Eilis Downey on life after the tragic death by suicide of her sister Lynn
Before Lynn died, Eilis and her younger sister lived in each other’s pockets. Four years between them, unlike their brother who comes between them in age, they shared a temperament.
“My brother’s real quiet, me and Lynn are… not,” Eilis laughs now. They worked in the same salon; Eilis is a make-up artist, Lynn was training to become a hairdresser. They still lived together in their mother’s home in the Dublin suburb of Knocklyon, and they socialised together.
The night five years ago that Lynn died, they had been out together at a work awards event. Eilis had been nominated.
“She was a massively outgoing person, very, very social,” Eilis says of her sister. “Extremely kind, would do anything for anyone.” A “social bee,” she adds that Lynn didn’t like her own company.
“Didn’t like being by herself. And was always like that, since she was really small. She had a soft spot for a troubled case, loved a fixer-upper.”
Lynn suffered from very high levels of anxiety, Eilis explains. “She did talk about it. She was good at telling people that she wasn’t feeling good. Other people’s opinions really mattered to her. Like, their opinion of her, her actions and stuff. I suppose we’re all a bit like that aren’t we?”
“She would have talked, but at the same time she would have been like, ‘ah, but it’s grand, I’m fine. I’m not, but I’m fine’. Very Irish, isn’t it like?” Eilis smiles gently.
Looking back, Eilis, who was twenty-six the year her sister, then twenty-two, died, says that her younger sibling had “so much on her little shoulders” at the time of her death.
The aftermath of a difficult break-up was lingering. She was worried about other family members, and approaching the finals of her training.
“And she took everyone else’s stuff on board on top of that as well. She was always worried about sorting other people’s problems. I think at the time she had withdrawn a little bit from talking about herself. When I think back on it, like,” Eilis adds.
“At the time, you don’t really see it. Hindsight’s 20/20.”
That night, Lynn had gone home three hours earlier than her sister as she was working the next day. But when Eilis arrived back she was till up, opening her taxi door as she reached the house.
“I brought her home a McDonald’s, in case she was still up. When I think back on it, she was bouncing off the walls. She was really hyper, jumping around the room.”
Lynn wanted to sleep in Eilis’ room. “And I was like, ‘Get out of my room, I’m going to bed.’ And I kicked her out of my room. I remember feeling bad. Obviously now I’m like, why did I do that… I think she was looking for me to keep her there, and wanted to stay there, because she knew what she was going to do.”
She refers to the fact that a person who dies by suicide can be “overly positive right before. And she was that, real…buzzing.”
When they found Lynn the next morning, she was still only half changed from her going out clothes into her pyjamas. She had plugged her phone in as if she would need it the next day, put it under her pillow.
“I left her at half three and my mum woke me up at half six. So it was only three hours. In that space of time…”
Eilis woke the next morning to a nightmarish scene. Her mother and brother were giving her sister CPR in the hall. “They were on the phone to an ambulance, but she was already well gone,” she recalls now.”
“I remember standing over them screaming at them fix it.”
This June was Lynn’s five-year anniversary, Eilis and her small son River, who is nearly three, spent it with her mother in Dingle.
To this day, she still gets flash backs of that morning. “I’m still thankful to this day that my brother found her, and I didn’t. And I know that’s an awful thing to say on him. But I don’t think I’d have been able emotionally.”
Neighbours, the friends and the sisters’ colleagues began to arrive at the house as the morning passed. “Everyone rallied. But yeah, definitely worst day of my life anyway.”
In the following week, she lost a stone, unable to eat. “It was if she can’t have chocolate why should I have chocolate.”
She tries to describe some of the emotions she felt in the aftermath.
“Lot of confusion, lot of sadness. I was never angry at her. It was just not an emotion that I felt towards that situation. I can’t describe the heartbreak of it. Your whole life, your whole future that you had thought about happening for yourself changes.”
She describes the toll of grief, both physical and mental. Constant exhaustion, unable to sleep because your brain never stops. Bad anxiety. “I started grinding my teeth. I cracked four teeth, had to have four root canals after Lynn died.”
She didn’t want to move on with life without her sister.
“I didn’t want things to change. I didn’t want to watch the next episode of a show. I only started watching Stranger Things about three weeks ago. I was watching that with Lynn when she died.
"When they brought out season four, I started watching it again from where we left off, but it took me five years. I didn’t want anything to really start, because that meant it was another thing without Lynn. Every moment is just swallowed by it, everything’s different. And I felt like...I didn’t want to move on with things.”
It was months before she returned to work, and even then, it was just part time, half days at the beginning.
“I dipped my toes. I did not jump in the deep end.” She found it extremely hard, she recalls now, going back to the business in which they had both worked. “Everything was to do with Lynn. Because it was our space together.”
