I spent the summer after my sister’s suicide doing my journalism internship at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While it was a difficult summer, I wasn’t about to give up on my dream to spend time there. The internship offer came three weeks after Denise’s death and was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult time. I literally jumped up and down on the couch in my apartment after that phone call.
In the few months I was in Colorado, I met many supportive people who were all involved somehow in sports. In our dorm, we had a room at the end of the hallway where rotating athletic trainers and doctors from high schools and colleges around the country stayed. They came for two-week stretches and we got to know them as we passed each other in the hallways, the dining hall, and various other places around the complex.
I can still recall one conversation with a trainer. We must have been discussing my sister’s death when he said, “You’ll always be the same Michelle. You’ll do the same things. You’ll like the same things.”
I didn’t buy it. Denise and I had loved to watch the Chicago Cubs play. We spent many summer nights huddled around a small black and white television in our parents’ kitchen, watching the Cubs while devouring oatmeal cookies and strawberry frozen yogurt. After Denise's death, I still watched baseball, but I couldn’t watch the Cubs. It was several years before I wanted to follow them again.
In the first ten or so years after Denise, I believed in a “new normal” after the death of a loved one. Your routines change because this life isn’t the same after someone close to you has left it. I felt as if my sister took half my childhood memories with her. She took the opportunity to enjoy adult sisterhood with her. My present had changed, and, in a way, so had my past and future.
But, as time went on, I realized that I was still the Michelle who existed before Denise died. I was an older version of that 21-year-old who had goals and dreams. After Denise's death, many of these got pushed aside as I worked to help the suicide bereaved and spread suicide awareness. But I didn't forget about my dreams, goals and ambitions (I still clung to the dream of being a fiction writer, something I’d wanted to be since I was six years old). I have a long list of ways I’m still the same Michelle.
It's been nearly two decades since Denise died. I would like to think I’m a wiser person now than I was at 21. I’m more empathetic. I’m more open to life and what it has to offer. I learned the hard way that life can change in an instant, that nothing remains static, and that none of us are promised anything.
I don’t necessarily believe we experience a new normal. Yes, the routine changes. Yes, we change. But ultimately the core of us is still there. Once we reach a place where we can let go of the loss, we can resume where we left off, hopefully with more wisdom and self-awareness. And our deceased loved ones are right there with us cheering us on.
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 Source: Flickr Creative Commons, Trekity (top image), jem (second image)