IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GRIEF AND SORROW? BETWEEN MOURNING A DEATH BY SUICIDE VERSUS ONE BY ACCIDENT OR NATURAL CAUSES?
IF SO, DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
OF COURSE IT DOES.
SHAME AND GUILT ARE PART OF THE WEIGHT EVERY “SUICIDE WIDOW” CARRIES. HOW DO WE HOW INCORPORATE THEM INTO WHAT WE HOLD ON TO, AND WHAT WE LET GO OF? HOW DO THEY SHAPE OUR LIVES, THE LIVES WE ARE STILL LIVING?
Six years ago today I came into my late mother’s house, where David and I were living temporarily, readying it for sale.
He was gone.
I found instead, his body. Hanging, in the basement. In my mother’s old laundry room.
He was wearing jeans and his favorite Old Navy sweatshirt jacket. A hoodie, the black one with the gray striped lining. In the single glance I took I saw just the sway of the body, only a few inches above the floor. He had the hood up; his back was to me, so I didn’t see his face.
But the plastic rope (‘ligature’, the coroner said later) was white, looped around the back of the hood, clearly visible.
I had actually forgotten that this was anniversary of that day. But a friend (entirely well-intendedly, assuming I was quietly hurting) sent me a comforting note.
And then, of course, there it was.
First: I was filled with shame: how could I have not recalled this?
And then, the familiar deep sorrow: the waste, the waste, of that good man. David Koff was talented, smart, a documentary filmmaker and political organizer who had given much to the world, a father who loved his children deeply.
Yet, this sorrow is not precisely what I recognize as grief.
David, in the depression he battled with for years, had left me, and himself, long before that day when I found his body in the basement.
I must have climbed up and down those weathered wooden stairs thousands of times, run hundreds of loads of wash in that room. Folded countless sheets and t-shirts and jeans over and over on the oil-cloth-covered table to the right of the dryer (As a little girl, under that table had also been a good hiding place).
There was a pull-chain light in the room, a bare bulb. There was a little natural light, too, which came in through two high-up half-windows, filtered through the lower branches of a row of hydrangeas in the backyard.
Now, of course, I have to reach for those memories, as I just did in writing this.
Unless I work at it, that room belongs only to David’s body, swinging.
In about 2012, I remember saying to him (I have told this story before), “I miss you!”
He looked at me ruefully and said, “I miss me, too.”
And that, I think, may be as true a statement about what it is like to be colonized by the cancer that is depression as anything is.
And also what it is like to love and live with someone who is thus colonized. Someone who is no longer there.
(The photograph at the top of this post: He was stroking Cattywhompuss, our sweet laidback tabby, who was sprawled over his lap. I had my i-Phone camera by then, and I raised it. “No pictures,” he said. Depression was deep in him by then, and “I don’t want any pictures taken of me,” he said. “But the two of you look so cute!”I protested. “Just my hands then,” he said. “Just the cat and my hands.”)
(A few months later, I found myself in the surreal moment of being in a rental car after David’s cremation, with his adult daughter… who was driving, I do not recall. It was the first time I had met her. She was physically lovely, a much-accomplished writer — I would name her, but she is very private — and utterly shell-shocked by her father’s death, for he had hidden his depression from all but me, and insisted I tell no one. Out of the blue she suddenly asked me, “:Do you have any pictures of David’s hands? I keep thinking about David’s hands.” I was able to say, “Yes! I do!” It was little enough. But it was something.)
The moments I feel grief (that overpowering tsunami of emotion so powerful that to call it a “feeling” is shockingly inaccurate) are when I remember David before his dreadful illness occupied him. Before it took his mind and emotions, and ultimately his body.
That body! He was so vain about it when we first met, and he had every right to be: he was without fat, sleek and muscled, gym-buff: 3-hour work-outs, 5 days a week, at Gold’s.
But a decade later, I had to beg him to go on a walk with me around the block.
His last walk, I presume — he took it without me — was probably to the hardware store, to buy that white plastic rope.
I later found the portion he didn’t use, neatly bundled and looped in an upstairs room.
Really, David? Like I was going to use it for something, anything?
But, with the same effort I employ in reminding myself of the laundry room before it was a suicide site, I can remember “good David.” Not “good” as in good versus bad, good as in true, actual: the man he was without illness.
