She shot herself that March. At 14, whatever pain clawed inside her, my cousin believed hunting it down, releasing it with a bullet from the chamber, was her answer. Our family and her friends were left behind to grieve. We took on her hurt and let it explode in anger or confusion. Some still say she was selfish … that suicide is the most selfish thing anyone can do; but she was young and must’ve truly believed there was no end, except to create her own.
I know what it feels like to paint yourself in a tight, dark corner so when you look down, all you see are thick spirals of injured agony, a deep sadness, the abyss. You think all there is left to do is let yourself fall. You hope there will be freedom from the ache that gnaws and chews your bones. In desperation, you’re unsure if you have a heart left. And if you did – it surely would be charcoal.
The word – sadness – doesn’t cut it. It’s an all-encompassing pain that ties and wraps around your muscles and bones, pulling tighter, stringing you to the edge where you feel trapped. Alone. Without choice. Exhausted. So tired from feeling so much, that you just want it to stop. You don’t know what to do.
If you suffer from mental illness or if you don’t have the skills to cope with disappointment – the knowledge that things don’t always stay so bleak – and if you don’t talk to anyone, get help, you won’t see yourself anymore. All your bones will have been squeezed so tightly, that they become scarred and wrung out. You believe you’re crumbling. That even your skeleton won’t hold.
After she died, someone made me promise I would never do the same; I knew I wouldn’t keep it. Then I was asked when I would get back to normal, be my regular, happy self. People needed me to be happy for them, they said.
You don’t get over someone killing themselves. It stays with you. It’s a story that belongs to those left behind. At Thanksgiving when we gather, we see photos of her on the wall. During weddings, we know she should be there. Her life was not supposed to end the way it did: She is supposed to be with us. There was much more she was meant to give to this lovely world. This beautiful world that can sometimes, yes, feel ugly.
At 17, I made a promise I intended to keep. I promised to pay attention. To recognize the dimness that others get in their eyes, the sound of cracking bones. To remember what it looks like to get that close. I promised to remember the crocus, so resilient, budding with snow kissing its petals. It survived and pushed through winter, ushered in spring. In just one afternoon, the sun can shine enough, the temperatures rise enough, to allow for new growth. That fast. That fast. Things change. Nothing, nothing, nothing stays the same. Not even an abyss. And I promised to live like that, breathing, with new perspective, noticing the smallest piece of beauty. To become a collector of moments and keep them wrapped safely in my heart.
You learn that feelings are not necessarily the truth of a matter. They ebb and flow. Wash out to the mighty sea, and are released there. Yes, you will hurt sometimes. You will experience pain that brings you to your knees. You will feel you’ve already died. Your stomach will cut you up; but after awhile, that terrible pain fades.
This is when you choose to paint over that corner you painted yourself in: and it is just a corner. It’s not the whole room, let alone the whole house or the whole neighborhood, the entire world, your life in full: It’s just a corner. There is more beyond it. Look. Step over the edge. Paint it white.
That invisible rope that has scratched you to the bone … kiss it off you. Look at your delicate mortality. You have skin. You are not desolate. You are here. You exist. You belong. There are people who love you. And sometimes, that doesn’t feel like enough. So you look in. What do you love? You know you love something. There are things you would miss if you were not here. Music. The stars. The sea. The taste of salt on your tongue. Old oaks growing and all the storms they have weathered. They didn’t stop. They kept growing and now give you oxygen.
This is the thing: You have to save yourself. You have to believe that there’s something worth it. Because there is. There is no one else like you. The world needs you. You need you.
So here you are. You’re stronger than you know. You can plant yourself, grow your own roots that spread so deep and marvelous, allowing you to stretch and bloom like a cherry tree. Sprout out from that darkness and lift your arms in the sun. Let it brush against your sweet face that is precious and rare. Put your palms out and allow it to seep in.
Life is a gift. So fragile. So miraculous. So mysterious and exquisite.
You won’t be the same. It will take time to heal, to learn new tools on how to cope with life. You’ll learn how to think differently – and that’s one of the most important things – because much of this, how you live, is in your head. You can choose how to think.
You’ll give a blessing of compassion to others because you know what it feels like to get through to the other side, that life is not black and white. (It is NOT black and white.) You will help others by not judging them – because you’ll know there is no way you have any right to judge another person. You will see despair on someone’s face when others don’t notice. You will smile at them. It may save them for one more day – and you know this. You know the kindness extended by a stranger can save a life.
Daffodils. The beach. Campfires. The smell of babies. A loved one’s touch. The wind. Walking barefoot in the grass. A full moon. These are the things that will mesmerize you for the rest of your life. You’ll know it’s simple, really. It’s not the car you drive, the kind of house you have, the job you go to, the clothes you wear, or if you had a hard day. It’s your spirit. And it’s the things that you can rely on to always be there, these stunning little gifts of magical life. Someone’s laugh. The feel, the warmth of a forehead kiss. The smell of the earth after it rains. They ground you. Remind you what a blessing it is to live.
24 years later, we still think of her. We miss the girl who rode horses in the fog; the tough country girl who scoffed at me – another country girl – for not wanting to scale a fish. She could do it with her smile. We still ask questions. There was no note. We have coffee, talk of her, and cry. We tell our children that sometimes life is hard, but it is – in equal measure, at least – splendid and captivating. We miss her. We love her.
And the best thing I can think of to do is not just exist, but to love – really love. To live – really live. To pay attention. Keep gratitude close by at all times, because that, truly, is what keeps our mind full of wonder. That wonder keeps us here, shining. And that’s what we’re meant to do. So shine.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They will connect you to a local mental health counselor, 24/7. 1-800-273-82551-800-273-8255