Note: For those struggling with suicidal thoughts, dial 988 to connect to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call the Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ Crisis Line at 785-841-2345. You can also text KANSAS on 741 741 to connect to the Crisis Text Line.
Erica Hill never forgets a call from her best friend, Caroline Ndwar.
“It’s burned into my brain,” said Erica. She said she was dead.It was heartbreaking.
Caroline Ndwal and Erica Hill
Erica, Director of LMH Health Foundation Finance & Strategic Initiatives, LMH Health Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, and Past President of the Lawrence Board of Education, met Caroline while a student at the University of Kansas.
“We became good friends,” said Caroline. “A lot of people thought we were sisters.”
Caroline’s family moved to Wichita from Kenya when she was in high school. She is the eldest of five siblings, Caroline currently lives in Austin, Texas.
Four years ago, on August 6th, Caroline’s sister Michelle committed suicide at the age of 21.st birthday.
“You wouldn’t want to bury your brother,” said Caroline. She said, “We’re going to grow old together and raise a family together.”
The family was shocked and devastated.
“For us, there were no red flags. We didn’t expect it to come,” Caroline said. “But her friends knew she was having a hard time. She told her friends not to tell her family what was going on.”
Michelle was a senior at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Some of the ways Caroline represented her sister were carefree, brilliant, mischievous, thoughtful, creative, a great cook and baker, and an old soul.
Shortly before she died, Michelle called a suicide prevention hotline. The call took her less than a minute.
“I don’t know what the call entailed,” Caroline said. “I wish there was one person she felt she could talk to. Why she never came to us is a question I can never get an answer to. I can’t imagine how lonely that place was.”
The last time Caroline spoke to Michelle was on the phone on the Friday before the Monday she died.
“Our family always says we love each other at the end of conversations,” Caroline said. “Her last words between me and her were that I love you.”
Caroline called and texted Michelle on her birthday but got no response.
“When I caught one of my sisters, she was crying hysterically and hyperventilating,” Caroline said. “She said Michelle was dead. I said, no, she’s not. She was paralyzed for the next few days. She was on autopilot.”
Caroline is the oldest of her siblings. Michelle was the youngest.
“I was kind of a surrogate parent,” Caroline said. “But I was her sister and I was her friend.
Michelle’s funeral was held on August 11, 2018. This is the day one of her sisters was due to take her bridal shower.
“Some days I’m in denial, and other days I wake up and forget Michelle isn’t physically here,” Caroline said. I used to think grief was linear.
Michelle’s friends leave memories on her gravestone to check on Michelle’s mother. Her family and friends wear Kenyan-made bracelets with Michelle’s name on them.
“In Kenyan culture, when your name is no longer mentioned, you really die,” said Caroline. She said, “It’s more comforting for her to talk about Michelle than not to talk about her at all. She knows Michelle hasn’t been forgotten. She makes me happy.”
After Michelle’s death, Caroline began seeing a therapist for her own mental health. She also became involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I don’t want another family to go through what we went through and what we are going through now,” Caroline said. “Michelle’s passing has prompted our family to talk more about mental health. For that reason, it is very important to me.”
Jeff Burkhead is Director of Communications for the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.