Desperately wanting answers, learning to cope without

On September 16, 2017, my life was turned upside down. My little sister, my best friend in the entire world, committed suicide. If you have ever been in the same position that I’m in, you may not want to read this – and for that, I don’t blame you. If you’ve never had to face the horrible truth of someone you love deciding to take their own life, then consider yourself lucky because the statistics are astonishing. The google search I literally did just 10 seconds ago, produced these results. Every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide. For every death by suicide, there are an additional 20 attempts.

These stats literally make my heart sink down into my gut. My hands are shaking as I type. Throughout the past year I’ve thought about sharing my story, then I’ve decided not to. I’ve changed my mind hundreds of times. But now we’re here. It’s been an entire year since my beautiful sister left this world, and as a tribute to her, these words need to be written. Maybe they’ll save your life. Maybe they’ll save your friend’s life – I just hope, with every ounce of my soul, that these words you’re about to read save someone’s life and/or help someone get through the toughest times of their life.

The memories are still so vivid, I can see them in my mind as I type. It was a Saturday night. I found myself in my mom’s living room, pacing back and forth with my 4-week-old in my arms, listening to every word that came out of her mouth. A bullet. A teeny tiny bullet was the culprit. Twenty-eight years of life, over in a flash. The police were ruling it a suicide, but why? Why in the world would my baby sister kill herself? Especially when her beautiful 10-month-old baby girl, and the pups she adored, were in the room next to her?

The days following her death will haunt me forever. My brain would not shut off. It raced, uncontrollably. It ran scenario after scenario through my head. Who would have done this to her? Who would have ended the life of a beautiful, young mother, still so full of happiness and adventure? Her smile brightening every room she walked in. It just didn’t make sense. Suicide did not make any sense.

Forty-one hours after her death, I sat in the police station and listened to whatever details the detectives could release. After an eight-hour autopsy, they declared her death a suicide. No foul play that they were aware of at that time, just the loss of a young life way too soon. I left that police station feeling completely deflated. What now? What happens next?

Guilt. Blame.

I spoke with her just hours before the incident. Never in a million years did I think that was the last time I would hear her voice. My best friend in the whole world told me she loved me for the very last time. She hung up the phone, without a goodbye, with so much pain and agony that she didn’t feel she could even unload any of it onto me — her big sister, the one who had helped her so many times in the past. Why was this time any different?

The police said the autopsy showed she put a handgun up to her head and pulled the trigger. I’ll never know why, without her here to tell us, everything is just speculation. I do have my own suspicions of what happened that day. I will tell you that if her head was playing games on her, the way mine was playing games on me in those hours after her death, that I too would have desperately wanted that to end. I will tell you that if those empty bottles of vodka they found hidden in the closet were her way of coping with her pain, her way of self-medicating, then I could see how that pain crept back when the bottles were empty. I will tell you that if she suffered from postpartum depression and was not aware of the symptoms or the need to seek help, then I could understand how mere survival was a struggle and how raising a child seemed unbearable.

Her pain must have been so incredibly deep, yet I had no idea. I was her best friend in the whole world, and I was clueless. I knew she was going through some big life changes, but she had a path laid out. She had goals, ambitions, determination – she was the kind of soul who didn’t let anyone stand in her way.

Anyone but herself.

Once the rest of our family was notified, I received a call from my cousin Brad. I answered the phone matter-of-factly, “So, I guess you heard the news?”

Instead of the typical, “I’m so sorry,” response, he took a different approach.

“Andrea, it is not your fault,” he stated.

“Ya, Brad, I know,” I said out loud while internally blaming myself. I was the last one to hear her voice – I was the last one to put any reasoning I could into her head, how on earth did I miss this?

“Andrea, it is not your fault,” he stated again.

I stood in silence, listening to the words he was saying but not fully internalizing them.

“Andrea, it is not your fault.”

“But Brad, we are trained on suicide,” I said.

“It is not your fault.”

The tears started to flow, slowly picking up speed the longer he stayed silent. He just listened. He listened in complete silence as the salty droplets rolled off my cheeks and landed on the wood flooring beneath my feet.

I hadn’t realized it, but I had been carrying a whole lot of blame. Brad knew exactly what I needed to hear.

My cousin Brad is also known as Senior Master Sgt. Brad Gardebrecht from the 133rd Airlift Wing out of Minnesota. He’s not only family by blood, he’s also family in the Air National Guard. He helped me more that day than he will ever know. Somehow he knew exactly what I would be feeling, and exactly what I needed to hear.

We oftentimes forget that the training we receive in the Air National Guard is not black and white. The suicide awareness training we receive teaches us what signs to look for, but it doesn’t teach us how to handle situations once they have happened. It doesn’t teach us how to move on with our lives. Instead, the training we receive teaches us how to be good Airmen. It teaches us how to look out for one another. It teaches us to reach out to our fellow Airmen and provide support when they need it the most.

My sister is dead. My best friend is gone forever. That won’t change. I will spend the rest of my life missing her. There will always be a piece of me that is gone. But, to every low point in our lives, no matter how low that point goes, there is a high point we’ve either missed altogether – or one that is about to spring itself above the horizon at any moment. I had 28 amazing years with my best friend in the entire world. The things she taught me and the experiences we had together, will be with me until the end of my time.

As members of the United States military, we make up less than 1 percent of our nation’s population. The paths we take in life vary, but as the roads intertwine with each other we build a bond closer than any other group in the world. Together, we are American Airmen. Together, we can face any obstacle that comes our way.


About Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode

Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode is a photojournalist for the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wisconsin.