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I told the truth in my sister’s obituary, so that others might choose to live

University of Wisconsin-Superior associate professor Eleni Pinnow reflects on family's decision not to keep her sister's suicide a secret when writing her obituary. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Editor’s note: We reached out to the author after her revealing obituary for her sister appeared in the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

The most alone I have ever felt was standing on my front porch on a chilly February evening. My sister had taped a note to the front door that said “Eleni, if you’re the first one here don’t go in the basement. Just call 911. I don’t want you to see me like this. I love you! Love, Aletha.”

She put an identical sign on the back door.  Even in the midst of consuming depression, Aletha tried to protect me from the full horror of her suicide.

I stood on the porch shivering from cold and sheer terror. I didn’t just feel alone. I felt like I was in a vacuum in the middle of space with everything I knew being pulled away from me. The universe was suddenly a very vast place and I was very, very, very alone.

[An open letter to the Whole Foods shoppers who consoled me when I learned of my father’s suicide]

After what seemed like an eternity, the police officers told me plainly, “Aletha is dead.” What followed that stark statement was a sudden moment of lucidity in which only one thing mattered: the truth.

I had to be honest. I had to tell the truth.

By the time I sat down to write my sister’s obituary I knew that the opening line could only be one thing: Aletha Meyer Pinnow, 31, of Duluth (formerly of Oswego and Chicago, IL) died from depression and suicide on February 20, 2016. 

 I went on to share with everyone — friends, family, students, and work colleagues — the cause of my sister’s death: depression and suicide. I told them that my hilarious, kind, generous, helpful, silly and loving sister couldn’t see any of that in herself and it killed her. I told them that her depression created an impenetrable fortress that blocked the light, preventing the love of her friends, her family, and any sense of comfort and confidence from reaching her.

My loneliness and terror on the front porch was nothing compared to the absolute isolation that depression had imposed on my sister. I had to tell the truth.

In this video produced by the World Health Organization, writer and illustrator Matthew Johnstone tells the story of overcoming the "black dog of depression." (Video: World Health Organization)

Depression lied to my sister, told her that she was worthless. A burden. Unlovable. Undeserving of life. I imagine these lies were like a kind of permanent white noise in her life — a running narration of how unworthy she was. After years of the lies and the torment, my sister believed that depression told her the truth. In the notes she left for my parents and me, Aletha wrote, “don’t feel sad, I’m not worth it.”

She was so wrong. Depression lies. I have to tell the truth.

Here is the truth: My sister was amazing. She exuded life and made my life millions of times better just by existing. Any time I needed help, any time I was struggling, any time depression and anxiety overwhelmed me, Aletha was there. Any time I had a good day, I needed to share it with her. She was my anchor. Aletha and I had a relationship and a closeness that I will never have again.

[My dad killed himself when I was 13. He hid his depression, I won’t hide mine.]

Depression stole decades of our lives together. Depression lies. I have to tell the truth.

My sister’s depression fed on her desire to keep it secret and hidden from everyone. I could not save my sister. I could not reach my sister through her depression. Aletha slipped from my grasp and I cannot bring her back. I can only urge others to distrust the voice of depression. I can plead for people to seek help and treatment. I can talk about depression and invite others to the conversation. I can tell everyone that will listen that depression lies. I can tell the truth.

The lies of depression can exist only in isolation. Brought out into the open, lies are revealed for what they are.

Here is the truth: You have value. You have worth. You are loved. Trust the voices of those who love you. Trust the enormous chorus of voices that say only one thing: You matter. Depression lies. We must tell the truth.

There is a thick black line that separates the before and the after of my life: I’m still new to the after territory. It feels uncertain, disorienting — like walking through a carnival funhouse where the floor is uneven, rotating, slanted, curved.

I know only two things for sure: Depression lies. I will tell the truth. Join me.

Eleni Pinnow is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. To make sure her sister is remembered for more than her pain, she has started a scholarship fund in Aletha’s name at her alma mater. She urges those who may be contemplating suicide to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit

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