Life After Death
I had just celebrated my thirteenth birthday, by having a typical sleep-over party with a few of my friends. We stayed up all night playing NBA Jam on my Sega Genesis, eating junk food, and talking about our lives as eighth-graders. I had no way of knowing that I was a mere nine days from the most devastating and life-changing event of my life; I was about to face reality in a way I never imagined possible.
It was a typical Monday: November 25, 1996. I had just got home from school, to find my mom locked away in the piano room, already busy with her first student for the evening. I went into the family room to drop off my backpack, and then went into the kitchen to find something to eat. There, as per usual, I found a note from my mom asking me to cook dinner, which she had already prepared. I didn’t need to start it right away, so I went back into the family room to watch some TV. It was a little quieter than usual, since my sister was out on a first date, and I was still getting used to not having my eldest brother around since he had just gotten married earlier that year, after a whirlwind engagement following his return from serving a two-year mission for the LDS Church. While I sat there on the couch, I looked out the window into the back yard where I saw my other brother, Vic, coming home. I took a special interest in this because I hadn’t seen my brother all weekend, and I was glad to see him. Vic was sporting his usual ’90s grunge look: long bleached-blond hair with eight inches of dark roots, a goatee with a few days stubble, loose-fitting torn jeans over white long-johns, a denim jacket, and a ragged flannel shirt draped over a dark t-shirt that had seen better days. And of course there was that familiar odor of cigarettes.
Vic was the rebellious middle-child of a otherwise average Mormon family. He struggled through junior high school, getting horrible grades, acted up in class, and got himself into all sorts of trouble. He eventually dropped out of high school after years of being pushed ahead, simply because his teachers didn’t want to deal with him. He had also refused to attend church and started doing drugs with the ‘wrong crowd’. In order for him to continue living under our parents’ roof, he was required to either attend school, or work and pay rent; in either case, he had to live by the rules: no sex, drugs, or alcohol in the house. He broke the rules, and subsequently, he was kicked out of the house. I remember my mom packing a suitcase full of his things, leaving it on the front porch with a note, and having the door locks changed so he couldn’t get back in. Vic was 16 years old at that time.
As I sat there on the couch, watching as my then 17-year-old brother came in through the back door of the house, I wondered where he had been all weekend. He had been living at home again for a while at that point, though he’d only really come home to crash for the night, and take off again without having much contact with the rest of us. I heard him shut the door, and go down the stairs to the basement where we each had our bedrooms. As 5:00pm hit, I flipped the channel to watch a rerun of my favorite show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Just about that time, Vic came up the stairs, came over to me and asked, “Hey Tom, do you know where I could find a rope?” I turned around and answered, “No… have you checked the shed?” “No… Thanks.” he replied, and then headed back outside. I didn’t notice him come back in, since I was then starting to cook dinner.
About a half hour later, my dad came down stairs into the kitchen. He wasn’t sure if I was home, and so he wanted to make sure dinner was getting done. After seeing that I had already started it, he figured he’d go downstairs to the basement to get something from the deep freeze. Moments later, I heard a horrific scream come from the basement that instantly flooded me with panic. Not knowing what was going on, I ran down the stairs to find my dad running into the utility room, where we kept the tools, and grabbed what looked like large bolt-cutters. He yelled at me to not come down, and told me to go get my mom. His voice was loaded with such hysteria and urgency, that it stopped me in my tracks. I quickly turned around and ran back up the stairs to go get my mom from the piano room where she was teaching. As I ran back up, my mind started racing with possible scenarios of what could be going on. I started thinking that my dad must have broken some glass and hurt himself; that would explain why he didn’t want me to come down the stairs, and why he needed my mom. I couldn’t even imagine the horror I was about to discover.
