Published on September 01, 2022

Talking about mental health honors sister's memory

Note: If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, seeking emotional support, or feeling suicidal, call or text 988 or call the Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ direct counseling line at 785-841-2345.

Erica Hill will never forget the phone call from her good friend Caroline Ndwaru.     

“It’s seared in my brain,” Erica said. “I was in a meeting, and I called her right back. She said, Michelle is gone. I said, what do you mean gone? She said, she’s dead. It was heartbreaking.” 

Caroline Ndwaru and Erica Hill

Caroline Ndwaru 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 when they were students at the University of Kansas. 

“We became good friends,” Caroline said. “A lot of people thought we were sisters.” 

Caroline’s family moved from Kenya to Wichita when she was in high school. The oldest of five siblings, Caroline now lives in Austin, Texas. 

Four years ago on Aug. 6, Caroline’s sister, Michelle, died by suicide on her 21st birthday. 

“You don’t think you’re going to bury a sibling,” Caroline said. “You think you’re going to grow old together, grow families together.” 

The family was shocked and devastated. 

“For us, there were no red flags. We didn’t see it coming,” Caroline said. “Her friends, however, knew she was struggling. She told her friends not to tell us as a family what was going on.” 

Michelle had been a senior at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Happy-go-lucky, brilliant, mischievous, thoughtful, creative, an amazing cook and baker, an old soul, were some of the ways Caroline described her sister. 

Michelle called the Suicide Prevention Hotline a short time before she died. The calls lasted less than a minute. 

“I don’t know what that phone call entailed,” Caroline said. “I wish there could have been just one person she could have felt like she could talk to. Why she didn’t come to us is a question I will never get an answer to. I can’t imagine, putting myself in her shoes, how lonely that place was.” 

The last time Caroline spoke with Michelle was during a phone call on the Friday before the Monday she died. 

“Our family, we always tell each other I love you at the end of a conversation,” Caroline said. “The last words that were spoken between her and I were I love you.” 

Caroline tried calling Michelle on her birthday and sent text messages, but they were never answered. 

“When I got a hold of one of my sisters, she was hysterically crying and hyperventilating,” Caroline said. “She said, Michelle is dead. I said, no, she’s not. I was numb the next few days. I was moving on autopilot.” 

Caroline is the oldest of the siblings; Michelle was the youngest. 

“I was sort of a surrogate parent,” Caroline said. “But I was her sister, and I was also her friend. It was a very complicated loss because each loss feels very different.” 

Michelle’s funeral was on Aug. 11, 2018, which was the day a bridal shower for one of her sisters was supposed to have happened. 

“Some days you are in denial, some days you wake up and your mind has forgotten that Michelle is not here physically,” Caroline said. “It doesn’t get any easier. Every year you process things a little bit differently. I used to think grief was linear. It doesn’t happen like that. This is something that time doesn’t heal.” 

Michelle’s friends will leave remembrances on her gravestone, and they will check in on Michelle’s mother. The family and friends wear bracelets with Michelle’s name on them that were made in Kenya. 

“In Kenyan culture, when your name is not spoken anymore that is when you truly die,” Caroline said. “Talking about Michelle is more comforting than not talking about her at all. You know Michelle is not forgotten. That makes me happy.” 

After Michelle’s death, Caroline started seeing a therapist for her own mental wellness. She also became involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 

“I never want another family to go through what we went through, and what we’re still going through,” Caroline said. “With Michelle’s loss, it’s made our family talk more about mental health. That was not something we talked about before. Talking about mental health, that’s very important to me to keep Michelle’s legacy alive.”


Jeff Burkhead is the communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

Talking about mental health honors sister's memory

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