I Need to Say Some Things to Ella

·19 min read

Dear Ella,

Whew, O.K., here goes.

I’m not going to sugarcoat anything here. I’m going to be real with you right from the start. That’s how you lived your life, and I know that’s how you’d want it. So Ella, I gotta tell you….

I’m in pain right now.

At this point, three years on, I’ve come to peace with some of the things about your passing — about you losing your battle against suicide — at just 24 years of age. Mom, Dad and me, it’s not like we just stood by and let this happen. We recognized the warning signs, we knew you were struggling with depression, and we got you help. We tried to do everything in our power. We really, really did.

But now ... I just miss you so much, and I’m struggling. It’s hard for me to understand how life just continues to go on without you here.

I feel like I have this hole in my heart that will never be filled again. I miss your smile, your laugh, your authenticity. I miss every damn thing about you, Ella.

There are some mornings when I wake up, and I actually believe that I’m going to see you — like that you’ll be back, and that I’ll be able to give you a big hug and talk to you. Those days are the worst. Because on those days, I’m reminded that you really aren’t here. That you’re not coming back.

People say grief gets easier over time, and that you learn to live with the loss and the pain. But to be honest ... that’s bulls***. I miss you more with each day, Ella. I feel your pain more. I want to see you MORE.

And, the truth is, I’ve really needed you these past few years.

I’m a mental health advocate now — or whatever they call it — and I know so much more about anxiety and depression than I used to. I realize now that, after you passed away, I experienced the harsh stigma of mental health. All that stuff that people sometimes say, like….

“Toughen up!”

“BE A MAN!!!”

“You’re just making up an excuse because you’re not playing well.”

“You’re soft!”

That stuff had an impact. All of it.

It made me feel ashamed, and it angered me. It pushed me to the darkest point in my life. I suppressed my emotions and feelings about losing you. I tried to move on and live a life that everyone else wanted to see me living. I tried not to be a burden. I ignored my pain, and I ignored my depression. I felt like I had to live up to expectations, that I had to be the third overall pick in the NFL draft for the San Francisco 49ers.

That became more important to me than living.

I was expected to act like I was O.K., but….

How the f*** was I supposed to be O.K. when my sister, my best friend, was dead?

I went down a very dark path, and it became more than I could handle. Living became harder than dying. It was just all black, all day.

I mean, sure, I was working my ass off at football, and being me on the surface. But on the inside, I was empty and dead. Each day was a war inside my brain. It was a fight, day after day, to stay alive. To be honest with you, Ella, the only thing that kept me here at that point was not wanting to put any more pain on Mom and Dad.

Thankfully, though, largely due to the kindness of others, I was able to fight through and persevere. I was approached one day by 49ers general manager John Lynch. He came right to the point. “Solly, if you need help, we are here to support you and help you.”

John didn’t know how dark of a place I was in, but what he said was exactly what I needed to hear. I felt like I finally had permission to get help.

I started to go to therapy and work on my grief, depression and anxiety. I learned how to cope and heal. It wasn’t easy, it took a lot of time and vulnerability, but I learned how to live again.

At the same time, I also realized that you wouldn’t want me to end my life. You wouldn’t want that for me. So it’s important for you to know that you are one of the main reasons why I’m still alive today. I want you to know that it is because of you that I’m still here. Because of you, I’ve gotten help. I’ve learned how to want to live again. Because of you, I’ve kept on fighting.

I just really wanted to tell you that directly, and to say thank you.

And now, with all of that out of the way right here at the top, I mainly just want to share some things with you, big sis. Just like we always used to. There are definitely a million things that I wish I could have said to you before the day you left us, and writing you this letter isn’t the same as speaking with you face to face, obviously. But I’d still really love the opportunity to say some of them to you, right here, right now, today, before any more time passes.

Ella, my sister, my best friend, my hero … I have a lot to tell you.

Courtesy of Solomon Thomas
Courtesy of Solomon Thomas

First off, I want to tell you the full story of how we laid you to rest a few years back, because I really think you’ll get a kick out of it.

