My brother John and I grew up doing nearly everything together.
We are only sixteen months apart and we lived in the middle nowhere, so that meant we were each other’s best friends for a long time. My parents would probably disagree, but I don’t really remember fighting that much. We just got along. Growing up we made a lot of deals, “You play Barbie’s with me, then I’ll play cars with you”, “You help me clean my room, then I’ll help you clean your room”. I was always first, can you tell I was the older sister?
We probably became the closest in high school. When I started driving, I often heard from my parents “You can go, but John has to go with you”. John quickly took on the “big brother” role in my life. Although he was younger than me, he stood a full 5 inches taller than me. I remember while we were growing up he spent years measuring himself up to me eagerly awaiting the day he would be taller than me and boy he flew right past me. He talked to me about girls and I helped him style his hair for school. Our clothes dryer was in our detached garage and he would always walk with me to get my clothes when it was dark because I was scared.
Nearly all of my childhood memories include him.
It’s the way it will always be and I treasure each one of those precious memories now. I share them often with my own children as I watch their relationships develop.
Between 2001 and 2010 John graduated from UTI, got married, and settled down with his wife and two children. During this time, I would often spend nights at his place when my husband Joe was gone at work. Joe and John had a lot in common and whenever we would go visit John, they would disappear into the garage to talk shop. Or whatever it is men talk about in garages.
We vacationed together, celebrated birthdays together, and did life together.
2011 brought hardship for my brother and my sister in law. She had discovered some infidelity on his part and he admitted to an addiction. They both began to seek help through therapy and some support groups at the church, but after a couple years and despite all of their efforts, they decided to separate. Christmas Eve 2013 was the last time I saw my brother. He started slowly pulling away from our family after that last holiday, saying he needed to focus on repairing his marriage. The beginning of 2014 saw my brother and sister-in-law in the beginning stages of divorce. He was still maintaining his distance, not responding to texts or phone calls, while we tried so hard to give him the space he said he needed through this season.
In February 2014, I talked to him on the phone. There were things he wanted to explain and my sister heart broke because he was in so much pain. I cried through most of that phone call. I was so glad to be talking to him on the phone and I missed him. I just wanted my brother back. I wanted to speak up and say more, but I approached that conversation with so much caution. I was so afraid of saying something to upset him. I didn’t want to lose him.
March 23, 2014, my mom called and told me that John was threatening to end his life.
He had texted a suicide note to my sister-in-law and positioned himself in the middle of the desert. Three hours later with helicopters in the air, my parents, his friends, and police on the side of the road, my brother died by suicide.
I was home alone with my then, two-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son while my husband was at work. I had been on the phone off and on with my parents for the last three hours and was waiting for the call saying he’d come off the mountain and that he was okay. Instead, the call came from my husband. Although my dad called him first so he could home to tell me about my brother, my husband knew I was sitting at home waiting so he told me right away.
I fell to the floor into this place of utter devastation.
A moment where I felt completely empty. I felt like I had nothing left. The tears were heavy and the weight of the words “Your brother is no longer with us” were even heavier. I had sat on the couch for four hours and prayed for a miracle. I prayed for John to walk down off that mountain and to seek help. That miracle didn’t come and my brother was gone. I remember thinking it’s not real. It can’t be real. This happens to other people’s family, not mine. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I have reflected on those last three months of John’s life a lot over the years, wondering if I would do anything differently if I could do it again, and I don’t think I would. The truth is, he scared me. I was afraid of losing him, of him not talking to me anymore, and he didn’t “feel” like himself to me. But then there’s also a piece of me that wishes I would have just stopped by his house and hugged him. Not to say anything, not to demand answers or force him to talk, just hug him.
After John’s death, faith became real to me.
Having faith wasn’t a mere greeting card sentiment or something you say to make someone feel better. It became a daily choice. I had to struggle with the tension between hope and despair…something I STILL have to do. John’s been gone for 5 years and sometimes it still doesn’t feel real. Why is this MY story? Why did John feel like his was over? I will never truly know the answers to these questions this side of heaven. Having peace about this didn’t happen right away, but it did come.
“But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.” Psalm 5:11
I was walking down a path I would have never chosen for myself. My feet certainly wouldn’t have wandered here, but in this tragedy, I had an opportunity. I didn’t see it at the time, all I knew then was that I was choosing the next best decision and leaning into God. I had an opportunity to take refuge in the God I sing to every weekend, the God I pray to every day, and the God I declare as my Savior. I have a natural tendency to want to control everything about my life. When this “bubble” of perceived protection was shattered, I began to realize how little I actually had control over. This is when I drew nearer to God, taking refuge in his protection. This has without question lead me into a deeper relationship with God. And made my faith stronger.
The scriptures started to come to life:
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7
It was how I functioned that week after John died, not sure of his salvation but just trusting in God that it’s not my job and him giving me peace.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
This was shown to me in the way our friends drove up from San Diego at 11:00 the night John died to help us the next day. I found groceries and flowers at my door. An anonymous friend sent us a house cleaner. My friend Heidi sat with me on the couch and folded my laundry with me. My friend Deidre sent me a scripture every single day. All because of community.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27
This was how I felt peace and calmness and his loving arms wrapped around me when I wasn’t even praying. At all. It took me a few weeks/months before I could. I didn’t have anything to say. I sat in silence with the Lord. But the Holy Spirit was interceding for me.
God called me to write and to speak.
God gave me the words to a children’s book which then led to me writing about John’s death and mental health. I have spoken on discussion panels regarding mental health and suicide. I have been able to have conversations with others who have lost loved ones to suicide and God keeps showing up with opportunities for me to comfort others through grief as He has comforted me.
The reality of mental health is that there isn’t a one size fits all approach.
I don’t know why my brother died. The reality of mental health is that there isn’t a one size fits all approach. But do you know what does help? Awareness. Not being afraid to talk about it. Sharing stories like this so that maybe one person who is struggling will reach out for help. Or one family relationship will be repaired because the stakes are high.
I am in therapy to continually learn more about myself and the ways to take care of my mental, spiritual, and physical health. I am sharing more openly about the struggles my brother had, my faith journey through it all, processing the grief now, and just reminding others to give themselves and others grace.
You are loved.
April Dillow is a wife, mother, business owner, and author. She published her first children’s book in 2016. She owns and operates www.thestampedlily.com, a small jewelry business she runs from home. She now writes on grief, loss, and community, among other topics via the platform God’s given her through her creative business. April uses her writing and her jewelry designing as creative outlets to help inspire and encourage others.