Goodbye Gazelle: Remembrance of a Friend Lost to Suicide
(Jennifer Russell, Sept. 10, 2014)
“What books are you reading, matey?” This was the first question she ever asked me after the pleasantries were finished, and she nodded at the stack of books I had brought in. At one point in time – prior to my son, of course, I was an avid reader. I had just been to a pagan gathering and was reading Phyllis Curott’s Book of Shadows and Silver Ravenwolf’s To Ride a Silver Broomstick, which Silver had just autographed. D—– had discovered a passion for pagan ways, and we bonded immediately.
She was one of the funniest, smartest, most generous people I had ever met. After I left Hampton Roads, we stayed in contact, and became incredibly close, in spite of the miles that separated us.
You may wonder why I’ve titled this Saying Goodbye to a Gazelle. Her favorite poem was Rumi’s The Gazelle from Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion. She epitomized the gazelle. She wasn’t with her people, but didn’t always know who “her people” really were. As a mixed-race adopted woman, raised in a black family steeped in traditional African-American, Christian culture, she was fiercely proud of being a woman of color. Yet all of the people in her social circle looked like me. She was a bisexual pagan who had to keep her true identity hidden from her parents because she knew they would not approve. She had no interest in finding her birth parents but struggled to understand why she was given up for adoption. She read five books at a time, knew more about rock music than anyone, and could critically think and absorb abstract concepts that mattered to the world. She would meet a homeless person on the street and treat him to lunch, and ask him what he was reading, about his interests, and about his history. But she would never brag to anyone about this. She knew she was special, and different, and unique, and so she sought out others with these qualities, and called us all gazelles. She could not always accept her own gifts, so she often fought depression. And we loved her.
When the subject of this sermon came up in the workshop led by Kimi earlier this year, I was sure the story would be a springboard for gun control. But September 10th is Suicide Prevention Day, as designated by the International Association for Suicide Prevention, along with the World Health Organization. It is also timely, with the recent and most tragic death of the beloved actor and comic Robin Williams. It is necessary, and important, for D—–’s story to be told.
The phone rang about 11:30 p.m. I knew that it was about D—–. It was our friend J—-, sobbing, telling me that she was dead. It was April 1, 2007, four days after her 38th birthday. She had manipulated her boyfriend M—–, a sweet young man, into believing that she needed to be alone in her apartment because she had not been there in many weeks. She had not been there because she had recently been hospitalized for a suicide attempt and was staying with her parents under close supervision.
She was away from M—– long enough to head over to the gun shop on Granby Street and purchase a .38 special for her 38th birthday. It was Virginia, so there was no waiting period. She went back to her apartment, wrote a note with her requests and bequeaths (leaving her beloved Sandman and Strangers in Paradise collection to me), drew a bath – she loved spending quality time in the bathtub – and pulled the trigger.
It was about six hours before anyone found her. Her parents called J—- and they drove over from Portsmouth to the Ghent section of Norfolk, D—–’s neighborhood she loved so much. On the door was a note – “Mom and Dad, please don’t come in.” J—- went in on her own and found D—–, still barely alive in the tub. Or course it was too late. She died five hours later, around 11 p.m., in the hospital. J—- cleaned up the bathroom.
I spoke at her funeral (which as not the funeral she would have wanted, but probably the one she expected). I was brave and soldiered on until her childhood friend gave a soliloquy in French at the wake that we, her friends, held for her. I lost it. I have no idea what Esther said, but her voice, her passion, her sadness unlocked a primal emotion I rarely allow myself to feel.
The weeks leading up to her death were awful. She tried to tell me and I couldn’t – I wouldn’t – hear her. She even sent me The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, and without a note or a card, sent me the issue about The Sandman’s sister, Death. I didn’t get that she was asking me for help – or telling me that she had made up her mind.
I’ve wanted to tell her so many times how sorry I am that I missed it. That I didn’t understand her mental illness – and I couldn’t relate to where she was in her own journey. That I am sorry that I couldn’t be the friend she needed me to be. That I’m sorry she is gone.
It took me a couple of years to remove her telephone number from my cell phone. I still remember it: 757-286-9389. I called it a few times just to hear her voice. She was unique in the universe. She was the gazelle who ultimately was alone. All of us other gazelles who loved her couldn’t help her escape the hunter that trapped her in the barn.
I still feel the void her death left every day. Time gives us perspective, but the ache never subsides. I don’t practice earth-based traditions anymore, in part because I lost faith in it after we lost her.
