Losing a brother to suicide turns a siblings world upside down and dark. Kelley’s only sibling Matt, died by suicide two weeks before he was to graduate college. Older sister Kelley spiralled back into her own depression, struggling with deep grief and questions about the brother she knew and the brother who succumbed to his own struggles.
Out of that journey came her outstanding and unflinching book, A Different Kind of Same. Kelley is a gifted author, and her book has touched a lot of lives. Kelley is a supporter of YLC and we are so glad she found us. How is Kelley doing?
When A Different Kind of Same went to press in 2015, did you have any idea of the impact your book would have on so many different communities?
It was my deepest hope that A Different Kind of Same would provide support and comfort to a wide variety of people, but honestly, I had no idea what that might look like. I’d spent all of my life hiding my depression and attempted suicide. I knew that there were other survivors out there, both loss and attempt, but I didn’t know how to find them. I wasn’t really ready to look. It felt like magic when, after the book came out, they found me: loss survivors, attempt survivors, people living with mental illness and suicidality, and the people who love them. All these communities embraced me, made space for me. They listened to my story and they told me theirs, and for the first time in my life, I felt seen. I felt like I had found my tribe.
You’ve become an advocate for mental health, suicide attempt survivors, survivors of suicide loss. What are the rewards and pitfalls of advocacy?
One of the biggest rewards of advocacy is the relief that comes with living authentically. Even if I’m doing something as simple (and anonymous) as participating in a scholarly research project, I’m embracing a part of myself that I pushed away for a long, long time. Also, the potential to make space for others to share their experiences, to create a real change in the way we view mental health and suicide, makes all the hard work worth it.
But, of course, it can be scary to be so vulnerable. I often worry that I’ll say something unhelpful (or, you know, just plain wrong). Sometimes I’ll speak to a group and they just don’t seem into it, which is hard not to take personally when you’re talking about yourself. One thing that I haven’t come up against yet, but that I know I will, is how to explain what I do to my children. I wouldn’t call it a pitfall, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I’m definitely anxious about it.
You have been candid and articulate about your journey through grief, and your long road to living well. What signposts do you suggest people look for as they walk their walk through their losses?
Oh man, this question is so hard. Everyone’s experiences are so different! I knew it was getting better for me when I could think and talk and write about my brother without a giant vortex of anxiety opening up in my chest. I knew it was getting better when I wanted to travel again. When I stopped being afraid of elevators. When I started dancing. When I signed up for guitar lessons. I knew it was getting better when I planted flowers on my balcony.
Keep your eyes open for those little things. They are coming, I promise. They will carry you through.
One of the key messages I took from A Different Kind of Same is that silence kills. At the same time, shame, guilt and anger are powerful grief emotions that many don’t want to spill into other people’s lives. Do you see changes in the cultural landscape which enable people to find their way through?
Yes! I’m so encouraged by the work of people like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m hopeful that this is the beginning of a massive shift toward emotional literacy and a society that supports the depth and complexity of the human experience. But we have a long way to go. Make no mistake—this work is HARD, this road is long, these conversations are uncomfortable. But change is possible and powerful. This particular change can save lives.
If you were interviewing yourself at the beginning of 2019, what would you most want to share?
Life gets better. It gets so, so much better. But it doesn’t get perfect. And then it gets worse again. And then it gets a little better. And then a lot worse. And then way, way, way better. And then a little worse. And so on.
Growing up, all the way into my thirties, I had this idea that there was some kind of magic formula, some kind of combination of sunlight, exercise, meditation, and medication that would “fix” me, i.e. protect me from feeling as scared or hopeless or overwhelmed as I felt. Even after my brother died, I thought “Ok, this is it, this is the worst thing that will ever happen to me. I’ll never ever feel this bad again.” But that isn’t how life works. Which is obviously crappy, and completely unfair. But it can also be like one of those old-fashioned life preservers. It doesn’t look like much in the face of the towering waves, but understanding and accepting impermanence, staying in the present moment and knowing that it will change, can keep you afloat in the storm.
Whomever you are, dear reader, know this: you are necessary. You are not alone. You matter.