Remember that beach in Australia we loved so much when we were little kids? Well, Mom, Dad and me straight up illegally smuggled your ashes onto an international flight just so we could leave a part of you there.

It was like we were secret agents or something when we were getting on that plane.

But, yeah, we hiked down that big hill and set some of your ashes on the sand so they could be swept out to the ocean. Then, from there, we got in the car and traveled over to this awesome place called Pebbly Beach. It’s about four hours from Sydney, in a national park where the kangaroos are known to come out and play with visitors. We thought you’d like that — very cool, very Ella! We had it all planned out for you.

But then we show up and head to the beach and, Ella … no kangaroos! Like, they were nowhere to be found. It was weird. We wondered if we were in the wrong place or something. But like what can you do?

So we make this heart in the sand at the water’s edge and put some of your ashes in the middle. The waves hadn’t been really crashing at all, but then, right when we had it all set up, they just started coming all the way up on the beach. Again, it was like: Hmmm, that’s weird. Then this gigantic wave comes in and washes your ashes out to sea and ... it was so beautiful, Ella. I’ll never forget it.

But after that, get this: We hug each other, and we turn around and, all of a sudden, out of nowhere … 30 or 40 kangaroos come bounding out and jump all over the place and start playing with us all at once, like magic.

It was the most joyous and happy and peaceful thing I’ve ever been a part of.

It was like: Wow, O.K., hi Ella!!!!

Courtesy of Solomon Thomas
Courtesy of Solomon Thomas

That’s a memory we’ll all have in our hearts forever. And it really was just … so absolutely Ella.

If anyone knew how to make a gathering special, how to leave everyone feeling like they’d just had the time of their lives, it was you. You always had this uncanny knack for instantly making any get-together better just by walking into the room.

Our friend Bennett probably said it best to me recently when he called you the human narrator.

“Your sister was a miracle worker,” he said. “She could get a group of the jocks, a group of the nerds, the metalheads, the shy kids, the artist types, everyone, get them all together and find ways to make every single person there feel comfortable and connected and happy.”

That positive energy, the feeling that everyone was special and deserved love, that’s something you took with you everywhere you went. And, I mean, me, as your little brother? How lucky was I to have someone like that as my big sister?

You were always more talented — the more gifted athlete, the better leader, the more natural conversationalist. But you never got annoyed at having to put up with me, or at having to help me along.

I still remember that one Easter when I was four or so and you were seven, and you found all the eggs at the Easter egg hunt in a few minutes. I didn’t find a single egg. So what did you do? Do you remember? We were both so little. But you sat me down next to you and started going through your basket.

“One for me, one for you. One for me, one for you.”

Solomon Thomas

As I got older (and more socially awkward), you were my … well, you were my everything — my sounding board, my social instructor, my personal stylist, my music source, and on and on … literally my everything.

When I was lonely as a little kid, you helped me learn how to make friends. And you ran through most of those same lessons a few years later when it came time for me to start talking to girls. I still, to this day, remember exactly what you told me.

“Solly, you’re awesome! Just be you!”

You taught me not to pretend I was someone else or to fake who I was. To love myself, even if I was a little weird or different sometimes.

“Don’t try to act cool or be Mr. Tough Guy. Just be the wonderful person that you already are.”

And you know what, Ella? Over time, the more I followed that advice, the better I felt about myself. You basically taught me to love myself.

You made that happen. You did that.

Literally.

That was you.

Courtesy of Solomon Thomas
Courtesy of Solomon Thomas

When I got to college and needed to look respectable every once in a while, you were the one who showed me how to shop for things beyond basketball shorts and T-shirts. Remember when you told me to take my stipend to Nordstrom Rack and then FaceTime you so you could pick my clothes for me? All those deep-discount pairs of Joe’s Jeans you had me buy? And the Henleys? Ella, swear to God, I’m still wearing some of those outfits to this day. In 2021. (What can I say? They still work!)

