After a lovely anniversary dinner with Rose last night, we went back to her place, settled in front of the tv to look for a movie to watch, and I picked up my phone for the first time in a few hours to discover that a friend has died by suicide.
The loss is terrible. Amanda was my age, a beautiful caring person with an amazing childlike sense of humour. We first met through this blog and became online friends about a year ago, meeting at events here and there. I was hoping to get to know her better over time. We have mutual friends who are also hurting.
Rose and I, it turns out, are both sensitive to grief and suicide and react to it in very different ways. Last night was painful and fractious. Today is tender and raw. I feel dazed.
There’s an inclination after suicide to think that the person, in a sober mind, looked at their life with a detached eye and concluded that it was not bearable. Those of us who are vulnerable ask “If they couldn’t make it, how can I?”, “If all their wisdom/support/resources/insights were not enough for them, what can save me from my pain?”. I think this approach supposes a level of rational thinking, and a capacity of looking at life as a whole that many of us lack when we are suicidal. Sometimes it is not a summary of their life, it is a bad night. It is overwhelming pain, a loss of hope. It doesn’t take away from all that they’ve done, their kindness, joy, insights, tenderness, humour. Their life’s story is still about everything dear to them, the values they lived by, the way they loved, their passions and sorrows. Suicide is a part of that but not all of it, pain is part of that but not the whole of it.
This may not be Amanda’s story. I don’t know what happened at the end, if mania or despair took her. I only know my loss.
Death shatters us. Each is unique, suicide is different from accident, which is different from murder, or negligence, or long illness, or sudden loss, one person or a whole car of loved ones, a child, a parent, a lover. All have their own deep pain. All make us feel very alone. We struggle to find ways to unite deeply divided responses – I forgive you and I hope you are at peace / Please don’t go, it will tear my world apart. I love you / I hate you / I should have done more / You should have done more/ How did I fail you? / How could you do this to me? We try to find ways to speak that don’t glamorise or demonise ending your life, and it’s not easy. There’s a sudden ending to their story that we were not ready for. We haven’t said all we wished to. We didn’t know that hug would be our last. We review the past weeks and months with a new eye, jaded and worn by grief. Every word and gesture is imbued with new and terrifying meaning. We try to judge the tipping points, the final straws, the real reasons. We try to weigh your life in the balance, to work out why you left it behind. We feel sometimes that we have inherited, like unclaimed mail, the burden of pain that overwhelmed you. We feel stripped bare by the loss that love has brought into our lives.
Our culture is not good with grief. We have no shared days of mourning for lost loved ones. Grief often isolates rather than connects us. Our lives are structured in such ways that it’s difficult to find time to grieve at first, we’re numbed by work and funeral arrangements and all the administration of a life ended. Then there is too much time, alone and absorbed into a pain so deep and enduring we know in our hearts that we will never be the same and never be without it. We grieve in different ways, so that’s it hard to share, our cycles of needing to go into our pain and move away from it do not exactly match any other person. We fear death and pain and loss and withdraw from those who have been touched by it. It overwhelms us, takes us into dark places, cuts us off from life, and hope, and loved ones, and the needs of the living.
I don’t believe this has to be the way we mourn. Life, love, and death are deeply intertwined. Today, on facebook, another friend has given birth to a daughter. Her joy is palpable. With grief, we can warp around it in ways that wound us. I’ve felt this – it’s R U OK day today and I’m grieving the loss of a friend. I’d briefly thought about writing about R U OK on this blog a few days ago but let the idea go. I’ve been busy with art and business plans and relationships. I feel guilty for that. I wonder if Amanda was reading my mental health struggles here and they added to her burden. I wonder about our mutual beautiful and likewise vulnerable friends. I wonder about how to navigate a loss that is personal and public, as Amanda was a member of groups I look after. I wrestle with trying to find ways to respond that are respectful, that give everyone space to react as they need to. If I don’t take care, grief will tell me stories that harm me, like I am responsible for things I am not, or that life is brutal and without hope, or that I will never be happy again, or that love is too painful to bear. Without these wounds, grief isn’t lethal, it doesn’t destroy me in the same way.
For myself, I seem grieve best when I give myself to it. Grieving is like dying. Pain, numbness, apathy, rage, anguish. If I can accept it and make space for it, it makes me feel like I am dying but does not kill me. I make time to hurt and weep. I accept the numbness as a relief without fear or judgement. I accept the times of peace or even happiness without hating myself or wondering if I did not care enough. I move into and out of grief as my heart dictates. No one to tell me to move on or get over it, and no one to judge me for shock, dissociation, or still finding pleasure in life. I do not run from it in fear, and I do not hold myself in it to torture myself. I hold to two beliefs: they were deeply important, their loss, and my pain, must be marked and recognised. Life is also deeply important, and to be lived rather than shunned, both pain and joy. Grief then, is less a garrotte around my throat, barbed wire biting into my heart, and more a tide washing in and out, overwhelming me so deeply one moment that the world turns black and I cannot remember what life was like before it, and another moment withdrawing into a vast ocean and leaving me laying on the sand beneath an endless sky of dazzling stars. Like Persephone, my heart goes down into the underworld, and rises into spring, over and over.
This is only one way. There are a million ways to grieve. This is how I have grieved in the past, when I finally let go of the impulse to use death to terrify and torture myself. I may grieve differently in the future. I have lived in the fear of death, where in nightmares I lost all I loved. Since a small child I have attended my mother’s funeral many times in dreams. I used to drive home and see in my mind vivid images of my family slaughtered in the house and lying in their blood. My heart would pound until I laid eyes on a living person. I have been chronically suicidal and have cared for other suicidal people. I try to make peace that some of my friendships may have a short time in this world. I also rage against it, hold tight to my belief that hope is precious and essential, that our love for each other makes a difference. I remember the studies that talked with people who had tried to take their lives but survived, most later were glad to have lived, had lives they loved. Things had changed and hope had come back to them.
So, I’ve cleared a couple of days off. I’ve cried and slept a little. It’s raining softly here, I’m going to go and sit in my garden and plant some tiny plants into the earth. I’m going to give myself time to understand that Amanda is gone. I’m going to tell her how wonderful she was anyway.