September is National Suicide Prevention Month. It is also the birthday month of the late David Koff, with whom I lived for almost a decade, and who ended his own life.
I wrote this exploration of the collateral damage of suicide, six years ago, three years after David’s death.
In 2014, I had a new cat come to live with me. New to me, that is; Nomah was actually 14 years old. She belonged to my friend Rupa, who died on the 4th of July that year. Intelligent, affectionate, and calm — as was Rupa herself, a glowing soul — Nomah quickly made her way into my heart.
To the extent that, when I went to Maine for a couple of days that year, I could hardly bear to leave her, though I had someone lined up to stay here and feed her.
That is when I suddenly remembered something David told me, back when he was well, maybe in 2008 or 2009.
We were in the car, headed to New York for three days. I began to fret aloud about leaving the two cats we then had (one of whom was Cattywhompuss, pictured); though we had them well set up with a ridiculous amount of food, water, warm blanket-nests, and a freight train of litter boxes.
David listened to to me worry aloud for a bit. Then remarked, mock-tartly, professorially, “Their kind have survived for thousands of years.” I guffawed then.
But remembering it last week? Grief-stab.
It is easy to forget how funny and charming David was when he was well. Because for so long, for the last four or five years we were together, he wasn’t.
A FEW FACTS
Here are the facts: I am twice-widowed.
On the last day of November 2021, it’ll be twenty-one years since I lost Ned, my husband. We had been married for 23 years. He was 44 when he died in an accident.
The pure, unalloyed grief I felt following Ned’s leaving is the widowhood passage I have mostly explored here.
On the 6th of March 2022, it’ll be seven years since I lost David. We had lived together for eight years, starting about 24 months after Ned’s death. David was 74 when he died.
It is less easy to explore this second journey, the passage following David’s death. I have skirted it here on m widowhood posts. It is less “clean”, harder to understand or take meaning from.
Okay. Let me get this over with.
David hung himself.
I found his body.
As anyone left after someone they love has taken his or her own life can attest, the grief that follows a suicide is complex.
Suicide — the word has two meanings. We use it to describe both the act and the person who took that act. A person whose life has been taken by someone else is a homicide victim; a person who takes his or her own life is a suicide, not a suicide victim. For suicides, mode of death becomes identity.
In a way, this makes sense. The act of killing oneself casts so long and complicated a shadow, it is hard to see clearly the person who did it.
Those who take their own lives leave unanswerable questions. Those of us who loved them don’t have the difficult luxury of pure, unalloyed grief. Ours is cut with adulterants: guilt, anger, remorse, blame, stigma and confusion.
And there’s a lot of that kind of grief around. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. Last year, 2020, 44,834 Americans condemned themselves to death, and carried out their own execution. Think of the circles of grief that surround these numbers. The spouses. The families. The friends. The colleagues. Those unanswerable questions, all those inheritances of guilt, anger, remorse, blame, stigma and confusion, must number in the hundreds of thousands.
But I am not here to discuss statistics, or the larger issues, or even the detailed particulars of my own, and David’s, case. And I am not ready, today, to take on my understanding of depression, the illness that preceded David’s final act (and may well have been misdiagnosed; I have come to feel that what actually afflicted him is what’s now known as “bipolar type 2.”) That final act, and many aspects of that final act, and the particular path those of us who are so-called “suicide widows” are forced to tread, deserves more exploration than I can do today or in a single post.
I will just say this much: I learned something about how to proceed one dark afternoon, on a black and white striped couch.
David’s death was the third of three calamities that followed one on the other in my life. The first was my mother’s death (actually, her departure was good, peaceful and timely — she was 98 — which made grieving easier, and very clean; the calamity lay in dealing with one threatening, erratic family member in the months before, and protecting my mother, and myself, from his depredations).
The second was the loss of a third of my Vermont home in a flood.
And then, David’s death.
Friends and former students came through for me in this period, kept me tethered to the earth, helped with everything from clearing out the flood-damage in my house to readying my mother’s home for sale to setting up a GoFundMe account. When I think about this period, and all those who pulled me through, I am still overwhelmed with gratitude.
One of these generous friends offered me, so kindly, a gift: the use of a furnished studio apartment in New York for four months, beginning about nine months after David’s death. I accepted, gratefully.
