Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Trina Moyles and her brother.Handout

Trina Moyles is the author of the forthcoming book Black Bear.

I was filming a time-lapse of low clouds passing over an illuminated grain field when my parents called with the news that my brother had taken his own life.

It was a Sunday morning of the May long weekend. Nothing yet was in bloom. Even the buds on the deciduous trees remained tightly closed like clenched fists.

The words spoken aloud – “your brother killed himself” – struck with a gale force. He was my only brother. Older by three years. He left without a note, or explanation.

I stared out at the field of equal light and shadow. The clarity of the moment severed me: My brother was gone and I wasn’t sure how I would go on living without him.

I can’t remember how I survived the days that followed the news of his death. My body was heavy with grief. My heart felt scorched, blackened by wildfire.

I wrote my brother’s eulogy. I read the words at his funeral. I stood up in front of hundreds of people who’d known and loved him. Their eyes seemed to ask the impossible question: “Why?”

Friends wrote me with well-intentioned advice and attempts at making sense of it.

“Men are too good at ending their lives on their first attempt,” a friend with a clinical mental-health background wrote. Another said that it was “better to treat it like a car accident.” Someone even told me: “Don’t dwell on it.”

People’s judgments of my brother’s death filtered into conversations without invitation. “I’ve never understood how someone could do that,” a colleague said to me, weeks after. “It’s just so selfish.”

I had no defence against these societal projections. I curled into myself like a mollusk. I wanted to hold the memory of my brother there and keep him safe from what others thought of him and the way he died. It made me sad to think that 39 years of a large, boisterous, complex personhood, someone loving and loved, had been reduced, in people’s minds, to what happened in the last minute of his life.

A close friend of mine couldn’t bear to listen to me talk about it.

“I’m sorry, but it’s just too triggering for me,” she said.

My grief felt vastly different – a world apart – from the grief of losing a loved one to cancer, a heart attack or a car accident. A part of me wished that he’d died in one of those emotionally cleaner, more understandable and socially acceptable ways. Where his death would be perceived as tragic, but also somewhat heroic, and I could mourn and speak openly about it without causing distress, or discomfort to others.

Suicide: The word fires like a gunshot, so I’ve found myself whispering it.

Why must survivors go on whispering?

Maybe it’s because it wasn’t so long ago that someone who attempted to end their life could be imprisoned for it. Suicide was decriminalized in Canada in 1972, but the criminality associated with the act remains embedded in the way we talk about it. We use the expression “commit suicide” as though it’s an individual, shameful act, and not a symptom of a much wider social phenomenon.

After my brother died, I joined an online suicide bereavement group and found some solace sharing with others who’d lost loved ones to suicide.

“When we look closely at how it is different, this loss of suicide compared to grieving a loss to other forms of death, it’s about looking at how people explore responsibility,” Peris Wasonga, a social worker with Suicide Grief Support Services in Edmonton, told me.

The key word is responsibility. Is that why we hush the stories surrounding suicide? Because we are afraid that we didn’t do enough to help our loved ones, nor see the signs to prevent it? That we are somehow culpable? How do we see our own selves in relation to those we lose to suicide?

After my brother died, I began to play journalist, even detective. I scrolled back to the last words I wrote to him, a text message that read (much to my devastation) “UGH, TRAFFIC,” justifying the reason why I was nearly an hour late for dinner. I pored through messages that dated back to 2007 when we both joined social-media platforms. My mind replayed every memory, trying to find meaning buried in the way I remembered him, us, and our beautifully complicated life together as siblings.

I’m not convinced that my brother actively made a choice to leave, or that there was anything deliberate about what happened that morning. We would all later lament: but he was at his best. Building a house for his family. Managing a business. Coaching hockey. Yes, he struggled with anxiety and depression – as many of us do. Sometimes I wonder if his emotions were just too much, even for a split second, swept over by a tsunami of hurt. Maybe it was lightning-quick. Research has found that, in one of four suicide attempts, the acute period of heightened risk may be less than five minutes.

While this helps me contextualize what could have happened – I will never know for sure – I also don’t want my brother to be remembered as a statistic.

When we do talk about suicide, we talk about statistics. We speak about it in a clinical way, perhaps to separate ourselves from it. Such as: In 2022, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in Canada. Indigenous communities face significantly higher rates than the rest of Canada. In Alberta, more people die by suicide than the number of those killed in car accidents, and three out of four of those deaths are men.

We talk about the risk factors: substance abuse, depression, mental illness, gender, income and employment. Or even that I – as someone who’s lost a loved one to suicide – face a higher risk of ending my own life.

But even this clinical approach of making sense of suicide via statistics falls short of really explaining who lives and who dies.

Although we don’t like to admit it, maybe suicide is more random than we understand. We are fallible. We are fragile. Sometimes, we have dark thoughts. Sometimes, we make mistakes. I do not hold anger around the so-called “selfishness” of my brother’s act. I empathize because I know it could’ve happened to anyone – even me.

I met a woman recently who lost her partner to suicide; she told me that, in the days after his death, she came across a message online that read: “One hundred per cent of suicides are preventable.”

She cursed out loud and slammed her laptop shut.

The woman told me that she hesitated to use the word “suicide” openly. That even the kindest people she’d spoken with looked to explain suicide, perhaps as a way to try to protect their own loved ones. Humans desperately want to predict outcomes, she said to me. But that doesn’t always work.

Maybe that’s why talking about suicide scares us so much, and why, ultimately, we need to share more openly about it in order to address it – to say the word without the taboo and stigma and shame that envelops it.

Shame erases the complexity of a person who dies by suicide. We remember them for their struggles and sadness. We say “them” and not “us.”

We forget that they contained multitudes, as do we all.

I want to ask people to remember my brother not for the way he went but the way he lived: furiously bright. Remember him, flying across the ice on skates. Holding his newborn daughter at the hospital, eyes alight. Remember the way he’d call and not text. Remember the extra plates at the dinner table and the friends he always invited.

Remember that he loved and was loved by many.

When we talk openly about suicide, when we do not avert our gaze from the subject, we help to ease the burning shame and suffering of those around us. Empathy grows from the ashes of loss the way fireweed blooms not long after a wildfire.

It’s from this non-judgmental place that we can better support people dealing with suicidal ideation and those grieving their loved ones who died by suicide.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe