I will be starting a new series of interviews with interesting people I know who have been impacted by death, dying and grief. I want to highlight the beautiful lessons we can all learn from death and the resiliency and strength of human character surviving and thriving even when our loved ones have died. If you know someone or if you would be interested in being interviewed by me for this series, let me know.
CONTENT WARNING: SUICIDE
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and I could not let the month end without posting this interview with a dear friend of mine whose life has been impacted by suicide. She has been my friend for over a decade. She is kind, generous, and brilliant. She will happily give you a hand up and shoulder to cry on. She inspires me every day with her determination and strength. We talked for over an hour, so I’m dividing this into two parts. The first is the story of her and her brother and his death by suicide. The second part will deal a bit more with grief, beliefs about the afterlife and other things.
First, I’ll let her introduce herself. “Genevera McColgan, 45, single mom, veteran, Hoosier transplant, daughter, sister.”
Genevera’s brother, Steven “Taylor” Wray Pendroy, was 26-months younger than she, was her best friend and companion. Genevera and Taylor were particularly close because they were children of a single parent, and she felt the unspoken, yet expected, responsibility for looking out for him from an early age. By offering to have one another’s backs and look out for each other, Genevera and Taylor helped to co-parent one another in a way they hoped would relieve some burden on their mother. “For as long as I can remember, it was always, ‘Look out for your brother.’ My mom always told us we’d always have to depend on each other.”
They both struggled in their teen years, to find their paths and direction. “I went through some troubles in my teen years, and so did he. I got myself kind of together and joined the army. The first couple of years I was in the army, he was struggling to find his place, before he turned 18 and joined the navy.” She was hopeful and optimistic that Taylor had found his path, but the navy did not work out for him after only about a year. “He was always very adventurous in those wild years. He was always hitchhiking everywhere. He saw from Kethican, Alaska to Key West on his thumb. He was far, far braver that way than I ever was.”
In December of 2000, Taylor showed up at newlywed Genevera’s door “in shoes that were too small and smelling of diesel fuel.” He was looking for a safe spot to get his feet back underneath him and catch his breath, more or less, and he stayed with the pair for about six weeks “getting himself back together.” Taylor was drinking a lot and seeing a girl that Genevera thought was too young, green and naive for a relationship.
“I was frustrated. For all the talk of wanting to get things done, he didn’t seem to be moving in that direction, so we argued quite a bit during that time.” At the same time without her knowledge Genevera’s then-husband was telling Taylor that it would be best if he left, and he’d kill Taylor if he ever made Genevera cry again. So, Taylor asked Genevera to use his paycheck from the bowling alley where he was working fixing and keeping the electronic pin-setters and ball retrievers working to buy him a ticket to Key West for the winter.
“Something in me told me that just was not the right thing, but I let him do it. He came back a few weeks later, and I found out because he called me from jail. He had gotten arrested for breaking into a gas station to steal a blanket.”
Taylor asked his sister to pay his bail, but she was in the midst of saving for and planning a move to Indiana. “I told him to quit calling me collect and just tell me when visiting hours are and what jail he was in. One afternoon he called me collect from jail again, and I had had a bad day at work. I answered the call. My first statement was, ‘I thought I told you to quit calling me collect.’” Taylor explained he only needed to ask her for a favor, but Genevera told him to forget it and hung up on him. He left a few more messages while they were in the process of moving and settling into a new apartment, but she never spoke to Taylor again.
A few weeks later, her mother called her at work to tell her they had found Taylor that morning in a parking garage. He had hanged himself.
“I remember her telling me that, and I remember my coworkers coming and finding me on the floor.” She has no memory of falling to the floor or anything else immediately after the call. In short order, she had gotten her mom out to join her, and they went to the police station to take care of the body and business left behind.
“ I read his note, which he had written on the inside of a Budweiser 12-pack. The bulk of it was statistics: full name, date of birth, his parents, his siblings, his drug use, his nicotine use, how many women he’d slept with. Mostly it was about not knowing who he was or where he wanted to go, and feeling like no one was helping him figure that out.”
“It devastated me.”
Later when viewing his body, Genevera said she “disassociated” from her body and the moment, unable to process that it was really his body and that no mistake had been made. “I watched myself, the whole scene was from outside my body.”
“The date of death was Feb. 25, 2001, and thus began a very tumultuous year. 9/11 happened (Genevera was at the Pentagon at the time). I moved to Indiana. In the meantime, I was attempting to grapple with a loss that I couldn’t wrap my head around.”
Taylor’s suicide changed Genevera’s life in innumerable ways. “It changed everything about who I am, what my priorities are, who I want to be. Whenever I am unsure of that — who I want to be — I try to remember how my brother would look at me when he was proud of me, and how he would look at me when he was disappointed in me. I close my eyes, and I think about him, and I know which way I’m supposed to go.”
