“I could not save my sister.” – Eleni Pinnow

Obituaries are monsters to write. They are stuffed with hidden things; all the joy and suffering of a person’s life concealed in tight words. Often when someone dies from drugs or suicide how they died isn’t mentioned at all. Words like “suddenly,” or “after a long illness” are used, the details brushed past, leaving the mystery of that person’s life even more obscure.

When loved ones are more honest about mental health and behavioral struggles that end in death, the person’s life can vibrate more, can reach out. Their story matters, especially the dark parts. There is still a stigma to suicide and depression. Shame still amplifies the pain for everyone involved. The dark parts matter, the candid discussion matters because there are people still alive who sense the hushed voices, the things left unsaid, and bury their own struggles even deeper – sink further into their own secret hells.

“Depression lied to my sister,” professor Eleni Pinnow wrote in a piece for the Washington Post after her candid obituary for her sister Aletha Meyer Pinnow went viral. “I had to be honest. I had to tell the truth.”

The obituary she wrote for her sister Aletha was the best thing she could have done. It can’t save her sister, and it won’t soothe her loss, but it’s reached so many people and made them feel less alone.

“Aletha was fond of making her mom laugh until she literally cried and helping her dad do anything and everything. It is impossible to sum up a woman so caring, genuine, vivacious, hilarious, and sparkly. Those qualities were so obvious to everyone around her. Aletha was her family’s whole entire world. She enriched the lives of countless colleagues and students. Unfortunately, a battle with depression made her innate glow invisible to her and she could not see how desperately loved and valued she was.”

Aletha, a special education teacher, was only 31-years-old when she took her life on February 20, 2016. She left a note instructing her sister to alert authorities and not open the door herself. She also asked that her family “not feel sad, I’m not worth it.” That’s the heart of the lie depression tells.

I” stood on the porch shivering from cold and sheer terror,” Eleni writes about discovering her sister’s note. “I didn’t just feel alone. I felt like I was in a vacuum in the middle of space with everything I knew being pulled away from me. The universe was suddenly a very vast place and I was very, very, very alone.”

You can take yourself out of life, but you can’t erase yourself from the minds and hearts of those who love you. Eleni’s obituary, as well as her follow-up essay in The Washington Post, directly address the pain her sister’s deadly mental health struggles inflicted on her family while treating Aletha and her pain with compassion and validation. 

Eleni and Aletha

Eleni and Aletha

“If the family were to have a big pie in the sky dream,” Eleni wrote in closing of her sister’s obituary. “We would ask for a community-wide discussion about mental health and to pull the suffocating demon of depression and suicide into the bright light of day. Please help us break the destructive silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.Shining a light can’t eradicate depression, but it can make drive away the shame. It can make us all feel a bit less alone.

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