Looking back on it, it’s amazing to me all those FaceTime calls that you picked up at odd hours only to hear, like: “Yo, Ella … red or white Converse with this????”

But it really does just go to show: I needed you for everything. Even down to my shoes. And you were always there for me no matter what.

So I never wanted to be away from you.

Not ever.

It was to the point where — and not a lot of people know this — I actually almost went to Arkansas instead of Stanford.

Arkansas?

Arkansas?

Of all places, why Arkansas?

Easy. Because that’s where my big sister was in college.

I couldn’t have cared less what the football team was like there. I wanted to go there because I knew — even back then, I knew — as much as I needed you, you needed me, too.

I don’t regret going to Stanford, of course. Not for a second. And you never resented me or made me feel bad for not joining you at Arkansas. But, after all that’s happened, it’s hard not to think that maybe things could’ve been different had I made that choice — if I had been around you more.

If I had been there beside you to help. Especially when you were really struggling.

If, instead of halfway across the country….

I’d been closer.

Courtesy of Solomon Thomas
Courtesy of Solomon Thomas

And now, the messed up thing is … it’s almost like it’s the other way around. Like everything has flipped.

Right now I could really use your help, and advice, and guidance, or even just your smile.

But you’re so far away.

And there’s nothing I can do to change that.

So I’m taking it one day at a time. Doing the best I can. That’s really all I can do.

I’m gonna make it, too. I promise you that. Don’t worry about me, Sis. I got this. And, you know what? Just so you know what else has been up with me, let me reassure you about some other things. Because I know this stuff will be important to you.

O.K., let’s see … I still laugh just as hard every time I watch all of our movies. The Hangover! And, oh man, Step Brothers! Are you kidding me? I still use the quote from that one on mom all the time, the one about putting her in a home as soon as she’s of age.

And I still make weird jokes at random times that have people looking at me funny, but that I absolutely know would have you laughing your ass off.

Let’s see, what else? Any time Coach Carter comes on — I don’t care what time it is or what I’m doing — I’m watching it. Just like we used to. And that line from Madagascar we always loved, with King Julien telling Mort, “No touchy the feet?” I still use that one every time your dog, Mickey, tries to lick my toes. (Mickey lives with us now, by the way. And he’s still the same old Mickey).

Of course, I’m hopeless when it comes to music now. Big surprise, right? Before, I’d just download your iTunes library onto my phone and I was straight. Now? I have no idea what to get. I’m lost without you showing me the way.

And these days I just totally miss those times when we would catch up by listening to “Love Yourz.” Our song. J. Cole. You know the words….

“No such thing as a life that’s better than yours.”

That just always brought us back into alignment in terms of what’s real.

It’s like … there’s always going to be something bigger and better out there, but none of that matters unless we love ourselves and what we have.

You better believe that song — and that sentiment — lives on with me, Ella.

And you know how I told you I wasn’t ever going to get a tattoo? Well … that all changed after you went away.

I’ve got our favorite saying, “Bad Boys For Life,” on my left arm now. Mom and I have matching “I Heart You” tattoos on our forearms in your honor, and I got your favorite flower, a big old sunflower, on that arm too. Maybe sometime soon I’ll even do a tat of your beloved, raggedy, super smelly stuffed animal, Puppers, as a tribute. Since I can’t kidnap him anymore and hold him for ransom like I did when we were kids, maybe that’s the move. But, yeah, pretty soon I’m going to have a whole damn sleeve devoted to you, Ella.

I’m working my way up to that.

In the meantime, every day I’m alive and breathing … I’m representing for you in as many ways as I possibly can. And you’re constantly influencing the person I’ve become.

Ella, because of losing you, I’ve learned so much about mental health and living and just about ... myself. I’ve learned how to be vulnerable and real, like you.

I’ve learned how to have life-saving conversations and truly ask, “How are you REALLY doing.”

I’ve learned that it’s O.K. not to be O.K., and that feeling your sadness and anger is just as important as feeling your happiness.

