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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.
Tagged with: The Middle Distance