Things I Wish My Sister Had Known
By Jessica Orenstein
September marks the beginning of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a month that serves as a reminder that no matter who you are or your walk of life, thoughts of suicide can happen to anyone—even those closest to you.
In 2016, my sister passed away at the age of 24. She was a vibrant, smart, prolifically creative Black girl who struggled with mental health and made several suicide attempts throughout her life. In her continuous search to find her place in the world—to find a community that felt safe and accepting—she always seemed to fall short.
In the horrible wake of her passing, my family was forced to look at how our beliefs and generational norms limited her ability to create a world for herself where she felt safe and seen. A place where she could thrive. As a behavioral scientist in public health, I know suicide is caused by a number of complicated factors and that there isn’t one thing my family could have done differently to save her.
Still I cannot help but look back at my sister’s life and think of all the things I wish I could tell her. The one that tops the list, that comes to my mind constantly, is: “You are not alone. Black people deserve to find mentally safe spaces too.”
I can’t go back and tell her that, but in my work and in this moment I can share the short list of what I wish my sister had known—things that may help someone like her find their way when the path doesn’t seem clear.
There is beauty in all differences.
Black people are not a monolith, and our differences have contributed to all the things we have been able to accomplish and achieve despite racial adversity. From a young age, my sister knew she was different. She held several identities but didn’t know the beauty that could come from embracing her intersectionality. My sister believed disclosing some of her identities to her community would come at a cost, and that fear kept her silent. To name a few, my sister identified as:
- Black American
- Mexican American
- Cis-gendered female
- Creative (before being a creative was widely accepted and respected)
Many Black youth, like my sister, struggle to embrace their identities because of limiting beliefs their families and extended communities hold. For centuries after Black people were brought to this country, there has been an expectation to conform to Eurocentric standards—standards that often are not easily achieved by Black people and other people of color. Still the need to conform in order to achieve success in America runs steady in many marginalized communities that feel they must adhere in order to persevere.
That can make it difficult to explore a wider identity as a Black youth in America. But the power that can come from exploring your identity can contribute to increased self-acceptance, decreased internalization of negative thoughts and feelings, and overall better mental health. Identity exploration can help Black youth understand they are not—nor have they ever been—a monolith. There is beauty and strength in being different.
You don’t have to struggle alone.
People often feel they have to live their lives without the help of others. Fear of vulnerability, rejection, or being a burden to people who seemingly have bigger problems than your own can make you withdraw and isolate yourself at a time when you really need the support of others. I lost count of the times my sister made the conscious decision to hold things in, and it wasn’t until her emotional challenges boiled over that we knew something was wrong. I have also been there, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
There will always be times when things are just hard, and reaching out for help seems harder. Sometimes just acknowledging and understanding what you’re feeling is the biggest challenge. And if you reach out to someone, what will they say? Will they share your business with others? Will they make fun of you? What if they don’t even hear you? Those concerns are valid. I have felt all of them myself. But what is also valid and too important to get lost is that you deserve to be helped. Reaching out for help—especially within your chosen community—is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Your community can support you.
One of the challenges in exploring your identity as a young Black person can be the limiting beliefs and norms held in families and communities. Those beliefs and norms were forged in response to immeasurable struggle, though, and these communities hold a deep love for one another. Throughout American history, Black communities have steadily rallied together despite adversity. Whether it’s for human and civil rights or to increase inclusive and equitable practices within various sectors (think: education, health care, and professional spaces), the desire to uplift and create a space where all Black people are supported is perpetual.
I know my sister struggled to acknowledge and understand that help was around her. She often equated the silence of the people around her with acceptance of the norms that constrained her. What she didn’t know and couldn’t see is that her community wanted to help. Whether your community is the family you were born with or curated yourself, the friends you’ve chosen, or a spiritual or faith-based group, they care and want the best for you, even if they don’t always have the “right” words to say. You can usually find one person who will listen and help, and that is all you need.
Being confidently queer looked good on her.
My sister identified as queer, and that didn’t always sit well with our very heteronormative family and extended community. We respected her sexual orientation, but we didn’t talk about it publicly.
I realize this outlook isn’t particular to my family; many families are less welcoming to their loved ones’ differences in sexual orientation. The rules that govern this country are built on cis-heteronormative systems that are difficult to disrupt and dismantle. The outlook that any two people who are sexually and romantically interested in each other should conform to these norms can be incredibly harmful to teens’ and young adults’ mental health. Research confirms that Black LGBTQ youth face an especially high risk for decreased mental health, with 47% seriously considering suicide.
By the time my sister turned 24, she was a proud, thriving, and confident person, but it took time to get there. She consistently fought through her fear and found ways to show up as her genuine self. And my family eventually followed. We loved her, wanted the best for her, and realized the best for her was to be able to show up in all spaces authentically.
Looking back, I wish I could tell my sister how proud I was—and still am—of her. She looked up to me, but did she know I also looked up to her? She showed me that you can be afraid of what life may throw at you, yet still live courageously. My hope is that every Black person—and every person in general—is able to unapologetically find themselves, create space for what and who they love, and know there are people who want to support them through the emotional journey we call life.
Visit our Suicide Resource Center to find out about warning signs, how to know when you or someone else needs help, and how to get it.
If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor at any time.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use the chat function at 988Lifeline.org.