On a busy school night, then-freshman Erin Downey’s phone glowed to life. Her brother Dominic asked if she had played one of his video games. Distracted, Downey ignored his text and went to bed.
Downey said that decision — to silence her phone, to ignore a text — changed Downey’s life forever. That night, March 1, 2016 around 3 a.m., Downey’s 23-year-old brother Dominic died by suicide. Unlike most freshmen experiencing college as a new beginning, Downey’s next four years at UT were defined by an inextricably painful and never-ending process — grief from suicide.
“It’s different because they chose to do it,” Downey said. “It really is disorienting. It’s debilitating. It’s like all these things we could’ve picked up. I could’ve answered the phone or if I texted back … maybe it wouldn’t be like it is now.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death behind unintentional injuries among the college-age population. John Jordan is a clinical psychologist and grief therapist with a specialization in suicide grief. Jordan said grief from suicide is particularly difficult because it contains all the elements of grief with the added question of why.
“Collectively, in society, we don’t have a good narrative about why people die by suicide,” Jordan said. “It’s a very frightening, mysterious cause of death because we’re all wired to want to live. And suicide lies in the fact of that.”
In the wake of her loss, political communications senior Downey, an A student, watched her grades, friendships, family relations and school life slip away. She couldn’t eat, sleep, read, focus or go to class, and her anxiety skyrocketed.
“I’m a totally different person, and I often don’t recognize myself,” Downey said. “I’m painfully awkward now, and it’s like I can’t communicate with people anymore. (Grief) seriously changes your brain.”
Downey said she, her mother and three sisters are at different stages in the grief process, creating a disconnect between them. Downey described her grief process as a complete transformation of self and cognition.
“I used to know what all my sisters (were) thinking, and now I don’t know what anyone is thinking,” Downey said. “And it’s like my mom’s a different person. She’s struggling so bad it feels like I lost my mom. I lost my sisters, I lost me, too.”
Jordan described the most difficult aspect of grief from suicide as the idea that suicide was a choice made by the person who died. This idea is debatable, Jordan said, given factors like altered brain chemistry, drug use and personal relationships that may make suicide seem like the only remaining option.
“People don’t choose to die by cancer. They don’t choose to die in car accidents,” Jordan said. “Suicide is the only cause of death that people choose to die, or it looks like they’ve chosen to die.”
Downey’s eyes welled up as she described her brother — an artist, writer, brother, son and selfless friend. He would give someone the shirt off his back and never shy away from helping a friend. He held art shows for his work and was pursuing an English degree at Texas State University. Dominic had bipolar disorder.
“If people say, ‘Aren’t you so mad at him? He’s so selfish.’ It makes my blood boil,” Downey said. “Because he was everything but selfish. He was just really in so much pain.”
Because Downey receives grief accommodations from Services for Student with Disabilities, she is able to leave class or get an excused absence for her condition, but most cases are up to the professor’s discretion. After the third anniversary of Dominic’s death this year, Downey described experiences with professors who were less than empathetic — indirectly communicating that it was time to get over it.
“It is a fact of life people die and people have depression,” Downey said. “(But) I feel like at UT there needs to be something that addresses this … I went back to school a week after he died just because I didn’t want to be behind.”
The Counseling and Mental Health Center does not offer suicide-specific grief resources, but individual counseling as well as a grief and loss support group are available.
“If you’re dealing with grief or loss, give us a call,” Katy Redd, associate director at CMHC, said. “If the grief and loss support group isn’t a great fit (or) is full, we can work with you to figure out what might be a good alternative resource.”
If the support group is full, Redd urges students to still call the counseling center and explore alternative resources.
Despite available resources, Downey said she still feels she is at an extreme disadvantage.
“It still feels like I’m on an unequal playing field with all students just because (of what) I’m going through,” Downey said. “You could never expect this would happen to you.”
David Cox, speaker, life coach and co-author of “Aftershock: Help, Hope and Healing in the Wake of Suicide,” has committed his life to counseling and suicide intervention since his father died by suicide when he was a child.
Cox said grief from suicide is unique because it induces a sense of abandonment, betrayal and guilt from surviving while the loved one did not.
“Suicide is the only manner of death that immediately predisposes the survivors to the same manner of death,” Cox said. “If my father had died in a car crash, I would not be more predisposed to dying in a wreck, but (with suicide) … it becomes a coping pattern.”
Downey said she experienced her own suicidal ideation and subsequent hospitalization in the wake of Dominic’s passing.
“With suicide you have so much guilt,” Downey said. “If somebody has cancer you have the guilt of ‘Could I have taken them to more doctors appointments?’ With suicide, it’s like, ‘Was I just a really awful sister? Were we a bad family?’”
These questions will likely never be answered — and can literally eat you alive, Downey said. When asked how she coped, Downey responded simply, “I didn’t.”
Three years have passed since Dominic’s death. Leading up to the anniversary, Downey experienced a wave of depression as if her body remembered the trauma. Not a day goes by where Downey does not remember her brother and the vacuum of pain created by his loss.
“He was the kindest and most selfless person,” Downey said. “And it just tortures you. It tortures you that you couldn’t save them.”
Dominic received a full honorary degree from his professors at Texas State. The degree was sent to Downey’s family framed in the mail. He was set to graduate in May of 2016.