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  • #4 in a series

"If Only"

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

For me the most haunting detail of the day my sister died is the security camera footage of her in a pawn shop in Shelbyville buying the gun. I couldn’t bring myself to actually watch these images, but in the police report it said that the video showed her coming into the store and looking around for a few minutes and then going back out. It is easy to start thinking “if only she had called someone while she sat in the car she might still be alive. If only I was there I could have saved her."

But instead, the video shows that after a short while she came into the shop again and bought the first small pistol they showed her and a box of bullets and walked quickly out.

When I first read about this footage I was in agony thinking of her sitting in her car trying to make up her mind and finally deciding to die. I can still contact that agony but mostly I mindfully step away from anything that takes me to “if only”. I am practicing complete acceptance. I am accepting that her suicide happened just as it did. I am forgiving her completely. I am forgiving myself. I am forgiving everyone.

We now know that when she left the pawn shop she drove about 10 miles on I-64, exiting at Waddy Peytona. Not far off the highway she found a farm road and drove down it until she came to a stand of trees. She pulled her Prius onto the grass, locked her purse in the car and sat down with her back against a tree. She smoked one cigarette and shot herself in the forehead between her eyes. It was about two o’clock on a beautiful October day, clear and dry, the fall colors just beginning to peak.

I had called Carlton that morning but she didn’t answer her phone. Her boyfriend later said she got up early and was in a cheerful mood at breakfast. They discussed their plans for the day and planned to meet up in the late afternoon. Then he left to run errands. When she hadn’t come home by dark he became alarmed and called my other sister. My other sister, Raleigh, called the state police and then called me. Somehow I knew it was probably already too late.

I spent a sleepless night in contact with Raleigh, Carlton’s boyfriend, the police and my daughter who was trying to locate Carlton by her cellphone. I prayed and cried and left messages on her phone and felt more helpless than I’d ever felt before.

The next day I went into the office and saw clients. I didn’t know what else to do and because I’d been away for a week training and then out of the office with a cold I felt it was my duty. Also, work was comforting and distracting and took me away from the sick dread I was mired in. Still, I was numb and in shock and nothing felt real. I knew Carlton was dead but still believed she’d somehow be found alive.

At 1 pm I got a call from Raleigh. The police had found Carlton’s body. The landowner where she’d died spotted her car and remembered hearing a shot the previous day. The police identified her and contacted us.

Raleigh and I wept together for a few minutes on that call. I told her I’d be there as soon as possible. My office mate called to cancel my afternoon clients and I went home to pack for a funeral. When I arrived my husband told me he’d already booked us flights—we’d be leaving at 6 am the following morning.

That night I had my first experiences of my sister as a dead person. I know this will sound strange and but it is what I experienced. Maybe it just demonstrates all the concepts I still have about suicide. But what I experienced was my sister as an unquiet dead person. She seemed lost in the bardo state. I felt as if she was in my house. She was afraid She was dead but not ready to leave this world but I couldn’t comfort her or advise her anymore. I didn’t know how to help her. I felt like I was losing my mind. My mindfulness practice morphed into a prayer practice. Looking back I realize that what was really happening was that the deepest grief I’d ever experienced was shaking my mind and body. In the months to come I would continue to feel that it was my sister’s ghost even though I know it was my own grief that was haunting me.

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