Tragically, a friend of mine recently took his own life. As a memorial to him, I am reprinting an essay from 2007 about a dear female friend who took her own life.
When an old friend takes his/her own life, your own life is irrevocably diminished. What seemed to matter before no longer matters, and what seemed to make sense no longer makes sense.
My friend had recently moved 1,000 miles away, to a town which had long extended a magnetic draw on her. But she knew no one there, and since her work was all done on computer, she toiled alone. Like any other human being in those conditions, she was lonely. Yes, she had a loyal companion in her dog, and two very close friends here in California, and a constellation of lesser friends like me; but it was not enough at a critical moment.
She'd had those moments before, and been saved: just as she'd gathered the pills to swallow, a friend had called, and she'd gotten past that moment of dark obsession.
Of all the past days' memories and thoughts, one returns: what if I had sensed her despair and called her at that moment? And why didn't I sense her need for reassurance and human contact at that critical hour? I have often dreamed of her, and had done so just the week before; it was a vivid dream, not at all alarming, and I'd recounted it to her in an email. She'd made no response, and I'd given it no further thought. Was the dream a premonition? No; but perhaps it was a signal, if not of distress, then of some tendril of distress.
It is convenient is think our friends resilient, just as it is convenient for adults to believe children are resilient when turmoil or tragedy strikes the family. Yes, children are resilient--they are human beings. But they are not endlessly resilient, and their quiet after death or upheaval is not resilience or resolve, it is the numbing of terrible pain.
And so this false reliance on resilience nags at me; I was too self-absorbed to think through the underlying conditions in my dear friend's life, and how lonely she might feel. Her childhood was not positive, nor was her family more than grudgingly supportive; there were always squabbles over money and demands for fealty she could not meet. She was resilient, but only just so; and I should have been alert to the proximity of her limits.
But I am also keenly aware of the limits of my influence in her life; though we each wish with all our hearts that we could have saved her in that moment of supreme temptation and pain, there are limits to our influence.
If you think of your oldest, closest friends--I have known and loved her for 37 years now-- then we cannot recall all the thousands of words exchanged or spoken, or the thousands of hours spent together. We recall some few words and scenes, and it is those few we have to cherish and ponder. But what caused us to recall those moments and not others?
We are ripe to influence and connection only rarely; even our closest friends only influence our thinking and emotions at certain unpredictable junctures. After the fact, often when things have gone awry, we remember what they told us, or the comment they made off-handedly, or perhaps most rarely, their earnestly offered advice which we'd promptly ignored.
And so I hold two uncomfortably conflicting truths: that I could have been, and should have been, a better friend to her these past few months, when she needed all her friends' presence and understanding. But feeling this, and knowing it to be painfully true does not alter the limits of my influence in her life. Perhaps I could have contacted her in just the right moment, when my call or words could have tipped her away from that terrible decision; but more likely, that is a vain hope of a heartbroken friend, looking back from the periphery of her life.
For there are limits to us, this poor amalgam of brain and emotion; yes, faith can help, pets can help, friends and family can help, medication can help, insight can help, resolve can help--but none of these, or all of them put together, is guaranteed to overcome the darkness within us at its bleakest. The sufferer must be attuned to that particular wavelength at that moment in time; and if they have spun beyond our reach, then our ability to save them is lost as well.
Those of you who were born with minds which don't follow the happier pathways, the easier pathways, know that the "normal" person cannot understand the despair felt by those prone to one or more of the many madnesses which plague the human mind and spirit. Yes, we all know depression and anxiety, but those blessed with standard-issue minds will never experience the bottomlessness the others experience.
In a peculiarity of natural selection, or God's will (perhaps, despite the false labeling imposed by language, they amount to the same thing), the human spirits with the most enthusiasm for life, the ones with the poet's spark, the ones with the keenest sensibilities and sensitivities to life, are the ones most often drawn to that terrible cliff of self-destruction.
Some may mock Thanatos, the urge to self-destruction, the yin to the will to live's yang, as illusion. But it is real, and if you have not felt it, then count your blessings.
It is ironic, and tragic, that the selfish among us, the bitter types who have soured on life and who tap an endless well of bile to blame others for their own difficulties, or those who always find the energy to trumpet their own self-glory, never end their own lives. They cling on, as if the will to sow discord and ego are indestructable. No, it is the fragile ones, the thoughtful ones, who are drawn to that dark edge, and who jump; for life is too painful to bear at times, and they think not of faith or the love of their friends and family, but of escape.
It is an illusion, a cherished one, and one I wish was true, that love alone can save a lovely soul in extremis. She was loved, dearly, and yet we who loved her could not save her. We cannot but wish with all our own lifeforce that we could have done so, but there are limits, even to love. How I wish I had felt an urge to pick up the phone and call her that day, that hour, in the hope that perhaps that simple act would have distracted her, or comforted her just enough to stay her hand. But I had felt no such urge, and so the moment was lost.
To wish for that is to wish for powers and strengths I do not possess; I am just another muddled, muddling-through human, struggling daily with my own weaknesses and demons, trying not to fail those I love in this life. But I cannot help but feel I failed her, and that haunts me, and will haunt me, even as I know that to want that power in her life is not the same as actually wielding it. Though it is natural to wish for a limitless ability to save such a dear soul, perhaps it is overstating our reach.
When an old friend takes her own life, then you come to know how little you knew of her and of her life in that distant town. There are limits on what a friend can know, at least a friend who is not in the inner circle; and perhaps even they cannot know.
We were close at times, something like cousins or perhaps at the very best, as she once told me, siblings; she had no brothers. There is no good analog or word for friendships with no romantic frisson between men and women. We did not look anything alike; I am tall and fair, and she was very petite, with skin and eyes far different from my own.
She was the much better writer, the one who deservedly won the notice of mentors and prize committees. In comparison, I am a plodder, the aspirant who rows along without attracting much notice because, well, I'm just not that good. I thought her beautiful, and liked looking at her; she had an enthusiasm for things, and life, which I admired and even envied at times.
Now she is gone, and my life is so much poorer. My only consolation, and it too is a poor one, is that I had just written her that I loved her very much, and had always loved her. She'd made no answering comment, for it was known, and understood; but I hope, in my secret heart, that it gave her some small solace to read it, and to know it was true.
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