April 19, 2017 is a day that I will never forget. It is imprinted in my mind like a nightmare that I still today wish I could wake up from. It is a day when I got a phone call receiving the worst news of my life: a phone call from my mother who told me my little brother had taken his own life.
Initially, when the news hit me, I didn’t understand or process the words. It just did not make any sense. Nothing made sense. Nothing actually made sense for a long time.
My family and I had no idea my brother was struggling with something that big that would lead to this. He was an introvert, but regardless of this characteristic, he was always open with my parents if something was not going well or if he needed help with anything. However, moving five hours away to go to college and my parents not having him at home anymore might have played a part that he did not talk to them as much. But that is the thing, my family and I can only speculate. We know nothing for sure.
After hearing about my little brother’s death, everything was just a haze, a haze where I lived for the next eight months. I pushed to live on, but I felt like I lived inside this thick, foggy cloud where nobody saw me, nor really understood me. I saw nothing the same way as before.
“This can’t be happening to me; things like this only happen on TV,” I’ve told myself repeatedly. Well, it turns out it can be a reality because no matter how many times I’ve tried to pinch myself, I have not been able to wake up from this nightmare.
After the initial moments of shock that day, one of the first things I managed to do was to write something. I opened up my laptop and wrote down the sequence of events that had happened that morning. From the moment I hit the gym early morning to the moment I answered that phone call getting the worst news of my life.
After writing it down, I went to my college adviser at my university. I had to tell her since I knew what happened might affect my school work and I worked with her every day at the college publication as well.
I remember the moment I walked into her office. I said the words for the first time whilst my lips were trembling and my eyes automatically filled with tears: “My brother died of suicide."
I saw the shift of emotion in her eyes as they sank to one of concern and disbelief. I will never forget that sight. So, I talked to her, told her everything I knew.
Then, I went and told everything to my mother figure away from home. I was in St. Louis for school at that time, and my family was back in Finland. Getting such news and not being able to be with my family at the time of such tragedy is the worst thing that can happen to an international student.
Then, I went to my spiritual mentor. I talked. I messaged my friends, and I talked. I reached out to anyone who would listen. I told the story over and over and over again. In retrospect, reaching out that way and discussing what happened so many times throughout the day played an essential part for my healing process. When it comes to trauma, connection and empathy are everything —especially in the early stages. We are human beings and we were put on this earth to connect. And, in the initial moments of trauma, usually your sense of self and your reality have had a full spin. You are in an emotional shock, and the symptoms of it change person to person.
Communicating about what happened means you are processing it. The verbal repetition of traumatic events makes it sink into your brain and can also help you make sense of it. Also, by sharing the tragedy, you are sharing its load with someone else. When you receive empathy, the weight of the trauma gets lighter.
Like Brené Brown wrote in her book “Daring Greatly:” “Empathy conveys a simple acknowledgement, ‘You’re not alone.’”
Brown stated that a person does not need to have gone through the same traumatic experience to be able to empathize with another person. It is about connecting with the person’s emotion, not the particular event or circumstance.
When we know we are not alone in something, it does magic for our mental turmoil. Therefore, not remaining alone with our thoughts but instead connecting to receive empathy is a step that will speed the healing process enormously. Research backs it up.
University of Texas professor James Pennebaker and his colleagues looked into the effects if trauma survivors—specifically rape and incest survivors—kept their experience to themselves. They found out not talking about what happened and sharing it can be more damaging than the event itself.
“Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their doctor’s visits decreased and they showed significant decreases in their stress hormones,” Brown wrote in her book.
For me, it was a natural response to reach out, but for some people it might not be. In fact, for many, a natural response is to shut down. Whether it is telling someone about the passing of a loved one, or being a victim of sexual assault or having any other form of traumatic experience— the walls can build up real quick.
Why? Because in that traumatic state you are the most scared you've ever been. And fear has the power to shut us down.
Talking about the traumatic event also means making the events real. Sometimes we think keeping it in means it won’t be real and we don't have to face it. But the fact is, we cannot escape it. No matter how hard we try. The moment I said what happened to my brother out loud, the reality hit was excruciating. However, the more I have talked about it, the better I have felt. I have talked to many people in the past year from friends and family, to my personal trainer, spiritual mentor and even strangers. Sharing this story now in written form is another way of connecting for me as well. So, what matters is that you connect. Find your people you can trust and confide in them as soon as you can. Or if you feel more comfortable going to talk to a professional first or maybe call someone on a hot line—do it. Or if you need to connect within you before going to anybody else, do that. Find your way to connect. Listen to what your mind, body and spirit ask of you.
When we go through stress, our bodies are under so much pressure. Keeping things in starts eating the mind, but open connection and receiving empathy has the power to lessen the stress levels and calm down the chaos.
So, to release that pressure and chaos: Release your thoughts.
I first released my thoughts by writing. It was a form of connection that is natural way for me to process. For someone this could be painting, coloring, making music, physical exercise—vessels to connection are endless.
The key is to not stay alone with your pain. When I got the news about my little brother, if I had spent all day in bed doing nothing and just rolling thoughts in my head alone—my mental state would have definitely gotten worse.
It is not even necessarily that the person you are with might say something that makes things better, because honestly, there is nothing that can be said that would make anything better at that moment.
The point is to be with people. The fact of someone just simply being there for you with your pain makes all the difference. It can be just the presence of another human being that is enough. Then when you are ready, you can start talking. The listening ear and the energy of empathy will open up the path toward your healing.
Connection and empathy are the light. Isolation leads to darkness. My brother is one of the too-many examples of how isolation can lead to a tragic ending.
So, whatever you are going through. Dare to feel it. Dare to process it. Dare to connect. You are not alone in this.