siblings, yet I shared a lot of his anxiety. Like whenever I was in a social setting, I was very nervous and had to kind of force myself to interact with people. For a long time, I had a hard time being in group settings—feeling insecure about my relationships with others. I saw that my brother had the same problem, and so I tried to make up for my lack of confidence by being even more extroverted, where Rion became super aloof and withdrew into his solitary world. And at such a young age that didn’t seem like a very healthy thing to do. To me, it seemed healthier to be more open and outgoing.
One of my favorite memories of being with Rion was one time when we were driving from Berkeley to Emeryville. I forget what we were doing, either going to the movies or out for a burger. He had a Tom Waits CD on, and we were listening to the song What’s He Building in There. By then we had heard the lyrics so often we knew the song word for word, and so we were both just singing along with our best Tom Waits impressions, and we looked at each other making the weirdest faces and couldn’t stop laughing. So, I thought we shared a pretty similar sense of humor.
The day Rion died, I remember getting picked up from school by my friend Dante’s two dads, then coming home and seeing both of you with a woman police officer in the living room. There was unbearable pain with that. Yet my reaction was a marked indifference or numbness, and I remember being upset with myself and how I felt, thinking that I wasn't grieving correctly, which in retrospect, I can see that my response was a very natural one. I was protecting myself. There was a lot of unfamiliarity with what I was feeling and a lack of acknowledgment of what was going on inside. That numbness took over everything, and for a long time, I was discovering things about my mental state that I didn't understand. My emotions weren’t meshing with what I was doing, with my behavior. I just remember feeling totally shut down and doing things with friends that I usually wouldn't do. The buddies I was with weren't great friends, and I remember looking back and thinking I didn’t so much like being with them but just didn’t want to be alone.
That was probably one of the reasons Dante and I became so close—because he was the one friend who was immediately supportive after Rion died, and he was incredibly loyal. I could always talk to him about anything. He was one of my best friends. That whole year, I was like a blind mouse in a maze just bumping my head against walls, thinking that only through brute force could I wake myself up to my real feelings, but then I’d discover how much grief I was experiencing. That was hard because I saw how screwed up a lot of my actions were, and it really ruined my self-esteem and put me in a pretty severe depression—losing my brother caused that, and I just didn’t know how to deal with it. Anyway, you both encouraged me to start seeing Brent, but therapy was, well—it was nice just talking about things, but it was almost like verbal garbage. It was like if I hit on something, it was by pure luck. Although, writing this letter does feel helpful.
An important thing coming out of that year was getting in touch with my anger. I think one of the hardest phases of this grief was my resentment toward friends and keeping a distance from them, but it was really more of a resentment toward myself, a feeling I projected onto everyone around me. I also was angry with you two, and I really felt bad about it because I knew how much pain you were going through. That was another thing I didn't know how to reconcile. I felt I should be there for you both and talk about it, but I also resented you, which seemed preposterous at the time. I was so upset that my feelings just needed to go somewhere. My anger with Rion and toward myself got transferred to the people I love the most because you were so closely connected to me.
At the same time, I remember thinking ‘why is the grief of my parents’ more important than mine.’ Everyone kept repeating there’s nothing as awful as losing a child, but I was like, well fuck, didn’t they think losing a brother was pretty bad. So, I felt forgotten. I felt people didn't take my pain as seriously as yours, like I wasn't as close to him. I mean like people saw the six-year age difference and assumed it meant it wasn't as hard on me, or so it seemed. And this might have just been my own imagination, but I sensed others weren’t as interested in giving me a lifeline as they were the two of you. Maybe that fed the anger I had.
As I look back on that first year, I think therapy has done quite a bit. It made me aware of how to talk and think about things and be more introspective. Returning to school and being able to keep myself busy and have something to distract myself with really helped, even if I wasn’t always successful at it. It was a hard year. My growing friendship with Dante helped a lot. Having a friend who I knew had dealt with hardship, too. That was the thing; going through hardship at such a young age—when I went through that, I was in a mindset that none of my peers had experienced anything remotely as traumatic. No one would really get it. They’d say stuff, but inside I knew that they didn’t really understand. And to an extent, that was probably true. Looking back from where I am now, though, I’m sure there were plenty of fellow students who did experience a tragedy, though different from mine. They were probably out there thinking the same thing. But having a friend like Dante who had been taken away from his biological mother when he was around eight or nine, sent to foster care, and then adopted by his two dads helped—just knowing someone else out there had hurdles to overcome, too.
Coming from a good household probably made things easier, but it also hurt. Having a solid relationship with my parents gave me an example of what to do, or not do—like I probably wouldn’t start doing hard drugs or anything. I could either become pathetic or become more—try to let this whole experience be a driver in my life. At the same time, our household felt fake to an extent. Our family's experience wasn't raw enough even after the trauma to make me believe that what I was feeling was real, I felt almost depersonalized as though I wasn't in my own body. Home almost seemed like The Truman Show. Even with losing Rion, we were still doing okay and had resources. We still had all our things, and it fed this notion in my mind that you two didn't get what I was going through. You became archetypal parent figures to me. I had these conflicting feelings—that one of the ways to heal was to have a relationship with you and try to bring our family back together, but also that if I did that and put my energy toward it, then I would be losing my own experience. It was like living in a model house that didn't feel real. I was trying to take care of both of you, but you probably didn’t need me to. I knew you were strong, yet I sometimes neglected my own healing for you. I worried for a period that I had sacrificed too much to appear as if I were doing all right. Maybe we were all doing the same thing for one another, acting supportive and kind while grieving mainly on our own.
