On Sunday, January 6, Rashi Thakeran came home from a jog at 7:30. Her usual time, she came home to her father and brother and chatted with them. Raghav, her 18-year-old younger brother joked around with her - their usual banter- and went off for his daily jog at 8.
At 8:30, the doorbell rang. “The neighbors told us they found a body, it was Raghav’s.”
Then there was Shweta, who ignored three missed calls from her cousin because she was a college student in a lecture. But three seemed odd, so she excused herself and went outside the hall to ring him back. “Your uncle has shot himself in his house with a licensed revolver.” She rushed across the city of Delhi to the hospital, but it was too late, “his body was in the mortuary already they told me,” she recalls.
Nyana was 13 when it happened. “My mum used to tell me she won’t be there when I come home from school, but I didn't believe her. I thought she loves me too much, just too much to leave.” Years later, faced with her own demons and contemplating suicide herself, she understood it wasn't about her. Suicide is a crippling, lonely disease and someone with severe mental health issues lives in a deep, dark place thinking there is no light, no respite.
“We didn’t understand her as a family,” she tells me.
(Click on the link below to watch their stories:)
The Families Left Behind
“I meet my companions, normal they seem
How thankful I am, that they don’t
hear my mind scream.”
(words from Raghav’s poetry)
For Raashi, a 21-year-old engineering student and Teach for India intern, losing her brother to suicide left her heartbroken and angry.
"We were so close, he's my little brother, we didn't know."
She shows me his poems, stinging with pain and confusion, and says she did ask him if there was something deeper within. "He shrugged us off," in typical teenage fashion, "and said it was an act for his audience."
Knowing he's a writer, she ran to look for a note, but it didn't give her a sense of closure.
"We didn't know why. He didn't say goodbye to us."
After the incident, she researched furiously on suicide, trying to find answers. "But what I found left me more heartbroken. The number that shows up on Google when you type suicide is invalid. What if Raghav called them and took that as a sign?" From places of great pain comes an unparalleled determination, and Raashi started a Change.org petition addressed to Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan to create a national helpline for suicide.
Nyana Sabarwal, a mental health professional and suicide interventionist, also went through the darkness first to emerge in a place of light, where she now founded India’s first support group for families of suicide victims called We Hear You.
"We are all survivors," she says thoughtfully.
“My mum spent many years of her life in tremendous pain, emotional pain and agony. Something that I don’t think any of us in the family really truly understood. Back in the day, mental health was very, very new. Looking back, I understand that she had undiagnosed bipolar and in order to treat that, she self-medicated with substance abuse,” she says.
"“There were days when she would say when you come back from school, I may not be there.”" - Nyana Sabarwal
The Light After the Darkness: Understanding and Healing
“I wish it was just a phase or a season.
It’s not like the sadness which follows a tragic event
It’s the hopelessness that stays in, even after a day well spent.”
“I called him up the other day, can you imagine?” Shweta tells me, “I keep looking at his Whatsapp picture, it’s still the same.” The lawyer and social worker still remembers the day it happened, two years ago, vividly. “It was a shock, no one expected it.”
In hindsight, she does realise that there were signs.
"“Post his death, I can now connect the dots. A month before the suicide,I remember he completely broke down.But even that day,we didn’t realise that, you know,he can die from suicide. I mean, you always think that the other person is upset or worried but we don’t think that anyone can commit suicide in our own family.”" - Shweta Mittal
Holding back a lump in her throat, she tells me she was the one who cleaned her uncle’s blood and she counsels the family now. “My cousin, the uncle’s son, is a kid, hes in college and sometimes he gets angry and says he will kill himself too.”
“That must be terrifying,” I ask.
“I understand why he says that,” she responds kindly. “Boys don’t know how to process their emotions.” So they often hold their trauma close and lash out in one of the more acceptable masculine emotions - anger.
“It must be very disturbing for your aunt when he says things like that,” I wonder and she says, “Yes, so I talk to my cousin. I know why he’s saying that but now I have learned to take all this very seriously. I tell him how scary this is for us and encourage him to talk to me. It’s not easy from his side so I make the effort, I keep calling and texting and going over to his house to hang out with him. I have even made a family group to constantly keep in touch.”
She tells me something that at first sounds absurd but makes complete sense once I think about. They went on a short holiday a little while after the suicide, “It was so that we could be together and removed from the situation.” Togetherness, and the very real effort to sustain that, is highlighted here.
Nyana says, “ To cope we need to talk and talk about our loved ones and process it. We found that a support group for people who have faced a similar loss is truly helpful as one feels heard without the burden of being judged or undermined or asked to move on.”
"“Closure is important to some and not to others. But, acceptance and forgiveness helps families heal. Each one finds their own semblance of “closure” or an understanding eventually. For some in the support group, we have received closure/acceptance after 40 years. For some , for whom the loss is new, the journey is beginning.But, knowing you are not alone in this loss is comforting.”" - Nyana Sabarwal
What Can Families Truly Do?
There are a few stubborn myths that cling on to suicide, the most persistent among them being that there is often nothing you can do once someone has decided to end their life.
Now, research in India has disproven this consistently. Niraj Doshi, a suicide survivor and co-founder of SAL (Save a Life Foundation) explains: “Exactly at this point last year, I was on the path of trying to give up on my life. And depression was the reason why I tried to commit suicide many times. And luckily for me, life turned around – which it always does.”
He tells me the remarkable story of his survival and turn around:
"“I had attempted to die from suicide many times. On my fourth attempt, I was on the 24th floor and this time I jumped. But then, I fell onto the parapet on the 23rd floor and in that moment I realised I want to live. I fought my way up and climbed inside the building and realised I wanted to make a change.”" - Niraj Doshi
Nyana says that there is one thing above all else she wants to tell families worried about their loved ones, “Talking about suicide will not cause suicide.”
"“When families talk openly about suicide they provide a safe space for an individual who is struggling. It tells people that there is a place for them to share their burden.”" - Nyana Sabarwal
One of the more remarkable aspects of these stories is that each of these people is now working towards suicide prevention in their own way.
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