What my brother’s death taught me about living 

Pauline’s brother died in 2018 and her best friend committed suicide this year. She shares lessons from her pain. 

Photo credit: Nation| Pool

What you need to know:

  • Losing a loved one can cause incapacitating pain for anybody.
  • Pauline’s brother died in 2018 and her best friend committed suicide this year.
  • She  shares the lessons she picked from the bruising battle for her peace of mind and sanity.

“We can’t seem to find your father and your mother is too emotional right now. We need your consent to pull the plug”.
What an inadequate phrase to describe the finality of death, I thought. But these were the doctor’s words on June 26, 2018. That is the day my only brother died. 

Pauline, left, with her siblings Pearl and Phillip. 

Photo credit: Nation| Pool

 Earlier that morning, my father had received a phone call informing him that my brother had fainted in class. 
 By the time we reached the hospital, where he had been rushed by an ambulance, his heart was no longer beating. 
 For the first time in my life, I saw tears roll down my father’s face. I heard the wails of denial in every breath my mother took. 
 As a 17-year-old girl, I had to be their strength and voice, so I told the doctor to let him go and rest with the Lord. 
 That’s the day I died. But I had died many times before. Some days it felt like I hadn’t slept in two years. Each day I woke up, I would die all over again.
 This reminds me of a quote: Men though they must die, are not born to die, but to begin. 
 In all the pain and grief, I realised that nothing in this world could prepare you for the stark reality of goodbye. 

Pauline with her brother Philip when they were younger. 

Photo credit: Nation| Pool

 Death is such an indignity, I thought, only to come to acknowledge that though we must die, what looks like death to us is rest to God. Just as rest is preparation for renewal, death is the preparation of something new. Whenever I looked at my late brother Philip, I would not see a regular human. He was a hero, a supernatural creation full of potential, wisdom and tenacity. He was my whole life, and I was his. We had this indescribable connection where we would know when the other is hurt or in distress. Our deep connection made us believe we were meant to be twins. In all those 20 years he was alive, he forged a love so deep in my heart that has never run out. That love pumps the memories of all the times we travelled, trained for sports competitions in our backyard, explored hotels and restaurants to tease his expensive tastes, and created a secret language we would boast about in public. 

A pure heart

 A mass of emotions consumed me when Philip died. Relentlessly, they convincingly whispered into my ears that the key to my happiness had died with him. I no longer had a deep, soothing voice that could tranquilise me in my persistent panic attacks, or his reassuring presence during my feelings of anxiety that could command my heart and the blood in my veins to hit the brakes. His heart was pure. The greatest lesson he ever taught me was to never find fault in anyone, which is painful to accept as he will never know the lives he has changed through me. 

Losing my best friend to suicide this year compounded my pain.

 In each desperate attempt to retrieve this key that was lost in the depths of my misery and heartache, all I could find was the haunting image of him on his death bed. At the time of his passing, I had told the doctors that I wanted to be alone with him. So, there I sat, staring at death in its face, speaking to it, waiting for its response. Of course, my questions remained unanswered. So, I placed his cold, lifeless head against mine, and as the minutes went by, he and I became one. 
 Everything he was, became everything I am, including his emptiness and coldness. I wondered why death was so familiar. I concluded that no child should ever have to experience such misery. It was the darkest period of my life. 
 From that day, I dreaded seeing the morning sunrise, as I was too cold to feel its warmth. Each morning, I sunk deeper into my sorrow until it reached a point where I couldn’t help but think: was life worth living? I no longer felt like there was even life in me. So, I let the whispers continue to lie to me. I accepted the miserable fate that was, a future full of torture, pain, suffering, loss, misery, anger and wounds that would never heal.

Philip died in 2018. Pauline and her family started a foundation in his honour. 

