Laurie — my only sister and the eldest of seven children in our family — would have turned 70 this year. If she had not died suddenly, unexpectedly, at age 27. On International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day (November 17), I recall the circumstances leading to Laurie’s disappearance from our lives.
In May of 1975, my parents sent Laurie to Vancouver to get a fresh start 720 miles away from the harmful influence of her boyfriend C. I met her at a bar one night where we talked about her future: a new city, a new job, maybe even a new romance. But the next morning she showed up at my office to say C had bought her an airline ticket back to Edmonton. Despite everyone’s advice to stay clear of him, she flew to his awaiting arms.
About a month later, when Jack and I were in remote Seymour Arm building a cabin, I received a letter from Dad saying Laurie was suffering from depression. He asked me to write consoling words to her based on my experience. Which I did, though rather naively given what followed. Another month passed until someone hailed me out of Shuswap Lake: “an RCMP officer wants you to call home.” Eventually I got through on a party line to Dad who said, “Laurie is dead.”
Laurie’s family, including her estranged husband from Moncton NB, met in Edmonton. We learned some sketchy details. Laurie had been admitted to a hospital under a psychiatrist’s treatment, but C absconded her to California. Several days later she called Dad to bring her home, so ill did she feel. For some reason she then became a day patient. On a July afternoon, one of my brothers found Laurie lying motionless on the floor of a bedroom in our family home; on a bedside bureau sat bottles of pills for her recently diagnosed illness of schizophrenia; she had suffocated in a pool of vomit. Death can leave unanswered questions. We did not know if her suicide was intentional or accidental.
A limousine transported us to a funeral parlour for a private — and impersonal — service. The funeral director spoke a few words, maybe read a few passages from the Bible, and then we departed. It was all a blur except for one abiding memory: sitting in the living room with Mom and Dad, maybe with my brothers too, as a psychiatrist told us “Laurie’s death may be viewed somewhat as a blessing. She would not have led a normal life.” A shocking observation for sure, abhorrent even, but perhaps not uncommon in 1975.
Children should never predecease their parents. As a parent myself, I cannot fathom the pain of losing a child. I don’t like to judge the ways my parents, my brothers or I responded: grief can make islands of us all. But I wish we had gathered in our home, then or even better at a later date, with Laurie’s friends as well, to share anecdotes about her, to embed her life, not just her death, in our memories. We wrapped Laurie — and our grief — in a blanket of silence, at the time and in the ensuing years.
SAYING GOODBYE: A MODEL
From my sister-in-law Nina: “I lost a sister this year. She was younger than me. One thought after the initial shock and outpouring of grief was ‘wrong order; it’s not her turn.’ I’m crying now as I write this. I don’t know if it’s more painful to lose a loved one from a long illness, a rapid decline or an immediate stroke of fate. Bernice passed away three weeks after she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
As difficult as her passing was for us, we were lucky. We had a short time to say goodbye. Bernice knew she was going and wanted to speak with each of us personally before she couldn’t anymore. She gave me a gift I will be grateful for my entire life. I can still see her face and hear her words. I always will.
A few months later, Bernice’s daughter, son, husband and close friends of Protection Island organized a celebration of her life. My sisters, our nephews and nieces, plus friends of Bernice’s childhood, travelled from Toronto, Whitehorse, Cranbrook and Vancouver to honour her life. I learned a lot about my sister that afternoon and how loved she was by her friends, not just by us, her family. I don’t think our farewell to our beloved Bernice could have been more loving.”
My Mom used to say “funerals are for the living.” And she was right. With aging comes the death of people we love. Most of us cannot bear to think, let alone talk, about it. Yet, the sad truth is that time marches on, taking us toward our inevitable end. And it matters how we say goodbye — not for the deceased but for their survivors.
Glen and I agree we don’t want church services. However, I realize now the value in orchestrating an informal memorial of family and friends — if need be it can take the form of group calls on FaceTime, Skype or the app of the day — to cry, to laugh, to remember. ♥
P.S. Note to Glen: you’ve got time to master the technology necessary for a group call, but don’t wait too long.