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‘I Don’t Know How to Grieve My Friend’s Suicide’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

When the pandemic started, I was evacuated from abroad and ended up back with my parents in America. I haven’t lived here in a while, and I had a hard time squaring the person I’ve become with the person I used to be. Processing it all in my childhood bedroom was not great, all told.

After some time working in New Orleans, where I was evacuated again because of the hurricane, I found myself back with my parents, who had moved to a new house. As I was unpacking all the knickknacks of my childhood (the much-touted “gifted student” trophies, the angsty teen journals, a Backstreet Boys poster), I found a gift from my best friend. It’s a hand-painted sign that says, “A friend is someone who knows the song of your heart and sings back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.” 

It’s a lovely sign. The only problem is my best friend died by suicide two years ago.

I couldn’t attend her funeral. Naturally, I feel as if there was no closure, and now I have this sign that feels like a reminder of a failure to her and a symbol of the personal guilt people have when this happens. At the same time, it’s the only thing I have left from her, and I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.

It’s all very morbid, but I don’t think it’s unique. I’ve seen many people go through similar things over these past two years. We’re all mourning the life we had, the person we were, people we’ve lost, the things we won’t have again. And here I’ve got this sign that I can’t look at and can’t bring myself to throw away. What do I do with it?

Emotional Clutter

Hi, there, EC!

Thank you for sharing that touching story, and I’m sorry for your loss. Between the pandemic and the hurricane, I’m reminded how strong people have had to be over the course of the past two years or so. It seems as if there’s rarely a breather when we get to process things or grieve, and each month, it feels as if something new and terrible emerges.

Such is life, of course. We don’t get to choose what conditions we’re born into, and even before the pandemic, suffering was no uncommon thing. Indeed, it is inevitable. Part of my job, as I understand it, is to comfort people and look at the bright side. Sometimes this gets old, and sometimes I just want to throw my hands up and say, “Yeah, things are bad.”

Speaking of my job, in order to set expectations here, I’m not going to tell you outright whether you should get rid of your friend’s hand-painted sign. That’s very much up to you. But if you’re already leaning one way or another and beating yourself up about it, I think we can help with that.

I understand your impulse to feel guilt here. To lose someone in the way you’ve lost your friend can leave many lingering, unsettling what-ifs. They can’t be answered, of course, which makes it all the more frustrating. It’s natural to want closure. That’s why we have funerals in the first place. We want the closing of the book, the cathartic farewell, the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence.

But the truth is closure is only as real as we believe it to be. Rarely are we ever ready to say good-bye to a loved one. No matter how many times you’ve told them you love them, no matter how many times you’ve hugged or kissed them or held each other’s hand, there’s no easy letting go. There will always be more you could have said, things you could have done, ways you could have been clearer with your feelings.

That’s not how life works, though. Yes, it can be wonderful, from time to time, to tell others how you feel, to remind them they are loved and cherished. But in the disorderly act of living, we rarely have the time or opportunity to reach such baroque peaks of dialogue. A lot of our feelings play out in the theater of the mundane — an occasional call to catch up, remembering a fun trip you took together, sharing a meme over text, or, of course, holding on to a gift over time.

When you look back on your dynamic with your friend and find that it was a good one or that it was worthwhile, then that, in the end, is what matters. It’s all we can ask out of any relationship, really. We have our time together, however long it might be, and then we part. While I wish you had been able to attend the funeral, I don’t think you have anything to feel guilty about.

As for the sign, what’s interesting to me is it was with you all along, in a way. Not just physically but also as a memory you likely didn’t think about every day. That’s the magic of clutter. Our hearts are capable of containing any number of things that are at once overlooked and loved, things that slip into the blur of daily life and reassert their importance only when picked up and held.

That doesn’t make you inattentive or forgetful. It makes you a person.

Maybe you leave the sign at your parents’ house. Maybe you take it with you and stash it under your bed. Maybe you throw it away. Whatever you choose, it’s not the object that matters here. It’s the fact that you haven’t forgiven yourself for what you feel are your shortcomings, shortcomings that, I believe, aren’t fair to put on yourself.

What your journey looks like to acceptance, I can’t say. But I think this dilemma with the sign isn’t the destination so much as a side quest. Try to remember that grief is a part of life, that whether it’s a sign or a lingering what-if, relationships reliably leave us with clutter, with things we don’t quite know where to put or how to resolve. It comes with loving someone, which, in the end, I think is worth it.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published March 22, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I Don’t Know How to Grieve My Friend’s Suicide’