(Warning: the following letter describes a very disturbing suicide; if you are a very sensitive person, please do not read this one)
Dear Papa Bear
I only recently learnt about you, and from what I can tell, it'd have been very helpful to know a lot sooner. But, I suppose you play the hand you're dealt, make the best of it and all that. I apologise in advance for taking up you time and there's a couple things some people could find triggering in here, so be warned.
For me, everything started about six years ago. I had just got into high school and made friends with a couple guys who were in university. You know, make friends with older, university guys who are all into the same geeky things as you, because your parent decides to send you to a sport focused high school where you get bullied for liking geeky things. Or, that's what I thought at the time anyway. They were really nice guys and we became very good friends over the next three years.
There were 2 guys in particular I grew very attached to. Like a father-son/brother kind of relationship. Riaan and Danie. We were almost always together. Either I was with them after school and in the evenings, or I sat in Skype calls and chat rooms with them. Inseparable, you could say.
Riaan always said it was like having a younger brother, and he liked that. Partially because he didn't have much of a family. His mother and father hated him, his siblings were continuously told he is the worst of the worst, he didn't really have a pleasant upbringing. Add in the fact that he was severely depressed and often suicidal, cripplingly self doubting and loathing, and had severe anxiety and you have a recipe for disaster.
Danie had an abusive father who slept with everything that he couldn't drink, smoke or snort. His mother ended up grabbing him and his brother and leaving. Socially awkward, shy, and nervous, sort of your typical nerd.
And then there's me. Father cheated on mother, ran of with his mistress to Tanzania and disappeared. Single mother left trying to raise two kids with the father only caring enough to help when convenient for him. Socially inept, awkward, nervous, permanently stressed out and mildly depressed even at the best of times.
Some of our other friends used to joke that we were pretty much just one constant self help seminar. Gave us three a nickname I can't remember. But it was ok. We were happy with the way things were, and we wanted to keep things that way.
Everything was fine up to that point...
About 3 years ago, I was in my second last year of school, I ran over to go visit Riaan at his little student flatlet. Thought we could finally marathon the resident evil movies, like we'd been saying we should. Funny that I have a really bad memory because of a head injury I got when I was 3, but I can still clearly remember everything about that night, right down to what magazines and games he had laying on his desk. Anyway, walked in, everything was dark, thought a bulb blew or something. I walked in on him sitting in his shower, hunched over. He had gone and taken his father's shotgun, the same one his father took on hunting trips to the Karoo to hunt springbok.
I yelled, but nothing, just a loud, sharp ringing in my ears followed by a shower of red. You'd be surprised how loud it actually is.... I can't really remember what he looked like, but I can still clearly remember the grotesque rose on the wall, where every chunk of brain, bone and blood landed. How he sat before, where he fell after. It's this permanent horror still burnt into my eyelids, always there the minute I close them.
No notes, no reasons, nothing. His parents arranged a “private funeral” and dumped what was left in an unmarked grave so it could be forgotten.
That's when things fell apart. I stopped caring. Danie stopped caring. We gave up. Eventually we forced ourselves and each other to move on. We bottled everything up, pretending we were ok. It worked, for the most part.
They all finished their courses, got jobs, I finished school and went off to college. Life went on.
Couple of months ago we found out Danie pretty much destroyed his liver. He was down and out for a while, barely alive and dropped off the waiting list unless he stays sober for at least one year.
Now I've got this constant feeling of dread hanging over me. I can't focus on anything or get myself to care enough, either. I think I've already given up without even thinking of trying to put up a fight and that's what scares me most. I just don't know what to do anymore.
I'm sorry about babbling on and taking up your time. I feel like a complete asshole dumping all of this on someone else and asking them to help, but at this point I've written this about a dozen times and chickened out at the last minute. So, I thought, what the hell, if you sit quietly in a corner, nothing will change. But I thank you for your time, and I'm sorry for taking up so much of it.
