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‘My brother’s suicide made me fearless I now live life for myself but also for him’

My most precious memories of my younger brother Stan are of us as kids. He was happy, beautiful and the sweetest boy in the world. I adored him. We’d spend hours playing Lego and Monopoly together, and remained close into adulthood. I hold these memories close now – the boy he was and the relationship we had before his mental illness took hold in his thirties.

Our parents separated when we were little. My dad would travel to an off-grid cottage in a remote valley near our home in Herefordshire to spend time with us. He was a fashion photographer and I still treasure the pictures he took of those sunny days. My mum also took wonderful photos of us, capturing family Christmases and our amazing garden, which she filled with sunflowers one year. Photography was a huge passion for the whole family.

When Stan and I grew up, we lived together in London. I loved working at the BBC Learning department doing PR. But Stan never seemed happy and he returned to Herefordshire to live with Mum.

I took photos all the time and my now-husband Dave and I would always take our cameras out at weekends. After a few visits back to Herefordshire, Dave fell in love with the area. He got on really well with Stan, which made me happy. I was feeling broody and the countryside felt like a better option, so we moved back and lived with Mum and my brother for a couple of years.

I remember that time fondly. We ate together every night and took turns to cook. We played board games and pool, watched family TV favourites. Most importantly, we talked and reminisced.

Some time later, unbeknown to any of us, my brother developed a serious mental illness. I’d had my first daughter and was suffering postnatal depression. Mum was also diagnosed with MS – things were pretty heavy. Me and Stan grew apart. I had another daughter shortly afterwards. I know Stan loved them both but I couldn’t understand why he appeared to have little interest in them and I resented this. He once told them they could have his old car as a play den. He once played pool with them, once bounced on the trampoline with them, once invited them to watch Scooby-Doo . But these gestures were few and far between.

It became normal that Stan wasn’t very present in our lives. He never opened up to me about his mental illness and his unbearable suffering. Instead, it came out as anger and him not being very nice. Seeing him became deeply upsetting. I desperately missed my brother, my best friend, my confidant.

Then, on Easter Sunday 2016, after several years of barely any communication, Stan turned up at my front door. I was thrilled. We went for a walk but it soon became obvious something was really wrong. He was finally opening up but he was incredibly paranoid. I was happy that he was talking to me again – I was getting my brother back – but I was worried about him. He said he was very anxious and low, and felt something really bad was going to happen but he didn’t know what. I urged him to see a doctor but he convinced me everything was OK.

The next weekend, there was a knock on the door in the middle of the night. It was the police. Stan’s body had been found. He’d taken his life in the cottage where my dad used to take us as children.

What happened next is a total blur. The type of grief that comes from sibling suicide is incredibly complex, especially when you’d been as close as Stan and I were. It’s like something outside of you that you have no control of. It hits you over and over, like a tidal wave. Eventually, I found others online who helped me understand what I was going through.

Soon after Stan died, Dave and I moved with our daughters (then aged six and nine) back into Mum’s house. Initially, it was hard because there were signs of Stan everywhere. Each anniversary without him – every birthday, Christmas and Easter – brought further tidal waves of grief and I’d spend days in bed. Then, I rediscovered my camera. I had a strong urge to get far away from Herefordshire and took my eldest daughter to Hong Kong to stay with a cousin. I found solace taking photos of the amazing people and places we saw.

Back home, photography became one of the ways I learned to live with my grief. A psychotherapist saw the link between my photography and my recovery. I looked up to Stan as a talented photographer – one of our last conversations was about photography. Two days before he died, he said he was happy and proud that I was pursuing my passion – and gave me his camera. Looking back, he obviously knew he wouldn’t be around for much longer. He was saying goodbye.

Six years after Stan’s death, I’m learning to live with the pain. But out of nowhere I can still get a sudden, sharp stabbing in the stomach that’s so powerful I can’t breathe. My physically healthy, handsome, intelligent, sweet, loved and loving brother is dead. And he died by his own hand. Did he realise that he’d never get to drive his beloved Alfa Romeo again, or play pool, or walk up his favourite mountain, or eat bacon sandwiches, sit in the sunshine?

I’ll never see him again or hear his voice. Nor will I ever hug him and tell him he was one of the most significant and loved people in my life.

Over the years, different emotions have crashed in and out; anger, guilt, hurt, sadness, confusion. It’s overwhelming. But when Stan died, I suddenly saw life as extremely precious and short. I became fearless and threw myself into my photography. I’m now working full-time as a freelance photographer, have co-run a gallery and published three books.

I’m living life for myself – but also for Stan. He’s always, always with me.

Billie’s book Lockdown Light documents the creative ways people adapted their lives in the pandemic. It is available on Amazon and Thru The Lens