Once when we were traveling, probably to New York to see my mother, we were in the car; he was driving. I was fretting aloud about leaving the cats alone for two days: with plenty of food and water and three cat boxes, true, but still…
David, lifting one eyebrow, glanced at me, wryly. He said, in a definitive tone, mock-professorial, brooking no argument, authoritative: “Their kind have survived for thousands of years.”
Or riffing. He pretending to be Lord Windymore (since he had lived in Sussex he could do a plummy upper class British accent quite well) while I was “Molly O’Titum, from below-stairs.”
Or us being two cowpokes, Hodge and Podge. Out on the prairie, having surreal conversations. Driving the dawgies. On the way to his lodge. Which was in Dodge.
Or working on our garden together.
Or the time when the local library held a squash festival and we wrote and performed a silly song to the tune of “Aloutte”, which began, “Cu-curbita, how I love to eat ya…”
Things we did. Especially, things I laughed at with him, back before the depression. If I really let myself recall them, emotionally, they can make me cry now.
And yes, then I feel a flash of what I know as grief, as opposed to sorrow and sadness.
But only when I recall those things.
So I mostly don’t.
Partly by choice. Partly because suicide is so big it decides some things for you.
Once he and I had spent a couple of hours working in the fine garden we co-created (I have never had such a good one, and it seems unlikely I ever will).
He took a break, resting on the grass up the hill a bit, while I continued to weed.
After a few minutes, he called to me: “Dragon! Come and just sit with me.”
It was one of those sublime Vermont days, still warm, but with the tiniest edge of fall and pending winter in it — September, his birthday month.
I stopped doing and went to him. We sat. We leaned into each other, mostly quiet as I remember, just appreciating. The day, the garden, each other.
We were never passionately in love, David and I. But we loved each other in our fashion, as well as we could. And we worked together well.
At least, until depression moved in. It did not move away or even blink, taking more and more space. Evidently convincing him finally that he had no options left but the one he took.
I did say to him, that day on the hillside when we sat there looking at our garden and admiring the hills and the slope down towards the pristine pond, I did say, “There’s a James Taylor song I’d like to play for you later, that’s just… this. September Grass.”
I did play it for him, that evening.
As almost any “suicide widow” will tell you, there’s an ongoing interior courtroom. In mine, I will always try the case of, did I or did I not love David enough, or in the right way.
The verdict is never reached. The trial is never fully over.
So let the evidence reflect that before I played September Grass for him that evening at twilight, I found and printed out the song’s lyrics for him. He did not hear very well, and I knew also he would want to parse every word. So he read them as he listened.
Let the evidence also reflect that, though he was not a very expressive guy, he teared up. “That’s so exactly it,” he said, “Us, today.” And, reading from the page I had printed out, he quoted, “We’re so small and the world’s so vast, we found each other down in the grass.”
Only for a little while, though.
Let the evidence also reflect that, a few years later, I, so foolishly as it turns out, so ignorant as I was about the true nature of depression, was trying to cheer him up. (I feel more shame at this.)
I was trying to recall with and for him good times we had and thus might, in some fashion, have again.
I said, “Do you remember that day, the summer we had the really good garden? And you called me to come and sit with you, and I did? And later we listened to that James Taylor song together?”
He gazed at me, with the blank, ripped-apart endless bleakness that became his default private expression in the last several years.
“Nope,” he said.
That song: of course I don’t listen to it now. It takes me back to somewhere I don’t wish to go. To David both before and after. It reminds me that, yes, there was a “before.”
Before depression. Before his final act.
This is a fact I have schooled myself rigorously to forget. I in a sense cauterized grief preventively, having felt it for so long, in my previous widowhood.
There is nothing harder than to endure than grief, the monotonous unstoppable exhausting agony of it. The person you loved not there not there not there not there.
But here is the thing: Ned, my husband, did not choose death (David did).
And we loved each other passionately (David and I didn’t).
And we were deeply happy (David and I were not, not for the last years, which were ruled by his disease).
And we were married (David and I were not).
Ned had been wholly there, fully present, and so when death snatched him and he suddenly wasn’t, the rude impossible fact of his absence was all there was, for a long, long time. Years.
But David had been absent long before he walked down the funky wooden stairs to my mother’s basement that last time.
Suicide is so huge and absolute an act of self-violence that it casts a long shadow.
For me, that shadow mostly has blocked out my ability to remember “good David”, as I say. The man I admired, loved, and respected. The man with whom I had five years or so of companionship and kind partnering, before the depression came creeping in, then, having taken hold, roared.
Then there were another five years. Then David exited.
