February 14, 2017 – Fourteen years after my then-fiancé John’s suicide, I go back and forth between remembering it almost as though it were a gruesome scene from a movie I watched long ago, and feeling, in my heart, as though it just happened yesterday.
John and I met in a bar in Manhattan’s East Village in August 2001. The tragic events of September 2001 seemed to have precipitated our spike in romance and commitment, just as they had for many people in New York. John and I got engaged later that September. (Yes, you read that right: we got engaged a month after we met.) We were both 28, and we felt sure about each other. I remember one particularly poignant moment with him, at his family home in New Jersey, where he lived with his father. We both lay on his twin bed, I think it was. We held hands. We didn’t speak. I recall the feeling of being utterly at ease. We had known each other for maybe three weeks.
By late August 2002, we had been living together for about six months in my apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I came home from work one day to find him dead of suicide.
Somehow, all these years later, I can see many gifts to have come from such a sad, sad loss. One is, of course, my daughter Mirabel. She is five years old. She is a wonderful child who never would have existed without John’s death. I have also met an incredible and diverse cadre of people, my fellow suicide survivors. In those early days, the first two or three years after John’s death, suicide support groups were a vital part of my sustenance. Finally, I felt upon discovering them, there was a room I could enter, whether it was a church basement or sun-lit university space, in which I automatically knew something intimate and communal about the others in attendance. Whatever was spoken, no matter how foreign it may have sounded coming from our lips, would be met in unison with head nods of comfort and agreement. It was a place where we didn’t feel so isolated in our own grief.
For the past six years or so, I have had the honor of facilitating the spouse and partner break-out group at the New York City area Survivor Day event, a suicide survivor conference that happens simultaneously in locations throughout the world. Each year in our circle, one of the first things I say as an introduction is, “I’m so glad that you’re here. And I’m so, so sorry that you’re here.” This room full of stories of loss is also a room filled with connection, support, and love. It will never cease to astonish me how those still so raw with grief can offer something to others: a word of shared experience, a listening ear from someone who knows. I get something significant from these groups, too – the continuing capacity to transform John’s death into something more than tragedy.
I was also part of the initial troupe of survivors to train for AFSP’s Survivor Outreach Program, in which long-term trained survivors make outreach visits to those newly-bereaved. (The service is also available via phone, email, or video call.) It seems to me that the primary feeling we seek to have in our hearts in these situations is that we are not alone. I am grateful to AFSP for offering me ways in which I can help to make something constructive and loving emerge from such personal devastation.
I imagine I will always consider John to be a very sweet boy. He was far more than his manner of death. For a time, I felt that my identity was solely that of grief-stricken suicide survivor. I am always a suicide survivor, which I am quite open about, but I am more than that. I still cry at some point during each year’s Survivor Day. I don’t know whether the tears are more for myself in mourning for John and that sad, sad young woman I was; and how much they are for those around me, some of them in the new and frightening early stages of grief. My tears always feel like a connection to John.
Another gift to emerge for me from John’s death is a deepened appreciation of time, aging, and risk. I appreciate getting older as the gift that it is. I hope that there will always be some vibrancy in my spirit. I also think I’m less afraid to be myself: perhaps a natural lesson of aging, but also perhaps a lesson from losing John.
I cannot imagine — gratefully, I would add — the awesome loneliness and isolation John must have felt in his last moments. Since John’s death, a book of my poetry has been published, almost all of which is very personal in nature. It’s hard to find one rational reason for choosing to write and make public such vulnerable material. One possible reason is that however scary it may feel to reveal myself, to not reveal myself is far more frightening. Sharing such a deep sense of community and intimacy with others who understand, through AFSP, has enabled me to live more openly.
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