Jean (age 20, South Africa)
* * *
That took real courage to write your story to me. I can’t imagine anything as horrible as what you went through when you witnessed your friend’s violent suicide. Please do not apologize or in any way think you are taking up my time. This is what I’m here for, although I have to admit this one may be out of my league. As you know, I am not a licensed psychotherapist. It might be clichéd, but have you sought one out?
In part of your letter, you say that you and Danie moved on, but I don’t believe you have. Danie is killing himself with alcohol and you are deeply, deeply scarred. What Riaan’s parents did to the body is an insult to his memory. I understand what they did, but I won’t condone it.
All three of you are victims of a society that doesn’t accept those who are different. For a while, you found a solution by creating your own support group, but Riaan, sadly, fell apart and shattered that circle. Normally, when someone goes through a tragic loss such as this, I tell them to seek out support, perhaps go to grief counseling or a local support group of people who have lived through the same thing. In your case, however, I worry that this would just remind you of the trio you already once had, and that would just bring back sad memories. Nevertheless, educating yourself about the grieving process, which is unique when it comes to suicide, may help. Here is a website that has useful information. If you are religious, you might also seek out help from your local church or temple.
But there are several other things I would like to suggest you do, too.
First, make sure you are not blaming yourself for any of this. Riaan’s suicide is not not not not your fault. I’m not sure you’re feeling that way, but if you are you have to get that notion out of your mind.
Second, if you are feeling powerless, empower yourself by being there for Danie. This will help both of you.
Danie internalized his grief, and the result is that his grief manifested itself in alcoholism. You’re also internalizing your grief and damaging yourself in a different way. Have you allowed yourself to cry? Grieving is a catharsis that you must go through before you can continue with your life. You might also be angry at Riaan for what he did. That’s okay, too. Let it out. Yell, scream, shout out your anger. It doesn’t make you a bad person to be angry, and, once you let out that anger, you will feel much better and, actually, not feel so angry anymore. It is very unhealthy to keep grief and anger inside you. I cannot emphasize that enough.
The next thing you need to do is recognize that in life we often go through major transitions. I have gone through two of them: my attempted suicide at age 18, and the discovery, at 40, that I was gay. Both times, it was like I died and was reborn. Both times were extremely difficult for me, but I managed to emerge on the other side. Riaan’s suicide is like that. The breakup of your circle is like that. A phase of your life has died, but that doesn’t mean you are at the end of life.
You are in transition.
Recognize that you are in a transitional phase of life, not at the end of it. This feeling of dread hanging over you is the image of Riaan’s suicide repeating in your soul like a broken LP.
The Buddhists have something called a 49th Day Ceremony. They believe that when someone dies, there is a 49-day period called the bardo that is a time between one life and the next. After the bardo the soul is reincarnated into the next life.
Although Riaan died three years ago, you can still perform a ceremony not so much for him but for you (and Danie). My suggestion to you is that you create a ceremony that is significant and specific to you. It should include two parts: in the first part, you commemorate the old life, and in the second part you celebrate the new. For example, you could take something that was Riaan’s or that signifies Riaan’s life in some way, tie it to a helium balloon, and let it soar far far away. Then, in celebration of the new life, you could, say, plant a tree in his name and let that tree’s new life represent his. After performing this ceremony for Riaan, guess what? Do the same for yourself. You need a rebirth, as well. Again, if you can convince him, get Danie in on this, as well.
Ceremonies are not an empty gesture. There is a reason that we have them in all religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions. They are a way of giving form to concepts and beliefs that would otherwise seem too abstract to us. They help us to cope with—and celebrate—the changes that are inevitable in life.
In essence, Jean, the reason you are feeling the way you are is because, despite what you think, you haven’t actually moved on and you haven’t grasped the idea of life and death as a transition, not an ending. With transitions, there is hope, while the idea of death as an ending offers no hope.
Embrace that life is in flux. Nothing really dies, sweetie. It just changes. It’s okay to grieve over the loss of what once was and to miss your friend, but please see that this is not the end of hope. There is always hope, love, and rebirth; they are as much a part of life as death is.
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