Her employer was very understanding; she moved to a different branch within the company, took another four weeks off shortly after she returned.
“I don’t think you can rush those things,” she reflects now. “Like if I had come back straight away, I think I would have ended up in a really bad place. I probably would have left the company.”
I ask her what is different about experiencing loss from a death by suicide. it is having to coming to terms with the fact that they chose to go, Eilis replies. And living with the feeling that there might have been something you could do.
“That that was a choice she made…to leave my life. And, I know for a fact that she was waiting for me to come back out of my room. I went to bed without brushing my teeth, without going to the toilet. I was like, ‘I’m locked’, I fell into my bed. So there’s a level of guilt like, of, you should have saved that person. That you’ll never get with any other…”
Loss is loss, she adds. Whether it is suicide, or cancer, it doesn’t make a difference to the depth of your loss. But what is unique about suicide, she says, is the choice.
"They chose to leave, and I didn’t help them. I could have done something about that, that’s the thing.
"You can’t fix a heart attack, but I could have helped fix that. And at the same time there’s obviously nothing I could do about it. You know, if someone wants to do that, they make that choice themselves, and I know that.”
She thinks that losing someone in this way has made her a kinder person. More understanding, less quick to judge. She manages a salon now, and if a staff member is struggling, she will send them home to have some time to look after themselves.
“No other death does that. You don’t look at cancer and go, ‘I’m going to be a better person.’”
On Lynn’s first anniversary, Eilis wrote a letter to herself, saying “You have to choose happiness, and you have to choose to get on with that life by yourself.”
She describes missing her sister now on the big days. “When I got pregnant with River, when I think about if I ever get married, when I’m going to things by myself now, that I know Lynn would have been at, such as my cousin’s weddings.”
Her son is starting school in September.
“His first day of school, I know Lynn would have been stood behind me with like pom-poms, and a sign for him,” she smiles.
“I think the further I get on in life, the bigger days are harder for me. I found the first times of everything really hard. And now it’s events and big things.”
Many of her cousins are sets of sisters, and while she would never begrudge their relationships, and they are all good to her and involve her, watching them is hard.
We talk about the possibility of acceptance, of coming to terms with this loss.
“I know she’s gone, obviously, and not coming back. But I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’m like that’s just how it is. It will always be there. When someone was there for 22 years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week…”
She went to grief counselling quite soon after Lynn’s death, and says now she found it extremely helpful.
“It was great to have someone there to be able to bounce things off, I stayed with her for ages. Now when anyone loses anyone, I am that person that they call and say how do you do this? I say, ‘go to counselling. Go talk to someone’. What harm is it like?”
She goes back anytime she needs it, is attending sessions at the moment.
“I think people underestimate the power of having someone with whom you can bounce your brain off, who isn’t going to gain or lose anything form your opinions.
"Because everyone in your life no matter how close or not, will gain or lose something from you. They’ll have an opinion. Your therapist doesn’t care. They just want what’s best for you.”
Besides the big days, Eilis describes how her sister’s death has impacted her life on a day-to-day level.
“I would still be very sad all the time, in comparison to before. I just don’t know if that’s ever going to leave me. I think about her every single day. And I get sad about her every single day,” she sighs softly.
She wonders where her Lynn would be in her life now, would she have had kids. “She’d have been obsessed with my little fella.”
As a well as kinder, Eilis says the loss has made her a little bit more selfish. “Because I believe in looking after me, and putting myself first, and not having toxic relationships.”
To anyone who has suffered a similar loss and wonders if they can cope, Eilis says she felt the same.
“If counselling’s not for you, you have to find something. You need an outlet, some way of getting, whether it be your anger or your sadness out, you have to find something. Whether it’s going for swim or taking up paddle boarding.”
In the aftermath, her family were warned by police that there was a high likelihood of someone who knew her dying in a similar manner
“And I get it,” Eilis says now. “I’d happily have gone with her. But I wouldn’t have had River. I wouldn’t have had the life experience I’ve had now. I wouldn’t t give up River.”
“There’s nothing on this earth, including losing someone to suicide, worth causing that kind of pain for everyone else in your life. There’s always a better way than giving up your entire future, and every experience. I could not cause the pain I feel every day on someone else. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
She dreamt about her sister recently. Lynn was there, and she could go back and get her, but it would mean giving up her son.
“And I remember looking at my sister and going ‘I can’t do that’ and she was like, ‘No, you can’t.’ And I feel and I felt like that was her going, ‘Look if I was still here, River wouldn’t be here’. And he’s the best kid in the world, Jesus Christ, I’m blessed.”
If you have been affected by any of the issues here, the Samaritans Ireland can be contacted 24 hours a day on 116 123. Further details and support can be found at samaritans.org