In our social media-driven world, we’re taught that only happiness matters, to only push out and post the good. But, as you always knew, that isn’t real life. Life isn’t only good, life is all about the ups and downs. (And sometimes we learn more from the downs.) It’s about embracing all our emotions and loving yourself and spreading that type of love.

I’ve learned that extreme depression and anxiety are a disease, just like cancer. For some people, there’s a chemical imbalance in their brain, so it’s not just some emotion that you can “get over.”

Solomon Thomas

It truly sucks that I learned all of this too late, that I can’t use this knowledge with you or for you.

But Ella, since you’ve been gone, I’ve made sure to tell your story and share with others how special you were. And if, by doing that, I can help save even one family from feeling the pain that Mom, Dad, and I feel every day, then living this life is well worth it. If I can help even one person from feeling alone, and feeling the type of pain that you fought every day, then I’ll do this until the day I see you again, E.

And when I’m speaking about you at a high school or to an organization, it’s not me making a difference — it’s you. You’re reaching and inspiring and helping people all over the world.

Every day my DMs are filled with people telling me how much they appreciated learning about the wonderful person you were, and how lucky I was to have you around growing up.

Something I hear a lot is: “Your sister’s story saved my life.”

So I’m striving to forever keep you alive by making that sort of impact.

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

And Ella, I truly believe that since I’ve started speaking out, it’s inspired and encouraged other athletes to do the same and to reach even more people with their own stories, or those of their families. You’ve created a chain reaction. You’re changing the world.

You always said you were going to do that — change the world. I remember you saying it. And now that’s literally happening.

You’re actually saving people’s lives right now.

Since you passed away, our family has raised more than $250,000 for suicide prevention research, and now we’re starting a foundation in honor of you called The Defensive Line. We’re going to equip young people of color with the tools, resources and support they need to be able to talk about what it’s like to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues — to be able to talk about those things openly and honestly and without fear. Then we’re going to develop programs for teachers, coaches and mentors of any youth in any field, so these young people of color also have safe, supportive places to go and talk. We’re going to educate people on how to identify those who struggle with mental health issues, and normalize mental health discussions in the office, on the field, and in the classroom. We’ll help people learn how to have those lifesaving conversations.

You were never afraid to talk about mental health or to share your feelings. You talked about your depression and anxiety in a way that was very human and nonjudgmental. So we’re really going to follow that lead and work to normalize being human, and the idea that people need people to get through things. Our family, we’re going to carry your vision forward.

You taught me that you never know what people are going through, so the best approach is to treat everyone with love, and compassion, and always be open to listen and provide support.

That’s all you, Ella. And now … it’s all me, too.

Courtesy of Solomon Thomas
Courtesy of Solomon Thomas

Of course, what I wish more than anything is that you could be here with me to see all of this stuff happen — to see all the positive impact you’re having right now. That we could sit up all night like we used to and just talk about all these plans together.

I would give anything to be able to see you again, and talk to you about everything, and tell you how much you meant to me, rather than just writing you this letter.

You always had this quote in your Twitter bio that I never gave much thought to, but that nowadays I can’t stop thinking about: “If you admire somebody, you should go ahead and tell them. People never get the flowers while they can still smell them.”

And man … just … that just touches my heart beyond anything I can even explain.

I’m crying right now. And I’m not afraid to tell the world that. Just straight up sobbing.

There’s just so much I wish I could’ve told you, Ella — so, so, so much. All that I’ve written in this letter plus about a million other things. So, I don’t know … if it’s O.K. with you, maybe I’ll write some more of these letters to you as the years go by.

As much as I wish you were still here with me — that I still had my sister, my best friend, around — I know you’re looking down on me. And when we meet again, I want us to be able to talk about everything that’s been going on down here in your name, and swap stories, and just … be us again.

So, yeah, maybe think of this as the first of many letters, Ella. The beginning of a new connection between us.

I love you with all my heart, I miss you more than words can say, and instead of saying goodbye, I’m just gonna go with.…

To be continued.