In 2011, 39,518 people died by their own hands – just over 8,000 are veterans. That same year, there were just over 32,000 motor vehicle deaths, just to give you some perspective. Many of these, if not all, were preventable. According to the American Foundation for suicide prevention, nearly all people who feel suicidal have mixed feelings about dying and most have untreated or undiagnosed mental illness.
And then, there are those of us who are left behind – disbelieving, confused, grief-stricken, shocked, and wracked with the question, “What could I have done?” None of us want to believe that someone we care about is contemplating harming themselves, and for many of us – me included – it isn’t a concept we can wrap our heads around, know how to deal with, and let’s be honest – know when and how to help. I have learned, the hard way, that when someone threatens or attempts suicide, that it is critical, regardless of whether or not we are able to sustain a relationship, that it has to be reported. It’s better to lose a friendship or in my case, a brother, than to have him lose his life.
I can’t explain why those we love choose this path. My friend Kelly lost her father in 2008 after the financial downturn left him without any money. Robin Williams had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. D—– had recently been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and felt that she had no way out. But these aren’t necessarily reasons, but triggering events. Two out of three people who commit suicide have suffered with depression.
There are terrific resources out on the web to connect to other who have experienced this loss, and there are a great deal more who can help those who are suffering. There is a website to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention –www.afsp.org – that has some terrific resources for your friends and family who may be suffering and contemplating suicide. The suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-TALK. If you know someone who threatens to harm him or herself, please give them this number.
If you are a friend or family member of someone who has lost someone to suicide, here are some tips to help them through the roughest times. From the American Association of Suicidology:
The single most important and helpful thing you can do as a friend is listen. Actively listen, without judgment, criticism, or prejudice, to what the survivor is telling you. Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, survivors are often hesitant to openly share their story and express their feelings. In order to help, you must overcome any preconceptions you have had about suicide and the suicide victim. This is best accomplished by educating yourself about suicide.
While you may feel uncomfortable discussing suicide and its aftermath, survivor loved ones are in great pain and in need of your compassion.
Ask the survivor if and how you can help. They may not be ready to share and may want to grieve privately before accepting help.
Let them talk at their own pace; they will share with you when (and what) they are ready to.
Be patient. Repetition is part of healing, and as such you may hear the same story multiple times. Repetition is part of the healing process and survivors need to tell their story as many times as it is necessary. Use the loved one’s name instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’. This humanizes the decedent; the use of the
decedent’s name will be comforting.
You may not know what to say, and that’s okay. Your presence and unconditional listening is what a survivor is looking for.
You cannot lead someone through their grief. The journey is personal and unique to the individual. Do not tell them how they should act, what they should feel, or that they should feel better “by now”.
Avoid statements like “I know how you feel”; unless you are a survivor, you can only empathize with how they feel.
As part of today’s service, I have asked that you bring a photo or memento of someone you love who has been lost to suicide. If you didn’t bring something, paper and pen is available to write their name. Up here on the table is a candle. Please come up and place your memento, and if you are so moved, say the name of the person you lost, your relationship (if you choose) and one thing you want to remember about that person when they were alive. Let’s remember why their lights shone so brightly. I’ll start – D—–, you were, in many ways, a conscience for me. An honest reflection. You were never afraid to tell me what you thought, and you were one person who always – always got my sense of humor. Thank you for loving me. My life is better for it. I don’t know if closure will ever happen, but I hope that, wherever you may be, that you are finally at peace, and laughing.
(When everyone is done, we will have a moment of silence. Then I will say “No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.” – George Washington Carver.
Our loved ones have touched our lives in ways they will never completely understand. Go in peace today, and hold them in your hearts. On September 10th, put a candle in your window at 8 p.m. to remember those we have lost, to bring awareness to suicide and its prevention, and to remind us all that there is light in the darkness).
We are here for one another. If you are in pain, reach out and touch someone. If you can offer an ear, or a hand or a shoulder, you might be surprised who takes you up on it. We have to lean on one another to get through this world. Let’s work to make a community where suicide doesn’t have to happen. And let’s remember that we rarely know what other people are going through, so let’s work to be kind to each other in the world.
NOTE: This originally was written as a sermon, given at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church , located at 23952 Northwestern Hwy in Southfield. Learn more about the congregation at http://www.northwestuu.org.
NOTE: The oc115 does not place advertising in stories about suicide, but this site is made possible through generous support from readers and business sponsors.
The suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-TALK.
Goodbye Gazelle: Remembrance of a Friend Lost to Suicide