IF YOU’VE LOST A PARTNER TO SUICIDE, EXPECT TO REVISIT THAT PECULIARLY GUILT-TAINTED SORROW EVERY TIME A CELEBRITY EXITS LIFE BY HIS OR HER OWN HAND.
MAYBE IT’S TIME TO GROW SOME COMPASSION, ALL AROUND.
Anthony Bourdain’s suicide a year ago hit me hard.
Perhaps this was partly because Bourdain and I work / worked peripherally in the same field, and know/ knew dozens of the same people. Also, I admired his writing so, his cock-of-the-walk arrogance and adventuresomeness, his smart-assy joie de vivre, his intelligence. And his looks. Lord, what a good-looking man he was.
But also, at the time of Bourdain’s death, another death by suicide four years earlier had been much on my mind.
As many here know, I am twice-widowed.
The first time was in 2000, when my husband, Ned Shank, lost his life in a bicycle accident, abruptly ending 23 years of happy, satisfying marriage and wholly upending my inner and outer life.
It’s this before-and-after cleaving I write of most often here when I speak of widowhood. I think the eviscerating grief that followed it — unalloyed, pure, sudden, unambivalent, endlessly difficult — is experienced by most widows who adored their partners.
But there are other kinds of widowhood grief, as I’d come to know later, when the relationship ended by death was unhappier.
Especially when the end is self-imposed.
As was Anthony Bourdain’s.
As was David’s; “my” David.
Though we do not own those we love, as the very fact of death illustrates so brutally.
The second time I was widowed was in 2014. David R. Koff, my partner for not quite a decade, with whom I lived but never married, hung himself, after years of depression.
The grief following his exit, because of the method he chose and because he had been in such despair for years previously, felt to me less “pure” than what I experienced when Ned bicycled off this earth.
This second grief was more confusing but also (and I so hate to admit this, for it seems so cold-hearted and disrespectful) less deep.
It was also, in a sense, not sudden. For by 2010, depression had begun stealing away the man I had first grown to love in 2002. Though nothing can approach the suffering of those who endure it first-hand, it is not easy to live with someone who is clinically depressed.
I remember saying to David, in 2011 or so, “I miss you!”
To which he replied, sadly, truthfully, “I miss me too.”
But for awhile I thought I had come to relative peace with the sorrow and horror of David’s loss.
His life, after all, was his own, not mine. And so, I told myself, was his death. Unlike Ned, from whom it seemed fate itself had stolen life, David had knowingly made a choice.
Then I heard, one morning, of Bourdain’s death.
At that time, I had been writing a play, part of the 2018 Arkansas New Play Festival. The play was called UNTIL JUST MOISTENED: A Not Quite One-Woman Show, with Crumbs. “It’s about love, life, lust, loss, and cornbread,” is the way I sometimes sum it up.
Here’s the life-material from which it was drawn.
In 1999, I had agreed to write a nice little happy single-subject cookbook about cornbread. Had signed the contract during a golden period of my life.
This, a time of deep professional and personal satisfaction, was made radiant by having entered a new phase of loving Ned, the man to whom I had been married for 22 years. We had undergone this renaissance together; he too was aglow with this second round of mid-life falling in love, even more intense than the first time, which had been back in our twenties.
But between signing that contract on the then untitled cornbread book and beginning to work on it, in the middle of this revitalized phase, Ned, out on his three-times-a-week bicycle ride, and a pick-up collided.
At that time and for years afterwards, it appeared to me that all sense of personal happiness and order had died with him. That my remaining life was a life-sentence, to be served out. Because I had no choice (suicide did not seem to me a choice; and therein, perhaps, lies the difference between grief and depression).
In this state writing a nice, happy, lighthearted book, let alone about cornbread, seemed impossible.
The play took place around this conundrum.
Grief lay at its center: what widowhood is like, how utterly unprepared for it most of us are, what helps and what does not as one takes incremental hesitant reluctant steps towards making a new life. In the play I tried (as I do on these posts), to write honestly about two bitter, impossible truths:
A) that grief is one face of love and,
B) that, for anyone who loves, grief is inevitable.
And about grappling with all this when, as they say, “life goes on.” Which in my case meant fulfilling a contract to write a book about cornbread.
I was well into Act Two when I heard the news of Bourdain’s suicide.
By that point, I’d already made the creative decision to omit David in the play. To leave out our shared time, and his dreadful self-chosen death. I focused only own the “clean” , if agonizing, widowhood which followed Ned’s death.
While at first it had seemed to me that David’s suicide might be of a piece with the narrative I was finding as I worked on UNTIL JUST MOISTENED, it turned out not to be.
The questions a suicide death raises are so very different from those brought about by so-called natural loss.
But though this was the correct choice for the play, was it the correct choice for me, personally, ethically? Was it not disrespectful to him?
