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In memory of cousin Lisa

Lisa Brown, 41, suffered in silence
But family speaks up about the depression that killed her
'I looked for it. I could never see it,' anguished father says

Lisa Brown was a cherished daughter, beloved sister, generous friend — all those clichés of death notices, but in this case all so true. She was also a suicide.

The 41-year-old woman with the flashing dark eyes, and gleaming thick curls she hated and her mother loved, killed herself in her St. George St. apartment last Oct. 14. Two days later, her parents, Dan and Fran Brown, who live in Waterloo, received her apartment keys in the mail, along with the rent payment stubs.

Their life has never been the same since.

Along with the despair and pain of losing a child, they have been haunted by guilt and feelings of failure because they couldn't protect her, the "if onlys" and the "what ifs" and all the "why, why whys?"

Not long before she ended her life, Lisa Brown was at her parents' home downloading music from the Internet, telling her mother with affectionate exasperation that she was wearing the wrong shade of lipstick — again. "Isn't that what all daughters do?" Fran Brown says, smiling at the memory.

Now they know their daughter was depressed, although she never indicated it to them. "I looked for it. I could never see it," Dan Brown says. Fran Brown calls it "the mask" and wonders if Lisa hid her depression because so much of society is uncomfortable acknowledging it.

The family decided they wouldn't hide the cause of Lisa's death; at the Toronto service, Fran Brown instructed the rabbi to acknowledge her daughter's final act along with "her beautiful life," and her older brother Paul addressed it in his eulogy.

"What we are all hoping for is that the message is out there that this is a disease like any other," he says.

"If Lisa had had heart illness or cancer, we would have discussed it," Fran Brown says. "But she had a brain disorder and the brain is part of the body. Why on earth isn't brain disorder discussed? Why do people turn their backs?"

Compounding her pain is the fear she has seen in the eyes of some of her neighbours and friends. Suicide is one of society's last taboos, but the code of silence it invokes also wounds. Fran Brown has come to believe it may even contribute to the stigma of a mental illness, let alone the act of a suicide.

And that is why she and her family agreed to talk to media about Lisa.

"I have to help raise awareness in order to lower the ugly stigma," Fran Brown says. "The only way it won't happen to others is if we don't sweep it under the rug any more. I'll be the voice Lisa didn't have."

Waterloo Region bereavement counsellor Dena Moitoso says having a community acknowledge the death is an important part of mourning and a necessary part of grieving for the families. "Suicide describes the death, not the life. But if we as society aren't able to talk about the death, then we can't talk about the life."

Moitoso leads three bereavement groups a year made up exclusively of relatives of suicides. "Unfortunately they are always full," she says.

The latest figures from Statistics Canada record 3,681 suicides in 1997, or a rate of 12.3 per 100,000 population. The World Health Organization has deemed suicide a global crisis. The suicide rate is up 60 per cent in the last 45 years, catapulting it to a place among the three leading causes of death of people aged 15 to 44.

Moitoso believes it helps families to understand the medical basis of the suicide act, otherwise they take on the burden of blame for themselves.

"Together, sweetheart, we will make a difference"

Fran Brown, in a note to her deceased daughter, Lisa

"We as a society need to know there is a malignant form of depression and a benign form of depression," she says.

Lisa Brown grew up in a home with all the prerequisites of a happy girlhood: the ballet and piano lessons, the family ski days, the collection of dolls from around the world and 6 Elisa Place, the two-storey, red-shuttered dollhouse with the tile roof her parents made for her on her 6th birthday. They have kept the essay she wrote in Grade 8 on children with special needs — "other kids wrote about their holidays," her mother recalls with fierce pride.

She studied business at the University of Western Ontario, sharing a house on Central Ave. with three other girls, including Laurie Morgan, her best friend. After graduation she was off to Israel, where she spent a year in a kibbutz, and was involved in a serious relationship.

Back in Toronto, she worked for Ontario Hydro, then National Trust. It was a job, not a career, her parents think. It was not something she talked about, Morgan says.

"I tried to ask her about work, but she would just say it was fine," says Morgan, a teacher and mother of three girls living in Caledon East. "It was difficult to have a conversation focused on her even for a brief time."

Lisa Brown was that rare breed, a gifted listener, who was genuinely interested in the minutiae of her friend's and family's lives.

When she visited, Lisa would arrive at the bus depot loaded with gifts for Morgan's girls.

They called her "Auntie Lisa" and she always seemed to know which Groovy Girl outfit was the coveted one and the latest, greatest book.

She was helping Morgan write a memoir about her homesteading ancestors, doing line edits, researching sources, taping a relevant documentary.

Two years ago, she was the powerhouse behind her mother's driveway hosta plant sale that raised several thousand dollars for a nearby facility for disabled children.

Mother and daughter were so close they were each other's best friends, but Fran began to worry when her daughter lost her job three years ago and never found another one. Always quiet, Lisa became a private, guarded person.

Laurie Morgan didn't know Lisa had lost her job until 18 months ago, when Fran Brown told her. "I tried many times in an indirect way to talk about it," she says. She and Lisa had a "giggly" phone conversation just a week before her death. "Had I thought (suicide) was a possibility I would have been knocking her door down."

She says she has vowed to finish her family's story and dedicate it to Lisa.

To help himself understand his sister's death, Paul Brown joined Bereaved Families of Ontario where he is taking courses so he can facilitate the association's new seminars and meetings for bereaved adult siblings.

Her parents are setting up a memorial fund in Lisa's name to help raise awareness and lower the stigma of depression. Fran Brown wants to speak to service and community groups and visit schools.

"I will do this for you and the millions out there suffering in silence," she recently wrote late one night in a note to her daughter. "Together, sweetheart, we will make a difference."

Cheques for the Lisa Brown Memorial Fund can be made out to the Benjamin Foundation and sent to c/o the Lisa Brown Memorial Fund, 3429 Bathurst St., Toronto, Ont., M6A 2CE.

Fran Brown remembers her daughter, Lisa, in Kitchener.
She is talking about Lisa’s suicide to publicize
the link between mental illness and suicide.

By Catherine Dunphy
The Toronto Star - May 9, 2005