Editors' Note: This story contains descriptions of suicide. If you or someone you know might be suicidal, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800.273.8255 (800.273.TALK). Support groups and grief counseling for survivors can be found throughout the Puget Sound region.
Portland writer Kim Stafford has struggled to make sense out of the suicide of his brother Bret for 25 years. Though Bret was just 14 months older, Kim always looked to his brother as a leader and teacher. When he shot himself at age 40 in 1988, nobody in Bret’s family knew how much he was struggling.
Members of the Stafford family, even their father and famous poet William Stafford, couldn’t bring themselves to speak or write about Bret's loss. It was largely up to Kim Stafford to break the family silence. Kim’s new memoir, “100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared,” is the story of his brother’s life and death and its devastating and transformational effect on Kim and his family.
Growing up, Kim and Bret Stafford were like twins. They did everything together. They were the rare siblings who never fought. Through high school they shared a room and had a nighttime ritual of blessing one another before going to sleep: “One of us would say, ‘Good night, God bless you, have sweet dreams, see you tomorrow.’ And then the other one would repeat that. That meant the day was over,” recalls Kim.
Bret Stafford grew up to became a land-use planner. It was a stressful job with hot-button issues and angry constituents. Bret became increasingly isolated and depressed as he approached age 40. He moved his family from Oregon to a remote region of British Columbia.
“Out of sight from the rest of the family, he began to disintegrate there. He went into a depression and stopped sleeping," Kim says. "He tried to take his life there but we didn’t know." Bret wanted to come back to Oregon and was looking for a job. At those job interviews, he was shut down and catatonic.
It was in this period of job searching that Bret took his own life at his sister’s house. The Stafford family coped with grief and deep confusion, as they didn’t recognize the intensity of his suffering. According to Kim, Bret's suicide caught the family by surprise.
Members of the Stafford family were inconsolable after Bret's death. Even William Stafford, Kim and Bret’s father and an acclaimed poet and man of words, could not speak of his son’s death. “When my brother died, our father went into his study, closed the door and read Wordsworth. When he came out of that room he wouldn’t talk about my brother," Kim recalls. "When people came to console us, he would change the subject and act jolly. He was helpless. He was slain by the event."
Against the wishes of some of his family, Kim Stafford decided to break the silence. He missed his brother and he needed to extract some sense of meaning and peace out of the tragedy. The process of writing about and revisiting details and memories of his brother’s life has changed the way that Kim goes forward: “A part of growing up through a violent event like this is that the veil is pulled away and you are suddenly able to see the suffering in the eyes of other people."
Bret Stafford, even in death, is still his younger brother Kim’s friend, guide and mentor. Bret even shows up even when Kim Stafford is teaching writing: "If I struggle and am hiding something in my writing, I sometimes write a letter addressed to my brother and then I answer in his voice. He’s like a completely honest dimension of myself. We’re still pals. I still reach out to him.”