My brother died by suicide nearly 30 years ago, and still not a day goes by when I do not find myself thinking about what happened and asking, “why?”
That is one of the things about the suicide of a loved one: It’s easy to get stuck on how their life ended, instead of remembering how they lived their life.
July 22, 1988. That was the date. It was a warm summer night in New York. When my brother died, I was in Washington, D.C., sitting on one of those silent subways the city is known for.
You always hear tales about brothers who can feel each other’s pain. This isn’t one of them. When my brother died, I didn’t feel a thing.
His name was Carter Cooper, and he was 23 at the time, two years older than I was. I’d always considered us close, though now I’m not so sure, because I didn’t see the pain he was in. And when I did get a glimpse of it, it scared me so much I didn’t know how to help.
As kids, we were together all the time. He was fascinated with military history and always led our childhood campaigns.
Carter went to Princeton and seemed to thrive amid the ivy walls and green lawns. After graduation, he wrote book reviews and started editing a history magazine. He talked about writing a novel.
Politics was a passion, but he wasn’t suited for the rough-and-tumble of the game. He felt things too deeply.
“There’s no wall between Carter’s head and his heart,” a friend of his once said. That was true. He was gentle. Which makes the violence of his death that much more incomprehensible. “He was the last person I’d imagine doing this” — after his death, I heard that a lot.
Looking back, there were signs something was wrong. He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend and seemed unmoored, but none of us knew to what extent. When we spoke on the phone he seemed anxious, distracted; as if his thoughts were elsewhere. One night, a few months before he died, I went home and I remember talking with him in the darkness of his room. I didn’t know what to say, but it worried me to see him so unlike himself.
He began to see a therapist, and I took it as a good sign that he was getting help. It made it easy for me to step back, to not involve myself, to not reach out to him more. It was only later, after his death, when I met his therapist and learned that Carter hadn’t really confided in him much. He’d hidden his pain from everyone.
In the days following his death, reporters and cameramen milled around outside our building. I stayed inside, leaving only once to go to my brother’s apartment and pick out a suit for his burial.
The place was just as he’d left it. A half-eaten turkey sandwich was on the kitchen counter. The air was stale, the bed unmade. I remember it still smelled of him, and I bent down to his pillow to feel close to him. I can’t remember what he smelled like anymore.
There was no note.
On his desk I found a piece of paper with a single sentence in quotes. “The cuticle of common sense that had protected him over the years from his own worst tendencies had worn away, leaving him increasingly vulnerable to obsessions.”
It was from a book he was reviewing, but I wondered for weeks if it had spoken to him in some secret way.
The other day I was speaking to a woman who had lost a family member to suicide and she asked, “When will I stop asking, ‘why?’ ” The truth is that sometimes there are answers about why someone dies by suicide; there are factors like depression, substance abuse, the breakup of a relationship.
But many more times there is no clear answer, or not one single reason. Learning to live without knowing why is one of the many things I continue to struggle with.
I do know that my brother was a sweet young man who wanted to be in control of his life, and in the end, he simply wasn’t. The truth is, none of us really are. I wish I had better understood the pain he was in. I wish he had been able to reach out for help.
There is help available. Help and hope, even when you can’t see it in the darkness … it is all around you.