Genevera still keeps a journal and writes letters to Taylor. She tells him about what’s happening in her life. “When my feelings are hurt and I don’t know who to tell, I write to him. It’s not him, but it helps keep me, keep him close to me. As I approach 20 years, the thing I worry about is that I’ll forget him. I don’t think it’s possible, but it’s a real fear for me. It’s not feasible to forget someone who’s so instrumental to your own identity. The first thing I was, in my mind, was a big sister. That was the first job I ever had.”
The job of looking out for her brother brings its own burden to Genevera’s grief. The added guilt of the feeling like she somehow shirked her responsibilities complicates and exacerbates her guilt, as it often does survivors of suicide. Nearly everyone left behind feels at some point they should have known or done more.
It took a long time for Genevera to “let” Taylor go. After 12 years, she released some of Taylor’s ashes near her home in Indiana. That act helped her realize she could release the guilt and responsibility she had been carrying for all those years. “When they say someone’s death leaves a mark on someone, it left its mark on my mother. I can see it. There is a clear line in pictures from my mother before my brother died and after my brother died. And I felt responsible for that.”
Now nearly 20 years into her grief journey, Genevera still contemplates the reasons why Taylor may have chosen to die by suicide. “I love my brother, and I’ll love him forever. But there’s a point where you have to be honest with yourself, not just about the things you loved about them, but about the things you didn’t love about them.”
“I remember him saying not long before he died, ‘I’m just so tired.’ He was 23. I think he suffered, in a sense. He was sensitive and super-intelligent. I think he felt exceptionally misunderstood. He did have a problem with booze, did way more drugs than I ever did. That was one of the hopes I held out at his autopsy, that he was drunk, but he was stone sober.”
We talked a bit about the stigma in society associated with grief, dying, and mental illness and disability and how all of those things tend to make death by suicide especially stigmatizing, misunderstood and tramautizing, and dying of suicide seen as sinful, shameful and selfish. The education about suicide causes and prevention has improved, but Genevera feels moved to educate the people who may try to turn Taylor’s or others’ death by suicide into some sort of shameful or selfish thing.
“It’s my responsibility to educate. Can you imagine being in so much pain that that’s the only way you can think to alleviate it? Can you imagine that? Do you know what the last lines of Taylor’s note were? ‘Please forgive me. In Jesus’ name I pray.’ Before my brother put that noose around his neck, he prayed for Jesus to forgive him, because he was in so much pain.”
“It’s not just mental health. We completely act like you’re broken or unusable, because you’re not neurotypical. Or atypical in whatever way. Those folks are also pushed to the side. Be productive, or you’re nothing. The consumerism. The capitalism. And this was before social media. It’s push, push, push, push to have it all figured out. It’s a spiral of things. The fear of all this. The combination of factors that led my brother to feel that way are systematic. It’s cradle to the grave, and then we perpetuate it by saying, ‘You can’t even grieve this because that person was a disappointment, they were so weak and so selfish that they did this.’ Good for you that you’ve never had those moments of weakness, that you’ve never been in that much pain. ‘But for the grace of God,’ I believe that goes. It’s a whole big circle.”
After so many years, she is also well-versed in the statistics and facts about death by suicide. “There’s the three things: the feeling of hopelessness, the will, and the means. In the place where my brother had taken refuge for the evening, there was a mobile scaffold and a length of rope. Had there been no rope, my brother might still be alive today.”
She also knows a lot about the after effects of death by suicide. “Every suicide leaves an average of six people. A quarter-million people a year, just in the United States, become, what we call ourselves, ‘survivors of suicide.’”
Survivors of suicide face unique grief challenges due to way their loved ones died. “It’s not a natural death. It’s not a car accident. It’s not a disease. It’s not even a violent crime. There’s no one to blame. There’s nothing to curse. And that’s a hard thing to move forward through. Every time I hear about a suicide, it does not matter who it is, I feel the initial pain of when I found out about my brother, and I just want to go hug all those people who just lost this person they loved. I just want to hug them and tell them it’s not your fault. They know you loved them, and you’re going to be okay. I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, but you’re going to be okay. And we’re here. There are so many people, sadly, who know what you’re going through and what you’re about to go through.”
“My heart was broken when Taylor died, and not just down the middle, but in thousands and thousands of tiny pieces. In the last 19 and a half years, every person who became my friend, or came into my life and made me smile and made me laugh helped me put it back together. But it’s like the Japanese thing where they fill the crack with gold, they make it bigger.”
“My brother only lived 23 years, but he lived them with all he had. He tried it all. He went everywhere. He tried modeling and deep-sea fishing and logging. He met people from everywhere. For years after he died, my mom got phone calls from strangers from all over this country asking how he was, and then she would cry with them on the phone when they found out he was gone. That is a lot to accomplish in 23 years. While I’ve obviously gotten more than that, I’d like to leave that kind of legacy. I’d like to live my life with my heart open. It’s how I get through it.”