The unseasonably warm September day turned my mom’s house into a sauna. I felt the walls closing in on me as I smelled the perfume of yet another relative walking in through the door. I was hot and instinctively tried to cover my naked arms exposing colorful tattoos. I kept thinking I wasn’t dressed appropriately. They came armed with food and questions.
This was the sort of family gathering my sister Alma and I avoided by going to the backyard or the basement to play with the kids we watched grow at every party. But this time, she couldn’t rescue me. Instead, our entire family had gathered to help plan her funeral. But they also craved more information in a futile attempt to make sense of this tragedy.
“Didn’t she live with you?” they asked me.
“Did you find her? How did she do it?”
“Where were you?”
The questions cut deep. They sounded like accusations — even indictments — and played on a loop with different voices for weeks. After my sister’s suicide, the guilt grew into a permanent lump in my throat, making it impossible for me to swallow anything other than water. The guilt stole my voice, too. I often responded with my rehearsed statement: My younger sister Alma died following a long battle with a chronic illness.
Suicide is not something Mexican families talk about. We didn’t come all the way here to just give up. “What do you have to be sad about?” family members would whisper.
Four years ago, the women who kept Alma safe from herself for years were vilified. My mom, my older sister and I, too, lost the battle with her mental illness in 2017. Alma was only 27.
Alma was a vibrant community organizer who had just started graduate school. When she died, everyone turned to us for answers we didn’t have. They demanded her medical history — something she was very private about.
During my darkest days, I deconstructed every conversation, every gesture, looking for hidden meaning. There’s a special kind of abuse directed at the families of those who die by suicide. I lost count of the number of people who looked through my pain and asked the questions.
“I thought you were close. How could you not see this coming?”
“Where were you?”
I never really figured out the right answer.
For years, I used this verbal abuse to punish myself. Their punishment was small compared to my own. I directed the pain and anger inward. I wasn’t mad at her for leaving me with this trauma and her secrets; she was sick and I couldn’t be mad at a sick person. It was easier to be mad at myself. For not finding the right hospital. The right psychiatrist. The right therapist. The right medication. The right job.
I had failed the most important job in my life.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s time to talk about real solutions to suicide. Not just posting a number to a hotline.
The odds were always against us. My sister was diagnosed with a serious mental illness in her mid-20s. Every time she started feeling better, there were new challenges at work and school — it became clear that those institutions wouldn’t accommodate this type of chronic illness. That’s why it’s not surprising that about 80 percent of adults with a serious mental illness are unemployed. In this country, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have insurance that provides better access to mental health services. With little to no access to mental health services, many end up homeless, incarcerated or dead.
For years after Alma’s death, I woke up depressed and I recited my daily mantra: I did the best I could. It wasn’t my fault.
Alma was seven years younger than me. Sometimes she’d call me her “other” mom. I attended teacher-parent conferences, guided her through college and job interviews, and helped her financially. I still have the gift she gave me on our last Mother’s Day. But we were also friends who didn’t keep secrets from each other — except for the one that ended her life.
I was her cheerleader, and she was mine. We talked about everything — music, politics and art. We had long career-strategizing sessions over coffee. We traveled together to five countries and many cities. We laughed for hours.
When she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, we talked about it, regularly and openly. I meticulously discussed the information I’d learned from my research.
“People with diabetes need insulin to regulate their glucose. It’s kind of the same, except this medication will regulate your brain’s chemical imbalance,” I’d tell her calmly.
But it wasn’t enough. I’ve dissected every conversation we had the past few weeks. And I’ve replayed the ways in which I could have done things differently. I think about the Saturday morning she came into my room looking scared. I was reading and she caught me by surprise.
“Can I watch this show here with you?” she asked me while holding her laptop.
I welcomed her into my room but didn’t know how to comfort her. She watched her show, “Better Call Saul,” while I read. We never talked about why she was afraid that day. And it’s always thrown me into a world of what-ifs. Maybe I should have been more vulnerable? Maybe I seemed too calm when I visited her in the hospital? Maybe she resented my impulsive text messages and desire to know where she was at all times? Maybe I was too controlling? What if she heard me trying to drown my tears into my pillow every night? Maybe that’s why she was afraid that Saturday morning?
I’ve spent years pulling apart every conversation we had in the weeks leading to her suicide. I look closely for any signs I may have missed. After her multiple attempts and hospitalizations, I still believed we could save her.
The guilt haunted me for years. As much as I tried to get rid of it with individual therapy, group therapy and medication, I couldn’t stop punishing myself. I’d isolate myself, feeling like my sadness was contagious. She probably felt the same.
But I kept going to therapy and reciting my daily mantra:
“I did the best I could. It’s not my fault.”
I recited those words until I started to believe them. Over the summer, when I met another Latina who lost her sister to suicide, I felt her pain and offered my mantra. I offered the compassion I craved three years ago.
A few months ago, I sat on the floor of my new apartment. As I looked up at the lavender walls, I smiled. She loved that color. I had no furniture yet, only my record player and the sound of Lauryn Hill’s voice singing, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
I got Alma’s message. It’s time to forgive myself.