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Facts & Arguments Essay

My big sister took her own life Add to ...

Sisters. I've got four of them, all older. My big sisters - just saying it makes me smile.

If you're lucky - and I have been - sisters can be many wonderful things. Friends to confide in, conspirators to plan with, allies to fall out with knowing that you'll always make up.

Not for me the sharing of clothes or boyfriends or confidences, though. My sisters were 6, 12, 19 and 20 years older than me. I was only a baby when the two oldest left home, still young when the next two followed.

Instead my big sisters have always been grown-ups. Wonderfully divergent advisers at the end of the phone. All willing companions on the bumpy road of life, debating the forks, showing you the path of least resistance, or the one less travelled. Members of a great big memory bank to which we all hold a key.

Suicide. My beautiful big sister, Isobel. Dead by her own hands at 62. Literally the unthinkable happening. My mind was unable to allow for the possibility that she would kill herself, in spite of the daily conversations we had, in spite of my knowing that she was struggling with pain, both physical and psychological. She was my sister, this hard stuff was temporary, together we would make it through. Hadn't we always? For the past 20 years, her and me, the sisters who had left Scotland for Canada.

She had friends, a husband, a job, a son with a new baby, eight brothers and sisters and a mum who all loved her dearly. The possibility that she would step off her balcony one cold Toronto morning to end the unbearable psych-ache that was destroying her simply did not exist for me.

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But on March 27, 2008, she did just that. And like thousands of other "survivors" of suicide, my life changed forever in that instant. Thrown into a maelstrom of horror, pain, loss, guilt, disbelief, anger, confusion.

Walking around Toronto in the first few days, body and mind numbed by the shock, I did the things that have to be done in spite of the screaming inside and out. The right things. Like not punching the guy in the shiny suit at the funeral home, my dearly departed father's voice in my head saying, "you clown." A little-used expression of his, saved for instances of particularly marked ineptitude, so strangely comforting at that moment.

Like holding a wake in her favourite pub to fill the gaping hole that some long-ago decision to forgo a funeral had created. A place for her friends and family and co-workers and neighbours to come together to share their collective anguish, a place to mourn this massive loss with others, a place to stop all the clocks and mark her wonderful life and terrible death, together.

Then on to Scotland to my heartbroken mum, with some of the ashes of her firstborn child in my bag. Incomprehension. "Maybe it was an accident, hen?" Her courageous entry into an emotional autopsy of what ifs, if onlys, what could she have been thinking? My weak yet only consolation - she's not suffering any more, mum.

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And back to Vancouver and the devastating reality. I hadn't saved her. I had let her down. Our conversations were a constant noise in my ears - doing things differently, persuading her to come back with me that last time I saw her, putting my arms around her and never, ever letting go. Oh Isi, I'm so sorry.

The horror movie playing in my head - her falling, over and over and over again. Oh Isi, I hope you weren't scared.

Sitting down to e-mail her about the latest family shenanigans, picking up the phone to ask her how her day had been, listening for the sound of her text messages coming in. Oh Isi, how will I live without you?

A piece of me gone, my flesh and blood, my sister, myself.

Stanley Park. A daily salve for my red and angry wounds. With every passing morning, no matter the rage inside me, no matter the pain in my heart, no matter the movie in my head, there is some moment, some beauty, some extraordinary display of life that helps me breathe, helps me smile, helps me be grateful for all that I have, all that I am, and all that I am becoming.

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My favourite biking days are the rainy, misty ones, when only the hardy regulars are out, our shared love of this park written on our faces. A soft "Morning" is the only word I hear in this calm and beautiful place. Here I know I will be free of the casual vocabulary of suicide that is so much a part of our everyday banter.

A lovely night out is so easily changed by the usually harmless conversation of the taxi driver: slow tonight, downturn in the economy, people really hurting, more jumpers from the Burrard Bridge. I want to scream at him, "My sister was a jumper! All those jumpers are somebody's sister, somebody's son, somebody's lover!" I don't say anything. In the dark in the back of the cab, Lara squeezes my hand. She knows my internal dialogue. It is all around, this casual talk that is suddenly so full of sharp and painful edges.

Back in the park, it's quiet. The only sounds are the high-pitched kak-kak-kak of a bald eagle in the big Douglas fir, the whoosh of the geese as they land on Lost Lagoon, the gentle lapping of the waves on the sand at Third Beach, the occasional grinding of the gears. And my own breathing. In, out, in, out, in, out.

A few months ago it was my birthday. I scattered some of my beloved sister's ashes in one of my favourite places in the world. And I committed to spending more time thinking about how she lived, and less time thinking about how she died. We both deserve that.

Ali Grant lives in Vancouver.

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