June 8, 2018

Chris, Can You Hear Me? Our Whole World Needs to Talk

This past Saturday marked the first anniversary of my brother-in-law Chris’ suicide. My sister called me to ask if I could spend Sunday with her and my now 12-year-old nephew, Drew, and 9-year-old niece, Serena. We spent a beautiful day hiking at Land’s End along the San Francisco coast.

Hiking with my sister, niece and nephew in San Francisco.

Chris loved to hike, he loved nature and he loved his family. I know that 100 percent for sure.

I do not know why he chose to commit suicide.
I do not know why he didn’t tell anybody about his pain.
I do not know why he shot himself in the chest.
I do not know why he did it in his home, where my sister and niece could discover his bloody, lifeless body.
I do not know why he left us.

My brother-in-law Chris and family.
I just know that one year later, it still hurts like hell. Suicide — a selfish act that multiplies the pain 1 million times for everyone who cares for you. I search for answers by asking people who knew Chris, how they are doing? I do care, but surreptitiously, I am also seeking answers and ways for me to deal with this grief, this darkness inside me, this heavy heart that beats faster every time I see his two beautiful children.

Recently, I asked Chris’ best friend during dinner, “How are you feeling since the loss of Chris?” He looked me straight in the eyes, pursed his lips and said, “Chris left us. We didn’t lose him.” I could feel his pain transferred across the table.

Clearly, his BFF, and all of us touched by Chris’ charisma, kindness and energy, are still in pain a year later.

This week, we lost two legends: fashion designer Kate Spade and foodie, chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain from apparent suicides. The news of their tragedies triggered my grief — I couldn’t stop crying today.

I awoke this morning and found out about Bourdain’s death via Instagram. I wept in bed. I pulled myself up and headed to my CrossFit class, hoping to work out the pain, and cried in the car all the way to the gym.

On the way back home afterward, I spoke to my soul sister, Kala, who called to check in on me (she and I have soul connections). She wondered how I was doing after the news broke about Spade and Bourdain. We talked about stories of other recent suicides in our communities and how others have chosen to leave us.

After our short call, I prepared for a meeting then jumped in the shower. When I was drying off, I suddenly lost it. I couldn’t stop crying. I still have more questions than answers, but I do know this: people are hurting and we need to do something about depression and suicide. It’s OK to talk about it, though so difficult.

I wanted to write a letter to Chris, but the tears stopped me. I couldn’t even see the computer screen. So I pulled out my camera and created this video diary and spoke to Chris. I am also speaking to everyone in my family, everyone touched by Chris’ life and everyone who has been touched by suicide and find it hard to talk to people about it. I am sharing this video with Chris because I know he can hear me from above and I wanted to share it with you to let you know my life, your life, our lives aren’t as perfect as we paint in our curated Instagram boxes:
Chris passed when he was 52. His absence has amplified my awareness of the present moment. I turned 40 this past January and was pretty proud of how I handled the death of Chris. Both of my brothers told me how proud they were of me for showing up the way I did for the kids. I am a GSD person — you know, “get shit done.”

Immediately after my sister called me the evening of June 2, 2017 — minutes after discovering Chris’ body — I flew out to Florida, hugged the kids, prepared for the funeral and helped pack and move their belongings to Sacramento, where the rest of our family lived. I took my nephew and niece back with me to California and watched them for two weeks so my sister could clean out her home, close her business and say her goodbyes. I even came up with a list of 20 things to do to help her family readjust to their new life in Sacramento — and adjust to their new reality — without Chris. And hardest of all, I dealt with the family drama that comes with tragedy and loss.


Although I’m the biggest promoter of self-care, I know I wanted to, and did, take care of the kids and my sis more than I took care of myself. So it wasn’t until a month after my big 4-0 that I became riddled with sadness. Grief had set in. I realized I wasn’t taking care of myself as much as I should have and the heartache finally caught up with me. I’m still dealing with it now, the best way I know how:

1. I work out.
2. I eat well.
3. I feed my soul by being around people who nourish my soul.
4. I talk about how I’m feeling — this was the hardest thing to do. I’m not good at it, but I’m talking about it.
5. I let myself be sad, then think about the blessings and love that came from the experience.

I admit, it’s hard for me to talk about how I feel about Chris’ death — afraid that I would be judged for being mad at him, my sister, or anybody else who may have been able to help. There is a stigma around suicide, mental illness, mental health and grief.

And while I still have more questions than answers, I think it would be healthier if we opened up and started a dialogue around how we are feeling. We are not alone in what we’re going through. It’s OK to reach out for help and share your emotions and not hide them. SO, I am sharing my story of suicide and the grief I’m still experiencing.

Healing is organic and each of us deal with it in our own way. Some of us seek solitude and nature, while others want to keep busy and be around people, or both. But I urge you to talk about your feelings and let others know how you feel.

Since this tragedy, parents have asked me how they should talk to their kids about suicide or other difficult topics. “Should we tell them white lies?” “Should we tell them part of the story?” “Should we tell them at all?”

Shortly after Chris’ passing, I wrote a blog after doing research and seeking answers, to help other parents and guardians. I asked my friends who are psychologists and psychiatrists and penned this blog on how to talk to your kids about suicide in hopes it will help begin the conversation.


If you are going through depression and don’t feel you have people you can talk to, there is help — National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255.

You’re not alone. There is hope. You CAN get through this.

Love,
Toan

P.S. Chris, while we are still here on earth grappling with why you physically left us, I know you will forever be in our hearts. You still have a major impact on us, including my zest for adventure, love of nature, crazy obsession with physical fitness and, of course, moving my furniture around every other week. As Serena “Sissy” says, “Love you to the moon and back.”