Memories of Miya
Citizen Yoga founder, Kacee Must Leeb reflects on her sister’s suicide, its impact on her family, and her road to finding purpose
In Loving Memory: Kacee Must Leeb poses at Citizen Yoga in Detroit. A photo of her late sister, Miya hangs prominently as a constant reminder of her purpose: "Keep the Community Happy."
Within Vedanta philosophy, there is a focus on pitching up a higher ideal that inspires every action, emotion, and thought. An idol, which represents an ideal, could be a cross, a Jewish star, a photo. It reminds you of your ideal: who you want to become and the meaning behind your actions. My oldest sister Miya became my ideal when I was 25 years old, after she took her own life.
Miya was diagnosed as bipolar at a young age. Though our relationship was sometimes complicated when she was off her meds, at her core, she was an extremely giving human being and really just wanted to be “normal”. My parents did everything possible to help Miya find her version of a healthy mind and body. She did a lot of self-work, regularly seeking therapy and eventually opening her own yoga studio in Gunnison, Colo. She was incredibly fun, large in her personality, and had no personal boundaries. Really, she just wanted to be loved.
And she was very loving return. When I experienced my own extreme depression and anxiety in my 20s, Miya helped me through it. She flew me to Colorado and ultimately saved my life. When she passed away, I felt like I lost my positive self-talk.
In 2007, I was living in Australia when I received an email from Miya saying that something was going wrong in her marriage. My sister was in an abusive relationship. It’s wrong to abuse anyone, but specifically someone with bipolar disorder who cannot see the end of a down. I wrote back letting her know that I loved her and advising her to leave him. I’d later miss a call from her, which of course, sits with me. Anyone who has lost someone experiences this sense of guilt. When it comes to suicide, the idea that you may have been able to intervene leaves a scar. It fades, but never disappears.
Originally, my friend and I were supposed to travel to Queensland that week but suddenly, as if someone whispered to me, I needed to change course and fly to Brisbane. It was a really expensive flight but felt like the right thing to do. Later that day, I couldn’t shake a lingering feeling. I turned to my friend and said, “Something’s really wrong with my sister.” I could feel it.
The next day, I opened my email and had about 50 messages from people. Without reading a single one, I called my best friend. When she asked if I was sitting down, I told her to just say it — because I knew it.
It was this really surreal experience of the world slowing down and feeling a loss of control of everything. I think one of the most difficult things about suicide is knowing how somebody passed away. My sister hung herself, which was very violent and difficult to hear.
I had four layovers on my return trip to Detroit. During my last stop in Chicago, I was really anxious and couldn’t get a hold of my family. When I got on that flight, my older sister Britni’s best friend happened to be on the plane. We also later found out that flying out of Brisbane was my fastest way home and in Jewish culture, a person needs to be buried within seven days of their death. One of the things that I’ve learned from this experience is that we’re always protected and supported — even in moments of trauma.
Everybody grieves differently. My mom, a photographer, decided to interview and take portraits of Holocaust survivors across the world and published a book called Living Witnesses Faces of the Holocaust. She surrounded herself with other people who have experienced loss, grief, and healing, which validated her emotions. She couldn’t surround herself with happy people, because that’s not how she felt. My dad, on the other hand, worked a lot and hid his emotions. While my mom likes to talk about Miya constantly, my dad doesn’t talk about her because it’s too painful. Those conflicting coping methods can be very separating for them.
I had to wrestle with my own past feelings of wanting to commit suicide, but Miya took that choice away. I could see the effects on my family and with no good conscience could that ever be an option anymore. I had to step into the reality that this life is something that I have to choose.
Truthfully, I ran away. I went to India for three years, seeking to understand how to liberate myself from my suffering. Discovering the knowledge of Vedanta [an Eastern philosophy] in India offered the clearest, most logical way to understand the human constitution, the world, and spirituality.
For me, I’ve made Miya’s death an opportunity to grow and to do it with her. When I returned from India, I started working for YogaMedics, a therapeutic yoga company in Bloomfield Hills that Miya’s best friend was running. I never thought I would be doing yoga for a living but when I taught my first class, it was like breathing. And when the opportunity to open my own studio presented itself unexpectedly, it was like a lightning bolt. My purpose is so closely tied to Miya that I can grieve and therapize. It’s sort of like we did this together.
So it makes sense that Miya’s photo hangs in every Citizen Yoga studio as an idol. The memory of her makes me a better person and her photos remind everyone to have the courage to put down their phones, turn to the person next to them, and say, “hello.” We have found it is the smallest, but most effective effort to prevent people from feeling alone. I always think that the antidote to depression is community.