As I ran to get my mom, I heard a loud thump come from the basement. I then burst into the piano room, interrupting the lesson, and shouted to my mom that Dad needed her downstairs. She, having already heard the scream herself, immediately got up and ran down the stairs ahead of me. By the time I got back downstairs, my mom was already headed back my way with the most horrified look on her face. She told me to go get the phone and call 9-1-1. I turned and ran back up the stairs, grabbed the cordless phone from the kitchen and started dialing, all while realizing that I had no clue what to tell the person who answers my call. So while the phone rang, I started back down the stairs, where I met my mom just as the operator started asking me what the emergency was. I quickly handed the phone over to my mom, who then told me to go help my dad. As I came to the bottom of the stairs, I took a quick mental note that I didn’t see any glass anywhere on the floor. So what could possibly have happened?
Just as I started to round the corner past the utility room, over to the undeveloped portion of the basement, I paused at the sight of my father; he was performing CPR on my dear brother, Vic. I quickly ran over to help my dad in any way I could. For a moment, I was in shock at the sight of my dad as he gave my brother mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, with tears pouring from his eyes. I then began to check for a pulse on my brother’s wrist, before realizing that his neck would be a better place to find one. I extended my hand toward Vic’s neck, and that’s when I saw the deep red indentation. My eyes quickly took notice of a piece of yellow nylon rope laying on the concrete floor next to him, and then I looked up to see the rest of the rope still tied to the exposed floor joists overhead and the knocked-over chair beside us. I finally realized what had happened; my poor dear brother had hanged himself and completed suicide.
After what seemed like a single moment that stretched on forever, the paramedics arrived, and I told them that I couldn’t find a pulse. Just then my mom came and pulled me away into the far corner of the room, held me tightly, and whispered in my ear, “Pray, with me, Tom. Pray your heart out for your brother.” And so my mother and I prayed to God like we’d never prayed before, with such complete humility as we watched the paramedics relieve my father from his desperate attempt to revive his son. We were then escorted upstairs to wait in the living room as a flood of additional paramedics and firefighters came pouring into the house. I sat there on the sofa with my parents at my side, and two scared piano students at the far end of the room. I looked out the window at the dark winter evening and saw all the emergency vehicles with their lights flashing, and thought to myself how this has all got to be part of some horrific nightmare.
In the chaos that took over the house, various phone calls were made – though I’m not entirely sure who called whom. It turns out my mom had asked her piano student if she would call my eldest brother, and to simply tell him to come home immediately. When my eldest brother arrived, along with his wife, looking anxious to learn what the emergency was, my mom walked over to him, embraced him, and told him that Vic had hanged himself in the basement. His head dropped onto our mother’s shoulder, and he sobbed. To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen him cry over anything else, but in that instant, his heart broke and anyone who saw the look on his face shared in that heartbreak.
My mom began to panic, because she didn’t know where or with whom my sister had gone on her date. My brother and his wife, who happened to know the family of the guy with whom my sister was with, then took it upon themselves to track her down by calling all of her friends to see if they knew where they went. They eventually got word to her that she needed to return home immediately, thus cutting short her first date with the man she would marry that following spring. In the mix of all the phone calls, my grandparents from Utah happened to call us just to check in; my eldest brother broke the news to them.
The paramedics then asked if anyone in the family would like to see Vic one last time before they take him away. I was too distraught by that time, and so I decided not to accompany my dad and brother, who went down together. This is a decision I truly regret; had I only known how much I would later long for even one last look at my dear brother while there was still warmth in his body, I would have gone down there and held on to him until the paramedics pried me off of him. I cherish every memory of him, even the heart-wrenching and dreadful last ones.
When my sister eventually arrived home, with her date in tow, I was at the door to greet her with a hug. I was in need of an embrace from a sibling, but she, not being aware of what was going on, did not appreciate this, as it only added to her own anxiety. (Which is something that she told me years later.) I remember her anger that she didn’t get a chance to see Vic before they took his body away. She was also in a bit of denial, as she couldn’t believe that her brother, whom she had seen only hours earlier, when she and her boyfriend had talked to him about possible activities they could do on their date, was dead. He had seemed perfectly normal, even pleasant during their encounter.