Because of all this, the sorrow I have at David’s death is, though deep and sincere, not pure. It is not grief as I have known it; it is not unalloyed. It is complex, and polluted by its complexity.
It is perhaps sadder.
It is also, if I am honest (and I hate being honest about this; it makes me feel I am a bad, selfish, unkind person), easier.
Now it is six years since David’s exit, and I had to be reminded that today was the day.
As my forgetting shows, I have “moved on.” As they say.
A kind of “moving on” I don’t believe is possible with pure grief. Grief never leaves one, though the intervals of its swells grow farther and farther apart.
But this kind of sorrow? Evidently, it does. Or can.
My mother’s house was sold, about three months after David’s death. So, about four and a half years after that, was the farm, where I lived with David, and where I had spent summers as a girl.
I now live in a different town; a small Southern city, in a 1908 home. I love the house, and the neighborhood.
And I love Mark Graff, with whom I share both. With whom I share my life. With whom I am passionately in love.
At the late age of 67, I am marrying Mark. Of course, respect, friendship, admiration are also part of Mark’s and my alliance, but they are nothing like the whole thing. Mark and I sound depths together which David and I never approached. Did Ned and I? Yes, but he and I were so young; we were together for 23 years, starting when he was 22 and I was 25.
That Mark and I have come to love each other late in life, passionately (including sexual passion) changes everything.
Part of the change is loving with a full, eyes-open understanding of mortality and what it means to whichever one of us remains after the other gives over to that endless end. Another part is all we have lived through individually. The lapidary machine of our respective rough-and-tumble years and losses has removed many outer layers. We are probably kinder to each other than we would have been had we met earlier. We probably try harder.
Being older, Mark and I have also each laid accustomed paths of being, thinking and perceiving for so very long. We are each stubborn. We love; we fight; we love some more. For we are also stubborn about doing the fascinating, exasperating, devotional work of understanding, yielding, fully seeing the other. We are equally stubborn in this: that we are each all in, and will not waste the astounding opportunity we have been given.
There are few days when we do not realize that we have opened and renewed our contract with life and love, at a time when many are closing both down, by choice or circumstance or ill-health or, of course, death.
As I process all this today, let the evidence reflect one more thing.
That I “forgot” David’s death until I was reminded was partially a conscious act, as I have said. But there is actual evidence that this, forgetting, was a task I set myself .
Mark and I are still unpacking the boxes stacked in what we call the Tetris Room. We dove in again last weekend, for I was in search of a particular notebook, of articles I had written, back in the days when being a magazine article writer was still a viable part of my professional life. He did all the heavy-duty grunting and lifting, box after box pulled out, opened, inspected, stacked, and then a few days later, moved back. I had had shoulder surgery a month earlier, and his labor was a measure of his acted-upon commitment to me, and what was important to me: there were less physically strenuous things he would have much preferred doing, and certainly his 68 year-old back would have appreciated his doing them. Yet he did it.
We didn’t find the notebook. But other things were discovered, as always.
I picked up a piece of paper that had fallen out onto the floor from one of the boxes. Typed but scribbled over editorially (by me) in pencil, it was a rough draft of a poem.
Let the evidence reflect that it was written on May 3, 2014, about two months after David self-murdered.
Let the evidence reflect that I clearly set myself a task, and that, on reflection six years later, I have accomplished that task.
Let the evidence reflect that, reading this four days ago, I wept.
David, wherever you are, if you are in fact somewhere — that will have to do, in lieu of remembrance, and grief.
A price I can’t afford, the interest is at 22 percent
and I am overdrawn. Give still more time to salvage,
understanding from our time, your end?
I will not say I am not torn and rended:
but only that, by god, I will release you fast and heartless,
and be mended
Perhaps I didn’t love you well enough
or shouldn’t have begun
“It’s not your fault, a fatal illness when untreated, it’s
depression.” I saw a brightness at the start, and pictures
verify that we had fun.
Remove these now. Free space. You,
freedom fighter turned my dictator,
I hereby declare an end to your oppression:
coruscating acid sorrow and self-hate.
But what if by your act you thought
you gave me freedom, just exactly this,
and life insurance money? You thought, release her,
unlock and open wide the gate?
No. Your act was neither
selfish nor unselfish, you merely wanted out.
I’ve thought, “How could you do this,
do this to me?”
But you just did it, I,
your children, the lungwort
blooming blue again within the garden.
quite beside the point.
This is what I have
to learn to see.
This post is part of Crescent’s Widowhood Wednesday series.