He biked across Morocco, flirted with penguins in Argentina, surfed the waves in New Zealand, rode an elephant in Thailand, and climbed mountains on nearly every continent.
He crammed more into fifteen years than most do in a lifetime.
The one mountain he wasn’t able to summit was depression.
Nine years ago my brother was diagnosed with mono. The lack of energy and ability to function plunged him into depression, what I later learned is an especially fatal cocktail for men. He was getting help and had started taking medication.
We thought he had turned a corner.
Early one morning I had a nightmare that he’d taken his life and I woke up with tears still streaming down my face. I called him immediately to make sure that he was okay.
He was at the park having a picnic with his 15-month-old. He sounded good. There was life in his voice again for the first time in months.
That was the last conversation I had with him.
Unfortunately he had become just strong enough to be dangerous.
The ropes that had once saved his life on so many mountains became his demise.
I felt as though my entire world crashed down around me that day.
I was the last in my family to find out. I was at work and they wanted me to get home safely. But a well-meaning family member called to give condolences, thinking that it was my sister who was still at work. He tried to back-peddle but it was too late.
I knew something was very wrong but he refused to tell me at first. Finally imploring him to tell me what the heck was going on, he broke the news: my brother had taken his life.
I dropped to my knees on the wood floor, as if life had literally punched me.
I remember tears streaming down my face all the way home. I gasped for breath in between blood-curdling screams that haunted me for years to come.
Words will never do justice to the immensity or intensity of the pain.
My brother was my hero. I adored him. As his baby sister, he spoiled me rotten. He protected me, loved me, lavished me with gifts from all over the world, taught me so many things and gave me a love for knowledge, challenged me to be the best version of me, and to show up confidently as the amazing person he believed me to be.
He was gone and I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Days, weeks, and months passed. It was as though I was an observer of life, but not really living.
I went through the motions. I tried to keep living my life, but the wind was still knocked out of me from that initial punch.
I graduated from seminary, got married, had a baby. From all outward appearances, life was moving forward.
But I was stuck.
My confidence had been shattered that day. My world rocked so hard, I didn’t know how to get back up. I remembered the person I used to be, but I didn’t know how to be her again.
It was like I had a black haze over my life, my mind, my spirit.
I looked at life through the lens of pain.
Years Later, Things Started to Shift
It sounds weird to say that an online marketing training program radically changed my life, but it’s true.
When I set out to learn how to sell products online, I didn’t think I signed up to heal the pain of suicide.
This online community hosted these “personal development” conferences. I didn’t know what that was, but everyone said I had to go.
It. Rocked. My. World.
During one of the visualization exercises, I had a powerful realization that I viewed my brother not just as a brother, but also as a father figure. We were in the same room together and I was beating on his chest, crying and screaming at him for leaving me and giving up hope. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes spoke love and compassion, assuring me that it was time to let go. He kissed my cheek and vanished.
It was like I’d been driving the car of life staring at him in the rear-view mirror instead of looking at the road ahead…
That was just the beginning. We were invited to the next level of personal development training at a week-long high ropes camp.
I was terrified but knew I had to go. I’m not sure what I was more afraid of, being up high, or the mental connection using ropes.
The first time I roped up all I could think about was my brother. Ropes ended his life; I needed to depend on them to save mine.
I hate being up high. Every time I think about the challenge course, my palms start sweating and my heart beats faster. I became ultra-focused on literally just putting one foot in front of the other.
I couldn’t look down. At one point I did and nearly had a panic attack right there in mid-air, clinging to those ropes for dear life.
Choose and move.
At one point one of the facilitators got right in my face and asked how long I was going to keep beating myself up for my brother’s choice and let it rule my life. How long would I let life pass me by, and in doing so, rob others of the magnificence that I had to give because I wasn’t showing up 100%?
The truth was, I didn’t want to for one more day. I just didn’t think I knew how.
That week I finally applied three powerful words: “Can’t. Change. It.”
I couldn’t change his death. I couldn’t change how it happened or what happened or that it happened. But I could change me. Instead of resisting the pain, I could accept. Instead of feeling guilty for enjoying life and being happy, I could let him go. Instead of punishing myself every single day because I didn’t save him, I could forgive myself and be free.
I conquered every high ropes challenge that week, including climbing a 35-foot pole, standing on top, and jumping off. But it wasn’t really about the high ropes at all.
It was about letting go. About learning to trust again. About deciding that anything was possible. About finding my confidence that I had something to offer the world and needed to stop playing small. It was about reclaiming joy and hope in my life.
I used to say that when my brother died part of me died that day, but the truth was, I was living as if I was the one in the noose.
Descending from the pole that day, I unlatched the carabiners and removed my harness a different person, almost as if grief and guilt had harnessed my ability to truly live for all those years.
I simply removed them and walked away.
It sounds weird to say it, but I don’t feel pain about my brother’s death anymore. I am so grateful for the life he lived, for all he taught me, for the memories I’ll always cherish, and for the opportunity I have in my lifetime to live and love big like he did. I honestly never thought that was possible.
My husband recently commented, “After your brother’s death, I thought I’d never get you back.” That’s beautiful proof of something I often say: when you change your mindset you can change your life.
Tragedy and loss can cause profound pain, but our resistance to it causes even more emotional pain. While I’d never tell someone to just “get over it,” I lovingly offer another way, one of hope, one of celebration for lives lived and the life we still have to live. One where we no longer have to be defined by our past, but can live a life filled with joy again.
Dawn Apuan is a business and mindset coach, author, and motivational speaker. While providing women with the tools and support to build dependable businesses, her deeper mission is to help them discover true peace and happiness by applying Biblical principles to transform their mindset and their life. Start writing your happily ever after with a free copy of her Mindset Reset Challenge at www.dawnapuan.com/mindset.
Image courtesy of Artem Beliaikin.