I moved in on the first day of December, 2014; I stayed through March. This is a dark time of year, the days short and the nights long. I was also in personal darkness: in the aftermath of those upheavals, unfamiliar with my new temporary neighborhood (the Financial District), not yet ready to socialize, but not wanting complete isolation. Not back to being under contract for writing.
Yet I was happy there, in so far as happiness was available to me in that time.
The apartment had big windows facing west, towards the Hudson. It overlooked Beaver Street, on which I could look down; there were rooftops to which I could look up.
And best of all, two small glittering slivers of the river were visible. I could occasionally see ferries, and barges, and adorable little bright yellow water taxis.
It was spare, that apartment, with contemporary furnishings; it could hardly have been more different in style and location from my typical dwellings. But this suited me, at that moment.
By the big window, in one corner of the apartment, was a small couch, next to a glass-topped coffee table. The couch was striped in black and white.
Often, in the day, I would nap on that couch. This required either lying on my back with my knees bent, or curling onto my side, in a foetal position.
It was a liminal time: my old life was upended, for a second time (the first having been the period after Ned’s death). The old life was definitely gone, but the new one had not yet revealed itself, and would not be rushed. And that tiny apartment, a cocoon-like way-station, was clearly a temporary resting place.
Because of my previous experience, I had some recognition of what was going on. I did the best I could, taking small actions, waiting it out, beginning to send out writing proposals, working out at the gym, walking. David had, thankfully, left a small amount of life insurance, enough for me to live on for a year and a half or so if I was careful, so I was spared immediate financial stress — for which I remain grateful.
The time of day I was often drawn to for napping was also liminal: dusk, when what light there is shifts swiftly to darkness. Dusk came early then, this being winter.
Falling asleep, too, is liminal: there is a border-moment. You are not awake, not asleep. You are crossing over.
WHAT I SAW (SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU FEAR YOU MAY BE TRIGGERED BY GRAPHIC WRITTEN IMAGERY)
I know I am not the first widow, nor, regretfully, the last, to have found myself at the edge of sleep and then caught, jolted awake with some terrible shard of knowledge, thought, or image relating to the death.
I had known that the one seared instant could trouble sleep forever: the glimpse of what I had seen in the basement laundry room, in the home of my childhood. The slight sway of David’s body, his jeans, the dangling feet, his face turned away. He’d pulled up the black hood of the zippered Old Navy sweatshirt jacket he wore, so even the back of his head was not visible, though the loop of white nylon cord the coroner would later refer to as “ligature” was.
So in the weeks that followed, until I got my mother’s house sold, I went to some trouble to prevent PTSD. I went down to that basement, which I knew well, several times in the weeks that followed David’s death. I went first with a neighbor, and then alone. I stood where I had stood on that terrible afternoon and gazed into the laundry room. I said to myself, aloud, “What you saw, you saw only once, and will never see again. ” I said, “You have done laundry hundreds of times in that room. You played here when you were a kid. ” I said, “You can stand this, you can bear this.” I said, “You can be free of this. You will always remember what you saw, but you don’t have to hold onto it.”
Though I worked in the house by day, cleaning it and clearing it, after David’s death I never spent another night there.
I later went through the whole house, after I had cleaned it and cleared it out, with a bowl of rose-scented water, and I sprinkled the empty, clean dwelling, from basement to attic, room by room. I don’t exactly pray, but whatever I do that passes for it, I did, asking for release and peace — for me, the house, my mother, David, for whoever the home’s next owners might be — in that gesture.
Mostly, this had worked. I could remember clearly what I had seen, but it did not surface unbidden, of its own accord. Not too often, at least, other than in the first weeks after.
Until that late afternoon on the striped couch.
IN THE HEART’S COURT
When the image hurtled me awake I lay there, as the light dimmed, tears emerging from the outer edges of my eyes and rolling down the sides of my face and into my hair. This was not the clean pain of grief. This was the muddied, laden, confused facsimile of it.
I began the recitation, the litany, trial and jury, evidence:
What if I had not stayed over in the city to see friends on March 5?
What if I had pushed harder to get him in to to see his therapist earlier than his March 17 appointment?
What if I had not been so convinced that he would get through it, because my own paradigm was “the harder it is to go through, the better — once you get it — it will be afterwards”?
