By Cathy Albrigo as told to Kitty Rodriguez
Photos by: Nicolas Heredia
My younger brother and I weren’t very close until the last few months of his life, when he was struggling and I tried to be there for him. He was 18 when he committed suicide. I could never imagine how difficult it would be to lose someone I loved so much — the struggling to move on as time passed.
After he died, I found myself in a deep depression that lasted for about six months. It was the most difficult time in my life. I couldn’t sleep. When I did sleep, I’d wake up crying. It was exhausting. I had never felt this way before. It seemed unreal that I would never see him again — that this happy kid was gone. Sometimes I hoped it was a bad dream that I would wake up from. But it wasn’t.
I was in a grief support group for a year and went to therapy sessions. Grief support did help me realize that every single part of my pain, emotional and physical, was completely normal. Knowing that others went through the same experiences was very reassuring. I talked to members of the group outside of our sessions, so it was nice to have that community to turn to whenever I was caught in a wave of extreme sadness.
As time passed I began to feel that I didn’t have a choice — I just had to get it together.
Before my brother died, my life had no direction. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was just taking my general education classes in hopes I’d find my way. His death ultimately gave me a sense of purpose and a new identity.
People who haven’t lost a sibling don’t understand how much the death changes your concept of yourself. Everything you thought your life was going to be is forever changed. For one thing, I knew my parents were counting on me and suddenly I felt this enormous responsibility to succeed and make them proud.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and I’m currently attending Cal State Northridge. I’m majoring in psychology and plan to have a career in the mental health field. On campus, I’ve gotten involved in a peer education program that’s part of a suicide prevention organization called the Blues Project.
My work through the program allows me to help people who are dealing with depression and addiction. This has really helped me cope with my loss, as well as the feeling that I could have done something more to save my brother. This work is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life.
My parents and I speak openly about my brother almost every day. I’m so much more appreciative of the people around me now. I no longer take things for granted. I always imagined growing old with my little brother and I never thought I’d lose him.
Before my brother passed away, I viewed people who were depressed and suicidal as being shameful. I believed they were responsible for their own thoughts and that something must be wrong with them. It’s actually a daily struggle to change that belief. I’ve always very much believed that we have the power to control our thoughts.
But I was looking at depression from the wrong perspective. The peer education I’m involved in has taught me to change my lens and really see the different circumstances in other people’s lives. Depression isn’t always controllable for everybody and we need to understand that.
John’s death is what has made me feel so passionately about mental health. It’s because of him that I am able to talk about this openly. I personally hope to work in mental illness research someday. There’s so much we don’t know about the brain. I’m fascinated by it now.
The hardest part for me has been the feeling of guilt that I could have done more for my brother. I question myself — could I have helped him? Was he beyond being helped? But it’s my hope that what I’m learning now might enable me to help someone like him in the future.