My Sister Died By Suicide. The 988 Hotline Wouldn’t Have Saved Her, But It Could Save Someone Else.
That Thursday in the middle of March, some part of me already knew.
That afternoon, at the end of our session, my therapist Gayle, asked what else needed attention. I mentioned my sister Tracey. “She’s in a rough patch that just isn’t getting better. I’m worried.” It felt like a bookmark, something we would come back to in our next session.
Tracey’s depression was chronic. For most of her adult life she fought through loneliness, addiction and depression. Her seven siblings were her primary support; she had a check-in call with one of us each day. I’m the youngest. I talked to her almost daily, but always on Thursday.
That week, we had lunch together on Monday. Tracey, our sister Lisa and our Mom. What I remember is Tracey’s energy that day ― her words were sharp, her tone brittle. She was miserable, wildly unsettled in her own skin. Lunch was awkward for the four of us.
I remember Trace was rude to the server, frustrated at her being slow and a little bit clueless. I found myself feeling annoyed at my sister for her surly attitude.
Mom was in an uncharacteristically good mood, telling stories and asking questions about preposterous things because she couldn’t remember if they had really happened or if she had dreamed them. Lisa and I shared the neutral role that day. Engaging with Mom, trying to connect with Trace. Each of us sisters filed her stories away to dish about them with each other later. We each left from lunch, Tracey walking out a different door than we did.
That week, I called her first thing Wednesday and left a voicemail. Her lack of response wasn’t unusual. On bad days she didn’t reach out much. On Thursday, I left voicemails in the morning and midday. As a mental health therapist in private practice, I was hard to reach during my work day. I called repeatedly in between client sessions, but didn’t receive even a half-hearted text reply back to say she’d received my calls and didn’t want to talk. Curiosity turned to concern as the day went by without hearing from her.
By 8:30 p.m., when another attempt to reach her went unanswered, I knew something wasn’t right. The silence was too loud.
I texted Lisa, to see if she’d heard from Trace that day, but she hadn’t. We quickly surveyed our five brothers by text. No one had talked to her since Tuesday. Intuition rang a warning sound in my veins and tied knots in my belly. I felt an urgent, pressing need to go to her.
“I’m going to her apartment,” I told Lisa on the phone.
“I’ll meet you there,” she promised. “I have a key.”
Driving the 10 minutes across town I added up the lack of contact, her unusual silence. I was afraid I knew what it meant. There really were only two possible scenarios. She would either be furious at us for waking her up at 10:15 p.m., or she was dead.
I turned into the apartment complex from the back entrance and saw lights on in Tracey’s place. My chest folded in on itself in fear; seeing her apartment lit up was not a good omen.
Lisa and I arrived at the same time and parked side by side. As we hurried up the short stairwell I said, “She’s going to be so mad if we’re waking her up.”
“I don’t give a fuck how mad she is.” Lisa doesn’t usually swear, so I found this oddly comforting. Tracey being pissed off was better than the alternative. We knocked, rang the doorbell. Nothing.
With shaking hands, Lisa unlocked the door. We stepped inside, first Lisa then me. Turning the corner from the entryway into the living room, Lisa screamed. “Oh my god! Tracey, no!”
She was sitting in a chair in the corner of her living room. She appeared to be asleep. It was eerily peaceful. Not at all messy. We had no idea how long she’d been there.
The first call I make is to 911. Lisa feels for a pulse on Tracey’s wrist and recoils from the cold skin. 911 answers and I panic that I can’t remember her address. “It’s my sister. She’s dead. We just found her.”
“Stay with me here, Ma’am. It’s okay. We found your location. We’re sending an officer now. Just stay on the line.”
Lisa and I begin calling our brothers. She tells John and Toby. I call Bob and Pete. We can’t reach Jeff. These are the hardest phone calls I’ve ever made.
When the police arrive, they enter the apartment and begin asking questions. “Is there any reason to suspect foul play?”
“No,” I answer. “This is exactly what it looks like. She had a history of prior attempts. She was depressed.”
I want my sister back. I want to return to the last day I saw her, chase her down for the hug and kiss goodbye we didn’t share that day. I want to confront her jagged, brittle energy, ask the questions I’d avoided out of an unspoken bargain we’d struck.
Months before, I asked her point blank if she was suicidal. We were in a 50s-themed diner in the mall eating cheeseburgers and fries. She met my eyes and refused to answer. My follow-up question of whether she had a plan also went unanswered. I had to back off to keep her as close to me as she would allow. This uneasy balance went against my clinical therapist training and my desperate need for my big sister in my life.
The medical examiner comes to talk with us. “Your sister probably died late on Wednesday,” she explains, citing her body temperature, etc. She hands out her business cards in case we have questions later. The transport vehicle arrives to move my sister’s body out of the apartment. I can’t make myself watch the gurney covered in a white sheet. But I also can’t quite ignore it.
Once they’re gone, we go back in. My great grandmother’s ring, the one Tracey wore every day, sits alone on the table beside the chair where she died.
I wish you could feel the way I loved my sister. The way she’d ramble on my voicemail, always starting with, “Hey Meg, it’s Trace.” The way she laughed and her grumpy face of displeasure. All those mediocre sandwiches at Subway because for a while that’s all she ate.
Tracey could walk into a room and know immediately how things should be arranged. Together we’d move tall shelves full of books and framed photos without emptying them first. Sometimes we’d take off the most breakable things. Often not. We were daring.
Tracey was fragile, already broken in some ways. I knew that, but I still chose to believe she would stay. Some days I can’t believe she had the strength to go through with it, that she didn’t reach out one more time to any of her seven siblings, her parents.
Did she hear my last voicemail? The one where my voice was stilted and awkward as I worked hard not to say, “I hope you’re having a good day,” because I knew she wasn’t. Tracey’s days were lonely and painful. Her only reprieve was time with any of us, and it wasn’t enough.
Part of how she spent those last days was searching the internet. After her death, we looked at her browser history and found phrases like: weight loss programs, asphyxiation with helium. Had she also searched for suicide hotlines ― local or regional talk lines? There wasn’t a simple number to call, she would have had to look up a crisis line. But Tracey didn’t seem to have been seeking support; her mind was made up.
I’m mad at her for leaving even as I understand. I’m mad that we had to be the ones to find her, the ones to make the horrendous calls to our brothers. But mostly I just miss her. I want her here. I’m not done being her little sister. I’m not finished yet.
A few weeks after Tracey died I was asked by a friend of a friend how many siblings I have. The answer stuck in my throat, the number eight pounding its own pulse in my splintered heart.
“There are eight of us,” I sputtered. There wasn’t time or reason to tell the story. I couldn’t wrap it in concise, polite words for someone who didn’t know the gaping loss I’ve experienced.
There are eight of us.
I am the youngest of eight siblings.
I am always eight of eight.
Now, seven years after my sister’s death by suicide, a national helpline number has been designated for suicide support. By the time my sister made her exit plan, she wasn’t looking for help to stay, but so many people are. The accessibility of 988 means no need to rely on Google searches, or hope your therapist made you save the county crisis line in your phone that last time you were struggling.
Now, in the U.S., someone struggling with suicidal thoughts can dial a simple three digit number to reach someone who can help. 988. It’s eights. Because of course it is.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.