It sneaks up on me every year. I’m lost in my life when St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament jolt me into remembering that March 18 is around the corner. I think of St. Patrick’s Day 1993, the last day I saw my sister Denise, and the NCAA Tournament, where I was when she ended her life. Then it's April 4, Denise's birthday. I'm not filled with sadness; she’s with me, I know that well. Instead, this two-week period serves as a checkpoint of sorts, a time to reflect on where I am and remind myself of where I want to be.
Many people think that my sister’s suicide defines who I am. And I'm sure Denise appreciates all that I have done for the suicide bereaved. But I believe if she had a chance to speak to me today, she would remind me of who I was before she died, of the 21-year-old with lofty goals and dreams.
Coping with the death of my sister didn’t change my life so much as it altered my life path. While many people say that suicide grief changes who we are, I don’t believe that. I am still the same Michelle I was at 21. My goals and dreams haven’t changed; I still love to run and write books. But I do continue to improve. I am a more compassionate person, now. And I am more balanced. Not all of this was a result of Denise's death, of course. Some of it was simply a part of my life journey. After all, 19 years isn’t a short amount of time.
As I approach this anniversary, I continue to feel myself transform. My life has undergone a number of changes over the past few years but notably in the recent six months. I continue to evolve into the person I know I’m supposed to be and accomplish the goals I set early in my life.
But part of that involves beginning to let go of my suicide and loss work. I have contributed more than I ever thought I would over the past ten years since my first book on suicide loss was published. It’s been an incredible journey to travel the world sharing my story of hope and those of many other people from various cultures. I have been welcomed into places I otherwise never could have experienced. And I’ve earned opportunities and an education that many people never will get. I’m looking forward to a new direction, one that embodies hope, laughter, and helping people be inspired no matter their life situation.
Next year, just a few weeks after the 20th anniversary of Denise’s death, I will step down as president of the American Association of Suicidology. It will be more than a symbolic moment for me. I know that in a year from now, sweeping changes will again have taken place in my life. It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to the challenges. I’m ready for the dominoes to fall in another direction.
Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., is an international author and speaker about finding hope after loss and change. She is the author of several books including Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief and Ginger's Gift: Hope and Healing Through Dog Companionship. Her first book, based on the suicide of her younger sister Denise, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Si..., inspired siblings around the world in their survival after a loved one’s suicide. She is the President of the American Association of Suicidology and lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Read more about Michelle at www.michellelinngust.com.
Image: Flickr Creative Commons / SebastianDooris