I thought we were all struggling with how to be close to one another but also how not to lose ourselves in each other’s grief. We all kept a lot inside during that time. Still, I probably wouldn’t ask either of you to have done anything differently because it was inevitable I was going to be hurt by certain things you said or did, that there were times you weren’t expected to do everything perfectly. You didn’t hide anything from me, and I didn’t ask that anything be hidden. You treated me like an adult and didn't coddle me. For instance, you gave me the choice to view Rion’s body before his cremation. You didn’t leave me out of it and just go ahead without consulting me. You gave me a choice, so I thought one of the great things you did was not overprotect me, not treat me like a kid. I was glad you didn’t sugar-coat things because that allowed me to choose short-term pain—and the healing that came with it—over a long, drawn-out avoidance that might have lingered for years.
Seeing Rion’s body at the funeral home was kind of an out-of-body experience. I thought that I’d be really struck, that I’d collapse in sadness, but I didn’t. It was like he was a wax doll. When you let me stay in the room afterward alone with him, I had an impulse to touch him to see if he was real. I remembered putting my hand on his chest and saying out loud, "This isn't really my brother, this is a body. This is a composition of carbon, water, and different elements." But it was final, too. It gave me some finality instead of wondering, “What if Rion didn't die? What if he staged his death?” Like he was living in Cuba or something. Even after seeing his body, I had that thought. I did a background check on him to see if he used any credit cards, had an alias, or checked in anywhere. But obviously he hadn’t. It was still a strong impulse or wish that he was pulling a fast one on all of us and was still alive. So, I thought we were right in having his body flown back and seeing it one last time.
Even though Rion has been gone a few years, he continues to remain a huge part of my life. I still relate to him as a brother and in many ways define myself by our relationship. For so many years I considered him the smarter older sibling I couldn’t compete with. But I also understood that he was deeply flawed and troubled. Often, I felt torn, wanting to be just like him, but also wanting to be my own person, no better or worse, just different. It’s been a long road. At last, though, I think I’m getting to a place where I can see him more clearly, love and accept him, and find a path separate from his.
Because of what happened with Rion, my priorities have focused on becoming a successful adult but also on enjoying life. And that’s something I struggle with much of the time, trying to balance relationships and fun times with hard work. Rion lacked that symmetry, and I wonder if I only came to appreciate this concept after he died.
Mom, you’ve asked me how Rion’s mental illness affected me, like whether it's made me have fears about my own mental health. I’ve thought a lot about that. Yes, I worried that I might be suffering from depression or that I’d develop bipolar disorder, too, at some point. Actually, about a year ago, I had kind of a meltdown where my own consciousness had become so toxic, and I was so insecure, had such low self-esteem that I thought I might have some kind of mental illness because I just kept bouncing around from friend to friend, struggling with irregular sleep, and feeling incredibly unhealthy. I almost wanted to be diagnosed with something. I believed Rion did have clinical depression and was bipolar, so I thought because I was his brother I might be the same, that that must be the explanation for why I was suffering. I needed to figure out the answers to why my life seemed so difficult. Why was I always getting so behind…why was I having such a hard time staying close to and in contact with my friends?
I think many of my problems were self-inflicted figments of my own consciousness. The more I thought about that, the more I realized everyone struggles with these things to various degrees, including in their relationships, their school work. Maybe I saw a diagnosis as an easy way out of all my problems. It was like I was telling myself I have low self-esteem, I have all these insecurities, it must be mental illness, as opposed to maybe I’m just suffering the normal human condition, and there's no cure for it. I was fooling myself into believing that if I was labeled with a psychiatric condition, I could then be treated for it, and as soon as I started taking an antidepressant—shazam! Everything would be great. I'd be connected with all my friends again. It would be the magic pill.
But a bigger realization was this is just how life is. After I came to terms with that, it became a lot easier to feel more secure about myself.
So, what helped me get to a better place? Was it just maturation or was it mainly self-exploration from fearing that I might be bipolar to finally believing that I’m not?
I think I just decided that if any emotional struggles became a real problem, it would eventually become clear if it was a mental illness. I trusted that my family or friends would recognize that something wasn’t right. For example, they might say to themselves, “Gee, he’s sky-diving off cliffs all of a sudden…that seems sort of out of character for him.”
Needless to say, since my brother killed himself, I’ve had random thoughts of killing myself, too. I’ve had my moments of depression. None that I would call severe though, or even serious. The main thing that helped me was repeating to myself that I would be all right and that, eventually, I would come out of it. I reminded myself those feelings were temporary, that they can dust up at any given moment, but I would get over them, and that I had support.
Well, I’ve probably gone on and on too long. I’m sure you’ll want to discuss what I’ve written and that’s okay with me. I want you both to know that I love you and that I know you did your best after Rion died. I’ve finally come to understand this, and I’m at peace with it. Feel free to ask me anything about this letter—I’m glad I wrote it.
Wight is an Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) Engineer at
Daimler Trucks North America in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo in 2019 with
a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. During his
undergraduate years at Cal Poly, he worked as a Safer Student
Educator. He was 15 when his brother committed suicide.