how suicide feels to the living

A morning-after addendum:

I want to make clear one point. I believe that that the act of suicide, carried out in a final, distended moment of incomprehensible darkness, is not a choice. In that final moment, people are altered by pain and incapable of rational decision-making. They are other than themselves. But this is exactly why an open conversation needs to happen now: Because we need to reach people before they’re other, before they’re altered, before they’re incapable of hearing a story or having an insight that might, someday, prevent them from hitting that final moment.
I often think about the things I might have said to stay my sister’s hand, as it clutched those pills that night, or to stop my husband from jumping on that sad, sunny morning. It’s too late now. Probably it would have been too late then. But perhaps I can say something today that might help someone else tomorrow — so they never reach the airless, senseless dark of their last act.

Original post:

You’ve probably read about the latest research showing a steady and alarming uptick in American suicides. I saw the headline this morning, took a deep breath and dove in, recalling a friend’s remark after my sister killed herself. “I know what it means to be shocked but not surprised,” she wrote in her condolence letter. And I thought: That’s exactly right. Only someone already familiar with suicide would describe it that way.

My sister had been far too sick for far too long, and suicide always loomed. My husband’s descent was faster, steeper and more abrupt, but suicide still loomed. In both cases, the difference between the looming and the loss was the difference between the fear of being punched and a right cross to the head; it’s a blow you want to duck, believe me. You don’t want to know how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide. And yet you should know. You need to know. If more of us knew how it felt, maybe fewer of us would wreak that terrible pain on others.sunset pic

Suicide is less rare than it was, but it’s still uncommon enough – and not discussed enough – to feel like an aberration from the norm and an outrage against life itself. So it is. But the outrage won’t abate, the epidemic won’t recede, unless and until we can discuss it in a public forum that includes not just grieving survivors, not just people struggling with suicidality themselves, but everyone. Everyone! This is a struggle that needs to be acknowledged, owned and addressed by all, even the people who are not directly affected and (God willing) never will be. Men wear pink ribbons for breast cancer research, don’t they?

So here’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m going to start by describing exactly how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide – the shock that’s not a surprise.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else.
  4. You feel guilty.
  5. You cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt.
  6. You feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again.


  1. It still makes no sense.
  2. It still makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s still all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else, and even when the outside world wishes, for your sake, that you could think about something else.
  4. You still feel guilty, even when you know you shouldn’t.
  5. You still cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt, just a little less often.
  6. You still feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You still wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again, even as you wear your Hello, I Am Officially Normal! face for the outside world.
  8. You wonder whether everyone else you love will leave you, too.
  9. You feel as though there must be something wrong with you.


  1. It still makes no sense. No way around it.
  2. By now, enough joy and beauty have dropped into your life that you’re able to see the mercy of God, if God is something you believe in. You still question the laws of the universe, though.
  3. You can now think about other things, but here’s the catch: The loss lingers as white noise, humming under everything. It’s always there. It defines you.
  4. No way around the guilt, either. It’s part of the white noise.
  5. The further removed you become from the loss, the less you cry. But the loss is as huge as it ever was. And when you do cry, your nasal cavity still collapses and your eyeballs still melt.
  6. Same goes for the confetti. You’ll never feel entirely whole and healed, even as you wear your Look At Me, Peeps, I’m Good As New! face for the outside world.
  7. And you’ll never feel entirely normal again, either. You begin to realize that only a thin line separates the abnormal from the normal, the insane from the sane, those who kill themselves from those who grieve in the aftermath.
  8. Sometimes the people you love do leave you, via death or other avenues. And each successive loss digs up the stinking muck of all the others, making you even more frightened of yet more loss. Forever after, you’ll question the permanence and solidity of everything and everyone around you.
  9. You’re now absolutely convinced that there’s something wrong with you, especially when someone in the outside world implies you ought to be over it by now. But you know you’ll never be over it. There is no getting over it. There’s only going through it, again and again and again, with faith in love and a stubborn hope that life, no matter how often it’s hurt you, will lead you to joy in the end.


best cat ever

I’m thinking of getting a cat. Thinking. Maybe two cats. But I’d stop at two, because A) I would like to limit the number of cat butts dispensing cat poop in my house; and B) I have no interest in becoming a Weird Old Cat Lady (WOCL). Weird and old, okay. I’m already one and well on my way to the other. But cat lady? Nope. Not that. Ever.

Growing up, I had one cat. Peter. He was, and I am not overstating this point, THE BEST CAT EVER, a 20-pound half-Maine Coon tiger with beautiful long belly fur, a broken meow (ihh-errr was all he could manage) and scars all over from tangling with dogs and other creatures around the nabe. He was a fearsome combatant in such battles but the gentlest being alive when relating to small children. When I was 3 or 4 I yanked out one of his whiskers from the root, and the shocked look he gave me before he walked away – I’ll never forget it – said merely, “Child! You are not allowed to do that!” There was not a hint of violence in this message, only succinct didactic purpose. He was instructing me.

