This past Friday, Feb. 2, marked the one-year anniversary of my aunt Ellen’s death. I write now to commemorate her life and death, as well as to recognize the impact of her death on my own life and the lives of my family members.
Mourning the death of someone you love is always an incredibly profound and difficult process. It changes you forever, pushing you aggressively away from the comfortable safety of a world where death is an abstract concept and into a world where death is real.
Grieving Ellen’s death has been even more complicated because her death was a suicide. As an obituary in my uncle’s alumni magazine awkwardly read, “According to … the Washington Post, Ms. Schneider ‘intentionally drowned herself’ in the Potomac River.” Here’s what happened: On Feb. 2, 2006, my aunt Ellen drove her son to school in the morning. She then returned to her house in Chevy Chase, Md., to write a note to her family members. Ellen got in her car, drove to a state park in Virginia, hiked 45 minutes to the water’s edge and went, as she said in the message she left for her husband, “for one last swim” in the freezing water.
Suicide complicates grief immeasurably because it folds into the grief a sense of anger, fear and confusion about what happened and why. The mental health professions call the family members of a person who has committed suicide “survivors,” labelling them much in the same way a victim of a traumatic incident is. In a sense, family members of someone who commits suicide are the survivors of a murder; in this instance, however, the victim is also the perpetrator.
What I have learned in this past year is that there is no way to understand suicide so as to alleviate the pain it causes. I doubt that, even if Ellen were able to communicate with her family, she would be able to adequately explain why she decided to die.
I now recognize that it must have taken years of trauma, depression and loneliness to bring Ellen to the point where she was ready to commit suicide — yet the act itself took so little time. In a matter of minutes, Ellen ended her 50 years of life. The permanence of that act is terrifying. I take comfort in how methodical she was, because it is the only way I can trust she did not make this decision casually. From my perspective, there is nothing that one person could experience that would justify inflicting this amount of grief upon their next of kin. But I have no way of understanding how Ellen felt.
All I do know is how I feel. The only way I have to describe grief is to say that before I lost Ellen, I had no idea that the human body was capable of experiencing such overwhelming emotional pain. There are moments when grief is beautiful and gentle — moments when you cry and feel the sadness and appreciate the memory of the person you have lost. Then there are moments when grief is ugly and aggressive, when you can’t escape the enormity of the pain and all you want to do is hide.
I have a friend who, in trying to comfort me, told me that when people die they no longer suffer. Rather, it is those who are alive who must suffer and do the work of grieving. To me, this seems a gross perversion of the human experience — those with the most to lose by grieving are left to feel the pain. Grief stuns your senses and makes us afraid to feel love, the cause of and, ironically, the only antidote to grief.
A year ago, I lived happily in a world protected from death and sadness by the paper-thin membrane of inexperience. Today, I understand emotionally and intellectually that the things that make life most enjoyable are precariously perched next to those which make life most unbearable, and that the two exist only in relation to one another.
In a recent e-mail to my mother, my uncle wrote that he feels as though his legs have been cut off and that he must slowly learn to walk again. In a similar way, I and my whole family are working to patch together each of our paper-thin membranes, so that we are once again protected from the depths of sadness and are able to believe that, though death could happen at any moment, it will not. Learning to live with this knowledge is the only thing as hard as feeling the loss of someone through death, but it is an essential and inescapable part of our humanity. I can’t be angry at Ellen for giving me that knowledge, even if I wish things had gone differently. Her death is a part of me now, and I have to embrace this experience — it is part of who I am.
Adda Birnir is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.