[Content warning: suicide]
I have had a blog post draft that I have been avoiding since last fall. I remember opening and closing it a few times back then, trying to put into words how I felt after losing a friend in mid-October. It is not the first or only time in recent memory that I have grieved a lost friend, but it was the first time someone close to me took their own life. I wanted to write about my friendship with this man, the ways in which I miss him, things I wish I could share with him. I wanted to write an open letter to all of my loved ones, to plead a case for you all to live and stay in my life. Nothing I put into words seemed sufficient. Eventually, I gave up. Whenever I opened my drafts to add text to one of my running tallies of the books I’ve been reading, there the abandoned draft remained, a quiet monument to the fruitlessness of this effort.
Today all of my social media feeds are mourning Anthony Bourdain. I can close those tabs, but not the murmurs that drift over our cubicle walls as my colleagues talk about his life and work. So today I thought, maybe it’s time to revisit those thoughts I couldn’t finish in October. Maybe I can add something to this cultural moment we’re having. So I opened the draft called “I don’t know what to title this,” last edited October 30, 2017 at 11 a.m.
It was empty.
A blank space. What’s a better metaphor to describe loss?
But just so you know–you, a reader, a friend, a person who exists in the world and has touched lives whether you acknowledge it or not–grief feels nothing like an empty space. If you, my reader, have imagined that the world might not be moved or wounded by your absence, let me assure you that missing someone is painfully heavy and crowded with feelings.
Grief can manifest physically. In the first few weeks after I learned about my friend’s death, I wanted to walk. I walked long distances, I trudged to Center City and back, usually carrying on rambling conversations on the phone or with friends I convinced to walk with me. Often on these walks, my guts would seize up and send me running for the nearest coffee shop. I bought a lot of apology coffees in those early weeks. I didn’t like to eat.
Every afternoon like clockwork for the first couple of months, my heart would start pounding, my throat would close, and I would struggle to breathe. It felt like a panic attack, but became as familiar as a heartbeat, so instead of panicking I would make myself tea and wait for the hot liquid to release the tightness in my chest. I relied on work to keep me focused and calm, but my mind wandered, my brain clouded like it does when my hypothyroidism isn’t adequately medicated. I often found my cheeks wet without realizing I was crying.
Then there is the emotional chaos of grief. Sadness, sure. Also guilt, obviously: even when you know objectively that you could not have prevented a death, a quiet insistent voice will keep asking: what if you could, though? Horror: at the suffering my friend must have endured, at the suffering his family and friends still endure, at the fragility and fruitless brevity of our lives, including mine. Regret. Nausea. Anger.
In the months before my friend took his life, I saw him almost every week. I should be careful here; I think it’s common for those of us grieving a suicide to inflate our importance in the life of the deceased, to cope with our personal feelings of loss and horror by magnifying the points of contact in our lives. But these are the facts: for years I spent time with my friend every few months or so, usually for theater or music or parties, the good stuff, the fun stuff. After he attempted suicide and spent some time in a clinic last summer, I spent time with him about once a week. He lived nearby, we both enjoyed cooking and television adaptations of classic literature, so once a week we’d meet at his place or mine and have dinner and watch costume dramas. Sometimes we talked about the steps he was taking toward recovery; I believed him to be in recovery, and perhaps I chose not to see evidence to the contrary. Mostly, though, we talked about books and television and my cats, one of whom would lay belly-up next to him on the couch and snore mightily while he petted her. We talked about him adopting a cat of his own.
Two weeks before he took his life, I said goodnight to him on my stoop and told him it would be two weeks before I could schedule another dinner. I would be out of town for a wedding for a few days, and when I returned, my workplace would be opening a new exhibition and I had obligations every weeknight leading up to it. I told him I looked forward to seeing him again after the opening so that we could finish watching the BBC adaptation of War & Peace and start on something new.
I don’t need to spell it out for you. I never saw him again. We will not be starting anything new. And I am furious and sad and remorseful all over again whenever I think about it, which is often.
Smarter people than myself have written more meaningful words than I ever could about the lies depression tells you, the contradictory loops of illogic with which it argues that you don’t matter and that you are exceptional and isolated in this not-mattering, other people matter but you don’t, other people think you matter but they are wrong. I would like to fight your depression about this but I am scared that it would pull the loops tighter, like an anaconda or an abusive partner.
So consider this entirely separate premise that is unrelated to your personal worth as a human being. A life lost to depression or addiction is an inherently violent death. A violent death does not leave a blank space. It unleashes a force, like a violent storm or an explosion. It is dangerous and unpredictable. It will cause pain and trauma. The person who unleashes this force doesn’t control it and has no way to predict or control who will be hurt by it or how much. There will be collateral damage.
And if you have any doubts about that at all, see me, tearful again, unable to focus on my work again, sitting under a tree outside of my office and typing into my phone about a man I’ve never met and a friend I will never meet again.