When he kept saying, “If we met now, we wouldn’t be together,” should I have said something different from what I did say, which was, “Yes, but we aren’t meeting now, we met almost a decade ago”?
What if I had not told him I was thinking that I couldn’t continue like this, that maybe we should consider a trial separation in the late spring or early summer, and see how things went?
What if I had not obeyed his explicit wishes not to tell any of our friends, and, especially, not his adult children, about his deepening depression?
I sat up on the couch at some point, as I countered each judgment, rationally explaining to myself, as I had many times before, why it was not my fault.
People tell those who outlive the suicide of their partners, “It’s not your fault.” They wish to reassure and comfort survivors, and they are surely almost always right.
Depression or mental disorders, or sometimes overwhelming personal circumstances (a painful terminal illness, a reputation- or finance-destroying personal scandal about to break) are the usual causes. Those who commit suicide, by definition, are not killed by others. They do it to themselves, by themselves.
But. As someone who loved, imperfectly but truly, someone who did take his own life, I can tell you that down along the inner fault-lines where “the spirit meets the bone” as the poet Miller Williams wrote, knowing this is true doesn’t go very far towards relieving the impulse to self-blame. I don’t think that any partner (to someone dead or living) could honestly examine him or herself and not discover that he or she could have been kinder, better, wiser, or at least different.
And the surviving partners of suicides do a lot of examining.
What if I —
And then, that winter dusk, sitting on the striped couch, I stopped. Just stopped.
I said to myself, “Crescent!”
I said to myself, “Stop!”
I said to myself, “Okay. What if every terrible thing you say to yourself is true? Say you did cause him to take his own life, say it is your fault. Even if it that were so, what difference does it make? Will it bring him back to life? Will it change the outcome?”
I said to myself, ” There is only one life you can save here, Crescent. It is yours.”
When I say “people say it’s not your fault,” I include the professionals, who say it, too. Even though they, too, sometimes cannot say it to and about themselves.
For I had gone to that March 17h appointment with David’s therapist, the one which David, in ending his life, had chosen not to show up for.
That day, I said to his therapist, “If only I had pushed harder for him to see you sooner!”
His therapist, a nice man who I ran into two years later in a yoga class in Brattleboro, said to me, “You did push! Why didn’t I listen?”
BLUNDERING INTO SOMETHING THAT HELPED
But that day on the couch, instead of trying to comfort myself out of inappropriate guilt, instead of arguing the case one more time, I did — not by conscious choice, but just by blundering into it — what I keep saying we widows have to do. Feel the feelings.
Because feelings really want to be felt, not denied. To be acknowledged, recognized, named. The more you try not to feel them, the more powerful they get, the more urgently they try to break through to you. But when you do allow yourself to feel to them, even those most unacceptable to you, paradoxically their intensity and grip on you loosens.
By saying yes to the possibility of that outrageous, unfair, untruthful, irrational idea — that I had in some way caused David’s death — I was able to accept the bitter reality. He was dead, and whether I might or might not have been able, in a theoretical past, to keep him alive, I could not bargain away an outcome that had already happened.
WHAT IS ASKED OF US
Different things are asked of us when the people we love take their own lives than when they die of natural causes. (Beyond this, of course, is the larger truth: that every relationship is unique, and so is every journey through grief when that relationship is ended by death.)
But four points remain, to me, incontrovertible.
1. We feel what we feel.
2. It is a desperate reaching for control of a force which is not controllable, to imagine we could have changed the outcome had we done something differently.
3. Death is not negotiable.
4. But a life, sometimes, is. At least one life: our own.
And in my life, at present (at the time I wrote this post), among many other joys and pleasures, despite the griefs that have knocked me down periodically, and which I always carry, right along side the celebrations I also carry, there was a very old, probably bereaved tabby cat.
After fourteen years with Rupa, I know that in some feline way I cannot understand, Nomah was surely grieving.
Yet she still purred whenever I walked into the room.
On the average, 132 Americans end their lives every day. Few of us are not touched by losing someone to suicide.
I repost this in memory of:
- Jimmy Reill
- Becky Yankauer
- David R. Koff
- Cindy Rogers
- Janet Alexander
I hope they are at peace now.