On a short hike recently, I came to a mailbox in the middle of the woods. It was painted green, with red flag raised, and words on the side instructing the visitor to “Please Sign Book in Box.” Next to the mailbox was a park bench, and a cross made of twisted sticks bound with barbed wire. At the base, faded silk flowers, a solar garden light and a leggy chrysanthemum plant bearing one tiny red flower.
Behind the mailbox door was a zipper bag containing a small black book bound in leatherette, along with two pens and a religious tract. The book contained dated entries in a variety of hands, all addressing the deceased, a man named Danny, who had taken his life in those woods one October a few years ago.
I never met Danny or his family, but the words written there gave me a picture of who he was and how much he was loved- is still loved, and sorely missed. His mother’s elegant hand told of visits to this site a year after her son took his life, on the date of his 50th birthday, and more. Friends, relatives and strangers had written about Danny, about how much they still felt his loss, about a beautiful day when they sat quietly on a park bench next to a mailbox in the woods and thought of a man who had taken his own life because he did not know another way to make the pain stop.
Reading these entries, these voices of loss, I felt my eyes fill with tears as I was reminded of my own October losses: two dear friends to suicide, one 13 years ago and the other five years ago this month. Each of their deaths was devastating in its own way, and both of them had turned October–one of my favorite times of year–into a month of grief.
I had known that Alex and Eileen had previously struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, but I did not know that either of them was suicidal at the time of their death. Each friend had presented a happier face before they took their lives. Their deaths had each initially put me into a tailspin, one from which I thought I would never recover. I thought I should have known, was sure that if only I had known, I somehow could have helped them with their pain, saved them from that final solution.
Sitting on that bench in the woods, reading pages in a stranger’s book, I thought about how Alex’s death had taught me what I needed to know in order to handle Eileen’s death eight years later. First, that the victims feel that death is the only way to end their ongoing pain, and that nobody can save them if they are intent on ending their lives. Second, that losing someone dear to suicide is akin to sustaining a large physical wound; one has to be as kind to oneself as if they were bleeding heavily. Finally, I realized that suicide is the ultimate selfish act; the victim is not capable of thinking of anyone else or the pain and loss they will create for those who love them.
Last week I went for a bike ride when the trees were in the height of October glory. It was late afternoon, and the moody sky was sharp contrast to the brilliant leaves that were illuminated by the low angle of sunlight. I rode slowly, savoring the amazing colors and textures, feeling very much alive and at peace and in awe. During that experience I realized that somehow, after 13 years of grieving, this October has not brought me great sorrow. I still remember and miss both of my dear friends lost to suicide–and sometimes I cry a little–but it seems I have finally integrated their loss into a life I can live more boldly than they were able.
From years of dealing with the loss of Alex and Eileen, I have learned something else about suicide. That it can be handled by the living, one day at a time, by letting grief pass through, and by holding on to memories that fill the heart with gladness. A favorite time of the year, long crumpled by sorrow, has been smoothed by time. While the edge is still tinged with the memory of loss, I able once again to revel in the light, the moods and the textures of October.