(Photo by Ted Eastburn)

The Middle Distance 10.1.10: “The Hole That Can’t Be Filled”

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photo by Sean Cayton

Now comes reality. The grace period of shock has passed and we are mired in the deep middle distance of grief. Anxiety surrounds us like a magnetic shield. Our loved one has died of suicide and we are still here. But, on some days, it feels as if we were the ones who absorbed the fatal blow.

Imagine the one you love, here one and day, then gone the next. Then add this simple but profound layer of reality: he chose to die. Your friends and family who love you most will offer comfort in every imaginable form, and will join you as you soothe yourself by remembering him—lovely and vital, funny and impulsive, smart and strong.

Here are the things those who love you will not do. Take notice. Those who love you won’t probe for answers, feigning concern for you and your family while trying to satisfy their own morbid curiosity. They will not dance around the question of why, circling the wagon, then coming in for the kill. These morbidly curious do not love you. They do not understand or they do not care that there is no single why, no simple reason. They don’t understand that there are hundreds of factors contributing to the despair that prefaces the ultimate why of suicide: at that moment, he wanted to die.

Those who love you most won’t avoid you because the cause of death was suicide and they just don’t know what to say. Nobody knows what to say. Hold out your arms. Stare hard at the living and love them for being alive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, about how to pass through this grief without withering, and about how people respond to suicide. I googled ‘etiquette following suicide,’ only to find that that Amy Vanderbilt, author of the comprehensive guide to modern manners, likely died of suicide, a plunge from a second story window. But so great was the stigma surrounding suicide at the time of her death, that Vanderbilt’s hypertension medication was blamed, a dizzy spell followed by a fall.

Does it matter how someone dies? Having experienced natural death, death by accident, and death by suicide in my family over the last three years, I’d say definitely yes. It matters. Suicide haunts the survivor with its endless maze of questions that will never be answered. Suicide suggests a depth of human suffering that we don’t want to comprehend.

One day last week, I decided the only way to face the day was to wrap myself in soft covers and stay in bed. I didn’t pull the covers over my head and tell everyone to go away. I just propped myself up with pillows, surrounded myself with bills and busy work and books, and stayed there until I felt better. No one brought me a breakfast tray, though that would have been grand. The dog wandered in and out, casting me curious looks but respecting my lassitude. I felt good, almost normal, after just a few hours of surrender to this small, soft, manageable way of living.

But now comes reality. We have to work, and drive cars, and board airplanes, and take tests, all while entering this intense period of grief that says: this is final. You will have to go on without him.

This weekend, the family is gathering for the first time since our loved one’s death. We want to wrap one another in soft covers and apply heating pads and soothe our wounds. We’ll search each other’s faces for the cracks of fear we all have felt. We will tell stories and plan our futures and wish for any present but this one.

Yesterday, a friend who has also recently lost a beloved, told me a story she overheard, having to do with the author Shelby Foote. Loosely related and told third-hand, it basically goes like this: One of Mr. Foote’s best friends died and someone asked: How will you fill the hole in your heart?

Mr. Foote thought for a moment, then said: Why would I want to fill that hole?

My friend took something profound away from this and so do I. Some holes can never be filled. They remain there to honor the uniqueness of a life and a loss. They remain there to contain the grief that can never be measured or fully expressed.

The holes in our hearts remind us that the source of love is infinite and immeasurable; they are deep underground caverns with wild rivers flowing through them.

“The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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13 Responses to The Middle Distance, 10/1/10: "The Hole That Can’t Be Filled"

  1. John Hauber says:

    Thank you for writing your personal thoughts and feelings. Love will be with you this weekend.

  2. Dixie Cole says:

    Thank you, Kathryn… your words are forever comforting. Peace to your and your family as you gather together this weekend~

  3. jere martin says:

    As always, you seem to be able to dig deep and make a wise, honest and profound contribution through your own pain and process. So many of us have been touched by suicide in some way. I wonder if some of those who “do not love you” may be seeking answers out of a place of their own experience of making sense of things not talked about and left in the shadows. Profound thanks for shining some light there, and deepest wishes for the salve of connection this weekend.

  4. Liz Arnold says:

    Thank you, Kathryn, for writing what is in my heart. I am glad to let the rivers flow. I love you.

  5. Julie Kiley says:

    Peace to you and your family and friends.Thank you for your ability to articulate that which the rest of us wish we could say but can’t quite form to words,
    As someone who often faces families who have had a recent death, I would note that almost all of us need to ask “Why?” for any death. We have our own innate needs to make sense out of loss. I would echo Jere that those who express their curiosity, while being insensitive, may still love you very much. They may need to know how they could prevent such a tragedy from happening in their own family.
    May your time of coming together this weekend be comforting and healing.

  6. Amber Cote says:


  7. C. Geiser says:

    While we recognize, even though we may not want to, that life ends, our fear of the unknown seems to drive many of those questions you so dislike. Death is always a difficult subject and suicide seems the most difficult of all deaths. Perhaps those who ask “why” are not asking out of vulgar curiosity. They may be seeking answers to their own questions, trying to soothe their own fears and pain.

  8. Carolyn Caplan says:

    My dear Kathryn. I may be one of the ones who have stayed away, but not because I don’t love you or care about you, but because I too suffered such a loss and am still dealing with it years later. I know there is little that can be said, and certainly nothing that can or should be asked. I suffered my loss alone; no one wanted to talk about someone who killed himself in prison. I am glad that you are surrounded with such a large group of loving and caring folks. You deserve it. We all deserve it. But your written expression of your deepest feelings will help bring about some peace, and it has helped others, including myself, to deal with the awfulness of suicide. Thank you. Know that you are in my heart.

  9. Marilyn Wright says:

    Kathryn, I loved the comment about the “hole in a heart”! It assures me that it’s O.K. to honor it instead of trying to fill it!
    So I can now caress it — not deny it. Thank you for making this clear to me.

  10. Libby says:

    It is a treasure that in your enduring grief your personal sharing helps and will continue to help so many. My personal knowledge contributes only that persons do not “want” or “choose” to die; rather, at a moment, individual human limits seem reached and living on, too painful.
    May you and your family give one another love and comfort this weekend, and always.

  11. Eva says:

    Hard to say which is more filled with grace and courage: this story, or its telling. Beautiful.

  12. John Sobecki says:

    …deep underground caverns with wild rivers flowing through them… an excellent description of the love that surrounds us, if we are able to let it in. Thanks again for your words this week. I feel this must be difficult for you to write week after week during this time, but thanks.

  13. matt durham says:

    I have rarely read something so intensely moving, so eloquent in its simplicity, so able to arouse a sympathy by vicarious grief. Beautiful indeed.


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