Peter and Mama

Peter and Mama

Some years later, he defended me from a vicious German Shepherd who took to chasing me up the hill from the school bus each afternoon. After witnessing this barking assault on multiple occasions, Peter finally leapt at the slavering thing from the top of the porch steps — claws extended, arcing with fat-cat grace past my awed head — and slashed the dog’s ear down the middle. My hero. (I wish I’d had him around for my subsequent run-ins with the animal kingdom, especially a certain heinous turkey.)

He was also, I’ll have you know, THE SMARTEST CAT EVER. I’m not overstating this point, either. When he developed an abscess on his noggin after a vengeful blue jay dive-bombed him, Mama took him to the vet to have it drained and then brought him home and shut him in an upstairs bathroom for reasons I don’t recall but probably, probably, had something to do with his needing to be in a semi-sanitary space for a day or two. As you might expect, Peter objected to this arrangement and moaned loudly for hours in that awful guttural feline lament that cats tend to emit before barfing. We were all profoundly relieved when he finally shut up. This shutting-up lasted 10 minutes. After that: a terrible, smashing crash from the bathroom, after which he screamed bloody murder in an urgent Cat vernacular that translated roughly as I’M DYING UP HERE I’M DYING UP HERE OH GOD. Mama, of course, took this as her signal to run upstairs and open the door. When, of course, he bolted. He wasn’t dying up there at all, oh God. He was merely plotting his escape.

It was epic. He was epic, that fine, proud creature who slept on my head and woke me with a purr to raise the dead. When Mama called me at college to tell me he’d died at 18, that’d he’d expelled his last breath in her arms after a fine and proud life, I wept and wept and wept.

In all this time, I’ve only had one other cat. Oliver. A rescue. A friendly brown-and-black-and-white fellow who jumped on my legs when I got home, just like a dog. He never slashed any canine ears on my behalf, but I never held that against him. Had him and loved him for a decade. And then, the March after my husband died, after long years of not venturing outside, he zipped through the front door, never to return.

So now I’m thinking, thinking, of getting another cat. Maybe two cats. But not three. I promise. Not me. Nope. Never.



fridge list
This here is my fridge list. I scribbled it down after Chris’s suicide, slapped it up on the icebox and kept it there for daily inspiration. As you can see, it’s a bit worse for the wear — stained, crumpled, curling at the edges – than it was when I first tacked it up back in late 2011.

The list is old news. I wrote about it in my book and blabbed about it in my TedX talk early last year, so if you’re sick to death of hearing about it, I apologize. But to me it’s as necessary and now as the morning I wrote it. Not a day goes past that I don’t stare it in the face and think, “I’m not giving enough,” or “I’m not playing enough music,” or “I’m not present enough in the moment,” and then poke myself with a silent reminder or write it on my hand (in Sharpie!).

I will never NOT need this list, because it tells me to embrace life and love no matter what, even when something reaches out and knocks me on my ass. Very often my response to such ass-knocking is to bleat: SCREW THIS, I’M NOT GETTING UP AGAIN, IT TAKES TOO MUCH FOOKIN’ EFFORT. But that is precisely the moment when I must get up. I must when I’m wounded. When I’m terrified. When it makes no sense to try. When all I want is to slouch back into my Naugahyde recliner of fruitless, lonely solipsism and give the hell up on myself and other people. (No, I don’t actually own a Naugahyde recliner. But I could.)

Life demands engagement. Life demands a Yes. Bunches of Yeses. A whole shitload of Yeses. A sequence of Yeses uttered in hope and fear and blindness. Yeses spoken knowing full well they might be shouted down by Nos. Yeses that affirm life over death, love over apathy, even as death and apathy bully and bring us down.

Yeses spawned all of us into being. Yeses brought us into union with the lovers and spouses who helped us make our babies. Yeses got us our first kisses, our first jobs, our first creative flights. No poem was ever written without a Yes. No song was ever sung. No estranged souls ever reunited without one, no ailing child was ever nursed back to health.

My father said Yes when my mother asked him to marry her. My mother said Yes, and Yes, and Yes again when she rose each day to care for my father after his suicide attempt and the dementia that followed. Each moment of their marriage was a reiteration of Yes.

I’ve been thinking of Mama lately as I glance at my fridge list. I’ve been marveling at all of her living and giving and loving and laughing, at all of her Yeses that might have been Nos. But she never bailed on any of it. She never stopped growing and learning and praying, being grateful, being present, making music or having faith — although, like me, she always failed to stand up straight.

She didn’t have a fridge list. She didn’t need one. She was one. I didn’t realize this when I first scrawled it down, but she’s all over my little blue list, every wobbly letter, every gasp of pain and longing that pushed me down and made me write it. I wrote it because I believed that Yes was enough, that No was a lie, that life is its own reward. But I didn’t stop to think that I believed because Mama believed it first, and lived it well. Yes. Yes. Yes.