My brother’s suicide crippled my family. My father, having discovered and cut down Vic’s hanging body, has never quite been the same. He shut down and became unresponsive. The mere mention of my brother’s name would cause him to relapse and undo any progress made. It took years before I finally felt as though he showed some resemblance to the father I once knew. Add to this that within 12 months, I had lost two siblings to marriage, and one to suicide; I felt completely alone. I even took a week off of school, just so I could stay home with my mom, and I even slept on the floor of my parents’ room for weeks.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the death of my brother planted the seeds of doubt in my mind about the Mormon religion I was raised in, and my belief in God in general. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “How could God allow my brother to take his own life and hurt my true-believing and faithful Mormon family? Aren’t we supposed to be rewarded for our faithfulness?” I realized that my brother wasn’t on the straight and narrow path of righteousness that the rest of my family was on, but it didn’t make sense that any kind of punishment that he deserved should be so harsh and destructive to the rest of my family. After all, the second Article of Faith reads, “…men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression”, which has always been taught to me as meaning, “each individual will be punished for their own sins, and not for anyone else’s.”
Though I had started to question God’s sense of justice, I quickly buried those thoughts under the highly appealing notion that, because of the Plan of Salvation, I can be reunited with my brother in the afterlife (provided I live worthy enough). For years after Vic’s death, the LDS children’s song, Families Can Be Together Forever, was my favorite and always brought me to tears. I was desperate to hang onto the idea that Vic’s existence, and my relationship with him, wasn’t over, and was just suspended for what would surely feel like no time at all once we’re on the other side of the veil. This promise of reunification of families, is a powerful LDS doctrine that is sure to appeal to anyone who’s lost a loved one as I have. For me, it eventually became the only reason I left one foot in the door of Mormonism for so long.
Years after my brother’s death, I found myself in a similar situation to his: I had strayed from the straight and narrow, became inactive in the church, engaged in ‘sexual sin’, and was subsequently kicked out of my parents’ house. Fortunately for me, I had completed high school with honors, and was working a well-paying labour job. I also had the loving support of my girlfriend and her parents, which, at times, was the only thing keeping me going. The guilt, shame, and abandonment I felt during this time (which I often refer to as my year of hell), was nearly unbearable. For the first time in my goody-goody life, I felt like a disappointment to my family. It was at this point that I finally started to understand what my brother must have been feeling, and how it would be so easy to get mixed up in drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism (which I managed to avoid). Feeling abandoned by the ones that are supposed to love and support you no matter what happens, is a completely devastating and emotionally damaging situation to be in. I now know what Vic must have gone through, and I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.
After an on-again-off-again relationship with the Mormon faith I was raised in, I have finally been able to accept that I do not believe in Mormonism, or even a god. Although, it wasn’t even the letting go of the belief in God that was the most troubling for me; it was that I wouldn’t get that chance to be reunited with my brother in an afterlife. I grieved this loss almost as much as the loss of my brother himself. The wishful thinking of an afterlife is what prevented me from getting to know who my brother really was over the past 15 years, because I figured that I’d just meet him on the other side and get to know him then. Now I look back at the years I held onto this belief as being nothing more than wasted time that I could have spent talking to his friends, researching his life, and trying to understand why he felt that suicide was his only escape from his emotional pain and suffering.
Now that I’ve finally accepted my that I will not get that chance to talk to Vic again, I’ve made an effort to track down and talk to a few of Vic’s closest friends, in hopes that they can help me create a more complete picture of who my brother was, what he was like, what his views were, and why he decided to end his life. I have come to learn so much about Vic and his friends that I never knew before. I am incredibly grateful that I am finally in a place in my life where I’m willing to hear these things without feeling compelled to judge him or his friends for their youthful explorations and poor decisions. I don’t think I would have ever been able to accept what I’ve learned if I hadn’t let go of the judgmental and condemning mindset associated with my Mormon upbringing, and to understand the kind son, brother, and friend Victor Jenson really was.