Photo credit: Nation| Pool

The days I looked for this happiness, I ended up finding myself in denial of his death, being neglectful to myself and my mental health, exploring harmful substances to fill the void that transpired in my soul, but mainly repressing all that I had experienced in an attempt to save the memories before they faded away. It became apparent that I was looking for this happiness in the lies I believed in, rather than the truth that would support me. 
 How foolish of me to let his intoxicating smile and laugh fade with his last breath, his genuine concern for the less fortunate end when his heart stopped beating, his dreams and visions to create a mental health facility and a rescue centre for children subjected to domestic abuse vanish in his last sight. 

Committed suicide

Losing my best friend to suicide this year compounded my pain. I lost my hope, my faith in God, my peace and my joy. Eventually, I lost myself. 
The only thing that remained was death’s whispers in the night, convincing me that it’ll help me find everything that I’d lost if I gave into its ever so sweet temptations. It told me that all the images and memories of the blood, pain and tears of my mother, from the domestic abuse, would be dissolved if I drunk its potion. That if I used its magic rope and stool, the sound of her screams and shouts “Help, he is going to kill me!”, that replay in my mind each time I heard my father raise his voice, even in praise, would be strangled with me. That the engrafted words are written in my heart, that I am a worthless, useless, foolish, and a curse rather than a blessing would be erased if I followed its instruction. 
 So, I died. Over and over and over again, I let death be the only voice that I could hear. But every time I died, I resurrected three times stronger. 
In my younger years, when I attended therapy sessions, my therapist said it was the domestic violence I witnessed at home, which triggered my panic attacks. 
Like being stuck on that difficult level in a video game people effortlessly played, I kept losing and dying continuously until finally, I understood why. In that revelation, I moved on to the next level, only to find out the levels get more challenging. But in the process, we develop newer and more advanced weapons that give us an upper hand on the battlefield. Once I applied that same concept in my life, I started dying less and less, and they continued living more and more in each of us. 
 After all these epiphanies, I could no longer hear death’s whispers, only God’s. 
I’ve managed to calm myself so far by seeking God, listening to uplifting podcasts and exercising. I discovered that mental wellness demands nourishment of the body and the soul. And so far my spirit is at peace. 
God reminded me through my brother and my best friend’s death, through the emotional and physical abuse, through witnessing close friends and family members turning into drug addicts and alcoholics, through learning about other people’s and my pain and suffering, that my voice just wasn’t loud enough. I needed to do and be more. That I needed to be louder, not only for me but for us all. So, I did.
 I learned that my greatest gift wasn’t the happiness I had experienced, but the agony and heartache I struggled through. As due to this, my gratitude and appreciation towards life continues to grow immensely by the days and reminds me that I wouldn’t be where I am now if I had let the pain destroy me.
 I made a vow to devote my life to remind the few people who could hear my voice that they are not alone. During this long voyage, I met stereotypes, stigmas, misconceptions, about mental health, which wouldn’t let me rest. 
Too afraid to open up about my struggles, with the fallacy that no one would ever understand my pain, I didn’t know where to seek help. 
I went in search of a label for my pain. I found out that everything I was feeling pointed towards depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it was not until a year later that I shared the same with my very supportive mum. I tried therapy again but dropped out after a few sessions because we did not seem to get along, and the support was inadequate.
 I did not find support from any hotline or from school either, and that needs to change. 
I have learnt that your heart sometimes takes longer to accept the things your mind already knows. Each day you wake up is an opportunity for you to continue to speak to your heart and remind it that it will heal. Your heart is a masterpiece, and just like any painting, drawing or sculpture, it won’t heal in a day. Once you master the art of loving yourself, healing will become a habit in your life, but habits only establish with consistency. Dedicate your life to yourself, and your purpose and everything else will fall into place with God by your side. 
My mission in sharing my story would be incomplete if I did not plead with us to discard the stigma around mental health. I believe that my generation has all it takes to change the narrative. 
 For as long as I live, I will pick up all the necessary tools, and hammer on those chains that are dragging us down until we are set free.