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Michelle Peek: Joining the conversation for a loved one

Michelle Peek
2/12/2013 1:54:57 PM
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TSN joins the conversation on mental health with the emotional original documentary Talk To Me: The Story Of James Patrick Peek - produced in support of the third annual nationwide Bell Let's Talk Day on Tuesday.

In Talk To Me, Gemini Award-winning TSN Field Producer Mike Farrell sits down with his best friend's family to talk about the loss of their son and brother to suicide, and how sport helped them cope and inspire change in their community.

As part of the conversation, Michelle Peek reflects on the loss of her brother and the impact it had on her family in a personal article on TSN.ca.

"James is dead."

No three words affected a greater power over me than those heard when I was told my brother died. Just like that, too. No warning, no preamble, no foreshadowing, no hello. Or goodbye.

Appropriate, really, given the situation. This is, for many, what the suicide of a loved one feels like: no heads-up, no time to process. It is a shock to the system, from which there is no real recovery, just the hideous aftershock. Looking back, there were signs - unheeded and unrecognizable, but they were there. He stopped talking.

Let me clarify: he was seventeen and a smart-ass, really gifted with words. So when I say he stopped talking, I mean he became more abrupt, more angry, more snippety, and less willing to play along. He also stopped caring about his appearance; stopped taking care of himself; stopped trying at school. Never all at once - it was never that obvious - but intermittently. He stopped bugging me, too. We're only a year and a half apart, me his younger sister with two other brothers to worry about. I figured, hey, he wants to be left alone, suits me just fine. He slept a lot, too.    

One night, I'm told many years after his death, shortly before he died, he came home drunk. Around this time I also learned that James, despite confident outward appearances, was very sensitive. Even as a baby. He held tight to the security of my mom's legs as a toddler. He was just one of those people who felt deeply, who was easily wounded, who really took things to heart. As a teenager on the verge of becoming a young man, he learned to hide this. Like all boys do. Correction: like we teach our boys to. Anyway, I was saying. That night he came home drunk, he cried, and he opened up to my mom. He said to her: "the pressure to be perfect, it's too much." In the note he left behind for us only weeks later, he spoke of the pressure he was under - in school, in relationships, in general.

He was a worrier; he internalized the extreme pressure to be, what, perfect? He was a beautiful and wonderful (even if sarcastic to the extreme) young man, funny and full of spunk, and he didn't need to be anything, just himself, but he didn't know it. He took the weight of the world around him and the things he struggled with deep into himself. You'd never know this if you met him. You probably wouldn't so much as suspect it. But my mom knew her baby; she knew James was an extremely sensitive soul, with a loving heart, and a propensity to be wounded just like the rest of us. He just didn't show it. Or, worse, we - and maybe I really mean I - didn't see it. So, one day he left school early, completed his homework, and hanged himself in our garage, not knowing how to let anyone in on his pain. My younger brother, Sean, 13 at the time, found him after school.

Just months after he died, my mom - a quiet, shy, and sensitive soul herself - was sick of the silence we were observing surrounding suicide when we would speak of James's death, of the pressure to bury this kind of thing deep in the recesses of some forbidden attic, for fear of shame and judgment.

Why would he kill himself?

What's wrong with that family?

So she proposed an awareness-raising event. My dad, much more outspoken and outgoing, was momentarily against it. He didn't want to mobilize our grief to some end. It didn't take much for him to see that she was right, and he supported my mom, who, in turn, wanted to do right by her remaining three kids and send us the message, loud and clear, that we ought to talk about this. For someone so painfully shy herself, this was huge. But she was angry and heartbroken, and sick to death of the silence surrounding suicide. As she should have been - she lost her son to it. And so, given James's love of golf, we started a charity golf tournament in his memory, held every year on June 30, James's birthday. In 13 years, proceeds from the tournament - over $300,000 - have gone toward innovative initiatives in mental health services, including programs that have helped us personally. 

We all dealt with the death of our James in different ways. My mom's grief was raw and loud. I envied her ability to feel it so immediately. Watching her suffer was unbearable, but I didn't worry about her; I knew she'd make it because she was feeling it. I wavered between disbelief and shock for much of my teenage years (I was 15 when it happened), and struggled with bouts of depression that were sometimes serious, but most of the time manageable. I still do.
My brothers Ryan and Sean and my dad all struggled in their own ways. I worried constantly about them. No one survives the suicide of a loved one and learns its lessons immediately; we too found it hard to talk, to communicate the wretched pain of our loss. We fought, we screamed, we hurt ourselves and each other.

But we also kept loving and trying, and I think this was in no small part due to the profoundly supportive community that gathered round us. These same folks ran the tournament, where once a year we celebrated James's love of life and sports, and reminded ourselves to go gently. The tournament also gave us permission to talk and to grieve, long after it was considered acceptable by the rest of the world - the world that keeps pace, keeps spinning, regardless of the losses that freeze us in time.

Aside from the immediate aftermath of James's death, I barely saw my dad cry. I was told he had his moments, he dealt with it in his own time, in his own way, but I worried. Every year at the tournament, we invite golfers and their friends and family back to the house, where we eat and drink and let it all out. And every year my dad addresses the crowd. A year hasn't gone by that he's been able to make it past the first word or two without breaking down. He opens up about James and his death, making visible the immense pain it continues to cause him while always careful to remember and to celebrate the good that was lost. And this, to me, is what it is all about. Sharing what feels, and often is, unshareable. And it is the responsibility of the rest of us to create safe spaces for such self-exposures, such gestures of reaching out, to take place. I admire my dad - and my mom - for their willful acts of vulnerability, for their willingness to share their pain.

They talk because James couldn't. And can't.

These acts of baring oneself are important, undervalued, and too often mistaken for weakness. Especially among boys and men. So I guess I, or we, want to talk, and want you to talk too. We'll continue this tournament as long as we can, because it's our way of joining the conversation; after all this time, we too are self-conscious, hesitant, and more than a little scared, but we have tremendous hope.

For more information, please visit www.jpmemorial.org and info@jpmemorial.org.

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