Over the three weeks I worked intensely on UNTIL, I struggled intermittently with the morality of leaving David out. He had been beloved: not only by me. He was grieved by many others: his adult children, his friends, his professional colleagues. And, he was a renowned and groundbreaking documentary filmmaker; he was important in his own right.
And the play was about grief; had I not grieved David’s death (as well as the years of depression, his slow dying to life)?
But I did not grieve him in the manner I had grieved Ned.
I was not and am not without guilt at the deliberate omission of David from the play.
Even as the shape of the play gradually revealed itself to me, and it became clear to me as a writer that this was absolutely right for this piece of work, the non-writer part of me, the part of me that had loved David, however imperfectly, felt sorrow, remorse, and an upwelling of the strange “unclean” grief that follows the survivors of a suicide.
David erasing himself from life wasn’t bad enough? Now I was leaving him out of a piece of work about death and its aftermath for those who’d loved the deceased person?
When someone takes themselves out intentionally, or more truthfully, when the unbearable private nature of that torturous disease known as depression takes them out, forces them to take themselves out to relieve the pain… that kind of death, and the shadow it casts for survivors, is long, fraught, and very different emotionally from the pure and unambivalent grief of “ordinary” loss.
The breach is so deep and absolute it tends to overshadow that person’s sweet or gifted side, their contributions to the world. This kind of death tends, for the survivors (at least this one, in this case ) to blot out memory of anything else but that terrible end.
Sometimes I’ll remember something funny or brilliant David did or said… his sometimes affectionately rubbing my head and saying “You nutter!” when I amused him, or the way he rough-housed with Cattywhompus, our more-doglike-than-cat-like male tabby cat. I’ll come across David’s handwriting on a file he kindly organized for me, or remember him pointing out the reflected lights on a wet street at night, and how beautiful they are on film… and suddenly I get a stab of what I’d call “pure” or “real” grief.
But that is very different from what I feel about David most of the time, and about this I also feel guilt.
For suicide changes everything that went before.
Demands a reinterpretation of one’s history with that person, and of that person him or herself. Upends what we think we know about the power of love and the ability to change, on a personal level.
These were questions I was wrestling with as I worked on writing the play, choosing what to put in and what to leave out, and framing it all with and through the making and understanding of cornbread.
Then one morning, walking in Wilson Park, near the home I was subletting while I wrote the play, I checked the news feed on my phone, and there it was: Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life.
Did I actually double over as if punched in the stomach, or did it just feel that way? I know I said out loud, “Oh, NO!” because a man walking his Jack Russell terrier passed me, glanced at me curiously, and said, “You all right?”
And I said, “Yes, thank you.”
And I was, and I wasn’t.
As I watched the whirlwind of grief and incomprehension that Anthony Bourdain’s death stirred in this world, the same world he had explored and partaken of with such vigor, I was reminded again of the imperative of compassion.
Compassion towards those who take their own lives, and also to those of us who, having loved these vanished ones, try to make sense out of this incomprehensible and absolute act.
Tony Bourdain’s death reminded again also of the necessity of accepting that life is is far more mysterious and complex than our would-be simple explanations.
We never ever know the full burden of what even the most talented, ambitious, successful, intelligent and good-looking among us carry (something the poet Miller Williams says exquisitely in the poem quoted at the end of this post).
For it turns out that none of these things matter if a person is unable to love and be loved. And to dwell in some measure of consistent self-love and interior peace, despite the impossible difficulties of this world.
People who check out early and at their own hand, by their own choice, are not weak or selfish. They were in agony. Often private agony. Sometimes an agony so deeply private, and so much in contrast to their public persona, that that contrast itself must only have deepened their already vast suffering.
And eventually, such people cannot, could not, bear it anymore.
May they truly rest in peace finally.
May those who loved them have the courage to grieve, even with the ambivalence and guilt that inevitably follow for survivors of a beloved’s suicide.
It’s now a year since I thought about all this. But with the anniversary of his death coming, it’s time to say goodbye again, Anthony Bourdain.
And as to you, David, to whom I first said the most final kind of goodbye five years ago, again, goodbye.
I am sorry I could not put you in that play, but your story, and mine, and the particular kind of grief I grieved for you — that was not the story I was telling. Your story, and mine with you, is another story, two stories. Yours is one that, in part, I can only imagine, as I try to grow sufficient understanding to do so accurately.
Tony, whom I never knew, David, who I did: I hope your pain has ceased.
And as for those who are tempted to take their lives, and those who do; those who suffer from depression and those who succumb to it; those who cared and care for them, and torture ourselves over what we think we can or should have done differently… what I hope for all of us is that we grow compassion, which is, like grief, one face of love.
For what else can make this almost impossibly difficult existence possible?
Here’s how, here’s why: a gift, compassionate in itself, by my friend, the late poet Miller Williams.