I had a different post planned for today and wasn’t even sure I should post this essay but in light of the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I really felt that I couldn’t not say anything.
While I wasn’t a dedicated follower of either Spade or Bourdain, I respect their work and was as shocked as anyone to hear the news of their deaths.
My heart goes out to their loved ones, friends, and families. And my heart goes out to anyone who has been touched by someone’s death by suicide. Death is shocking. Death is painful. And no matter how that death happens, it is sad and heartbreaking.
When I was a senior in high school, my best friend killed herself. I, along with everyone else at school, was devastated. The community stunned. We lived in a small, middle-class, quiet town—the kind of town families dream about moving to. Good schools, good neighbors, and good families. Nothing bad ever really happened here, and everyone knew each other. So how could this have happened?
Why did it happen? Everyone wanted to understand why. I wanted to understand why. Anyone looking at her life couldn’t imagine why she would choose to take her own life. People saw in her an honor-roll student, cheerleader, and well-liked classmate from a good, solid family. She lived in a beautiful home with her younger brother and parents. Her dad had a good job, her mother was a homemaker. They were active in the community. They came to every high-school game, participated at school events, and attended church regularly. Her parents were the kind of parents you liked—polite and friendly and they also knew when to give us teenagers our privacy. I loved going to her house. To me, it was peaceful and quiet, always clean and neat, and well stocked with all kinds of after-school treats.
In grief and pain, people want answers, people want explanations so that they can find some comfort somewhere—comfort in knowing. When someone dies from an illness or an accident, we at least know the reasons why. It doesn’t make the pain any less painful. But we know what happened.
When someone dies from suicide, we can’t make sense of it. There are no answers. We never really know why. And that wound is never quite healed.
Healing for me was a long process with many “whys,” “what ifs,” and “woulds/coulds/shoulds.” Why would she do this? Were there signs? Why didn’t I see the signs? Should I have known? I was her best friend, why didn’t I know? Why didn’t she saying anything to me? Worse, what if she did and I didn’t listen? What if I stopped by her house that night or called her? Would I have been able to prevent her death? Could I have helped her? Would she try again?
I couldn’t comprehend her death. It took me many, many years to work through the pain, anger, guilt, and sadness of my friend’s death. Although I never understood it, I eventually made my peace with the loss.
When Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, it brought me back to my friend’s death. I felt that old anger and pain again. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Why would someone do this? I don’t get it. I spoke at length with a friend who has depression to try to understand the why. One thing in particular in our conversation stood out to me—her description of depression. She described it as being in a cloud that you can’t see out of and feeling like you are in a thick fog that you can’t get out of.
Talking with my friend helped me to understand two things: 1.) so many people experience depression, even people you think have it “all together,” and 2.) what it must feel like to have depression. Don’t get me wrong, I by no means know what depression is like since I haven’t experienced it myself. But I’m beginning to understand how it feels for someone with depression. I’m beginning to understand what depression means.
Depression is a real disease—it’s an actual illness that needs to be treated. When an illness isn’t treated, it doesn’t go away on its own. You get help to treat an illness.
So while I didn’t know why my friend killed herself or what she was going through, now, after all these years, I think I finally understand. And I can take comfort in understanding. My hope is that others can also do the same.
(Photograph by Jay Castor.)