Mostly written 2/15/2018
I lost a friend to suicide last year. Not a day has gone by since that I haven't thought about her, thought about our relationship, thought about all that I did and did not do. Though I called her friend, the truth was she could be a difficult person to be around. I struggled between the feeling that she needed me and feeling like I needed to protect myself/distance myself from her. In the end, I'm sad to say, distancing myself won out. In my mind, I told myself that I remained there for her, that I would not turn her away if she needed me, but I stopped reaching out. It was a hard thing to do. I am a person who naturally reaches out. I am a person who delights at getting together to visit with others, old friends and new. I'm not your go-to person for daily phone calls or lots of face time (generally), but I do value my friendships and I love getting to know my fellow humans, story by story.
I stopped reaching out to my friend, and though it took a bit of time, she stopped reaching out to me, as well. Our coffee dates dwindled to none. Our email exchanges grew less frequent and finally stopped altogether. The night before she killed herself, we were commenting on the same post on Facebook and I almost send her a private message. I knew life had been difficult for her. I knew some of her past issues were even more and bigger issues in that moment, yet I stopped myself. I chose to maintain the distance between us, perhaps thinking I just didn't have the time to welcome her back into my life right at that moment. I honestly can't be sure of exactly what I was thinking. Time has a way of of distorting the reality as we grieve. I only know that I did not reach out. And now I will never have that chance again.
These words come out today (heaven knows, I have started and stopped writing so many stories about my friend in the last six months) as I think about a young man who took a gun into a school in Florida yesterday and turned his pain, not against himself as my friend did, but against so many others. And as I am wired, as a person who spends time collecting people, story by story, I find myself thinking about how difficult he must have been. He likely had friends, at least once upon a time. People who cared about him deeply. And I wonder how many people from his life are sitting there today, wondering if there was something they could have done that would have changed things.
There are so many conversations that need to be had here...
But I keep coming back to another moment, just before I entered the fifth grade. I was on a family road trip that summer, reading Blubber, by Judy Blume, from the back of the station wagon. I was so moved by that story that I wrote a letter to a girl I went to school with. You know the girl. I'm sure you went to school with her too. Maybe she dressed funny. Her clothes weren't always clean, or her hair was a little greasy, like she was always a day past needing a shampoo. Or maybe it was something less obvious, like she had red hair, or she laughed a little too loudly, or her allergies meant she was constantly carrying a tissue. I think most of us have had experiences with this person. I think most of us have BEEN that girl/that boy for at least one moment in our lives.
For whatever reason, real or make believe, sometimes we encounter people who are difficult to reach out to, either something about them physically or something that stretches us mentally and emotionally. We pull away. We put distance between us when maybe what would truly be helpful--what would make a difference--would be to reach out.
In my grade school experience, the explanation (on the part of those of us who were not friends with the girl) was simple childhood immaturity. Some of us were trying on bullying behavior. Some of us may have actually been bullies. I don't know. Some of us were just desperately trying to fit in and would do anything, even if it meant shoving someone else out. Some of us had true issues to be angry about and did not yet understand that things were not improved by targeting an innocent victim.
That girl that I got to know was quick with a smile and incredibly bright. She didn't even hold a grudge, as far as I could tell. She and I became friends, at least through our junior high school years. I saw less of her in high school, and as adults we've seen each other a few times and have had our quick catch-ups and conversations as people who knew each other once-upon-a-time do. I don't know much about her life, but I spent enough time with her to learn some of the difficulties of her childhood, and to know that her smile grew even bigger as we left our grade school years behind.
I'm not excusing the horrible behavior of children or claiming that I made a significant difference in one girl's life. I'm simply remembering a moment that was hard, a decision I made that may have made my own life a little uncomfortable at that moment, but now that I am looking back I have no regrets about it. I reached out when I was ten, and it was totally worth it.
Yet as an adult, I didn't reach out... and I have been sorry every day for six months.
Since my friend took her own life last year, I've developed kind of a running dialogue with myself. Not that I had a clue just how bad it was for her. Even when our friendship was the real deal, even when I knew more about the ups and downs of her life, it honestly had never occurred to me that suicide might be one of her options. Call me naive. It feels arrogant to think that my presence would have made any difference at all to her, but it certainly would not have hurt me to reach out to her, to show some kindness.
I hear my inner voice quite loudly these days, saying things like, "Stop. Take a moment. Just say hello. Listen for a few minutes. Reach out. Give a little."
I don't know how to save the world, but I know how good it feels when people notice, when someone takes the time to say hello, and ask how my day is going. And there is no reason to avoid being that person who notices, who takes the time, who asks...
It's so easy to build a bubble and exist only on the inside. I think it is almost dangerously easy to do so even more these days, with communications like those on Facebook taking place of real life interactions.
The night before my friend took her own life, I almost sent her a private message. Instead, I pulled back. I was more comfortable with the distance between us. I told myself that she looked like she was doing well. Judging by the things she was sharing on FB (and we all understand how truth is reflected through FB) I thought she might even be finding some happiness. I reasoned with myself that my presence might actually disrupt her current life, that my reaching out might just bring up old hurts and make everything harder for her again.
I'm not a fragile person. I've long recognized that I have a stamina of optimism that has always carried me through the hard times. Sometimes, in fact, it has taken me years of distance to see how truly low some of the most difficult parts of my life have taken me. At the same time, my empathy for others who are struggling, especially while they are struggling, has too often sent me running the other way. When my mom died, I promised myself I would never walk away from friendship because of cancer. When a friend got divorced, I promised myself I would not walk away just because I could sometimes recognize her struggles in those my own marriage had seen. When my friend took her own life, it became very clear to me that I had walked away for the excuse of maintaining my own comfort, my own happiness.
And what does this have to do with dead children in Florida? I am reading the gun debates and the mental health debates and... while I think there is merit (on both sides) in so many of these arguments, I wonder if the answer isn't a bit simpler, a bit more personal.
Maybe we make a difference when we stop putting ourselves first. Just reach out when you see someone in pain. Endure a moment of personal discomfort and ask the next person you see about their own discomfort. Maybe replace every ranting FB post you write with a genuine conversation with the next person you meet on the street.
I don't know where to end this rambling post.
I don't know when I will stop feeling guilty about the friend I didn't reach out to.
And I know, know, know it wasn't my fault. It wasn't my responsibility to fix things for her. I don't need to be comforted about this fact.
I just need to decide that I will stop focusing so hard on my own comfort... I need to recognize my strengths and utilize them. I need to think more about the influence I might have on someone else's bubble, rather than fear a disruptive presence in my own.
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